Top billing for The Scotsman’s ‘space-age’ device

Alison Taubman of the National Museum of Scotland admires the 'Belinographe'. Picture: Jane Barlow
Alison Taubman of the National Museum of Scotland admires the 'Belinographe'. Picture: Jane Barlow
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IT WAS the ground-breaking communications system that helped revolutionise the world of journalism.

French inventor Edouard Belin’s device deployed telegraph and telephone networks to allow dramatic images of major events to be sent around the world within minutes.

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Now the photo-telegraphy apparatus, which made history for The Scotsman when it became the first British newspaper to buy and regularly use it, is to be given top billing again – almost 90 years after it was first put to use.

Belin’s 1925 invention allowed long-distrance transmission of photographs by placing an image on a cylinder and scanning it with a powerful light beam that had a photoelectric cell which could convert light – or the absence of light – into transmittable electrical impulses.

Its adoption in 1928 by The Scotsman allowed the newspaper to send photographs from its London office to its then home on Edinburgh’s North Bridge, instead of dispatching them north on a train journey which at the time took more than eight hours.

It had been snapped up after one of the newspaper’s technical staff travelled to France, Germany and even the United States to research how successful the new technology was.

The image receiver, which was kept by The Scotsman over the years due to its historic importance, has now been secured for the nation thanks to a curator at the National Museum of Scotland in the capital who was aware of its existence in the city.

Alison Taubman, principal curator of communications, had spotted the device at The Scotsman’s previous home in Edinburgh’s Holyrood Road, where it was on display for several years.

The Scotsman’s “Belinographe”, which is being stored at the museum’s collections centre in the Granton area of the Scottish capital, is planned to become a key attraction at its new £14 million science and technology galleries when they open to the public in 2016.

It will be one of 250 objects in a dedicated gallery charting 200 years of communications, including the impact new devices have had on Scots at home, at work, at war and in the news.

The sending of photography and images is traced from 1843, when a Scot, Caithness-born Alexander Bain, patented the fax machine, to modern-day war reporters who can send images from the heat of battle direct to social media sites.

Ms Taubman said: “This is the image receiver which would have been in the Edinburgh office of The Scotsman and a transmitter would have been in the London office.

“The purpose of it was to get images of important going on, not only in London but across the continent, sent almost instantaneously up to Edinburgh.

“There is only other that exists in Britain as far as I know, in the Science Museum in London, from the Liverpool Daily Post and Echo, also from 1928. But there was a really big deal made in The Scotsman at the time about the newspaper being the first to own its own one.

“This particular machine has been on loan to us twice before, in the 1930s and the 1960s. The key thing about this machine is that it seems to have been reliable and also easy to use – well within the understanding of the average telegraph operator.

“It clearly cost a lot to run as there is correspondence about getting new dedicated wires for the transmitter because the basic telegraph wires couldn’t cope with the amount of information required to send a picture.”

The Scotsman reported extensively on the adoption of Belinography when it revealed it was being used to help produce the newspaper on 11 August, 1928.

Under the headline “A Wonderful Invention,” the report states: “It has always been the policy of The Scotsman to take immediate advantage for the benefit of its readers of the latest improvements in technical appliances for the production and distribution of newspapers and the installation of a phototelegraphy system maintains the leading position which it has occupied in this regard.”

Ms Taubman said: “The great thing was The Scotsman had kept a file of correspondence and background information on the machine and several photographs of it and the transmitter in situ. There were also several photographs, including what was said to be the first ever wire image received, although the woman in the picture is not identified.”

Donald Walker, assistant editor of The Scotsman, said: “It is impossible to imagine how a newspaper could operate today without electronic delivery of multiple images in the blink of an eye, but the Belinographe must have seemed space-age at the time, demonstrating the foresight of the newspaper’s management.

“We’re delighted the image receiver is going to play a central part in the science and technology gallery at the National Museum of Scotland – an appropriate home for this groundbreaking piece of technology.”

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