The more things change …

In my previous post I wrote about planning to assemble recollections about my father.  I always enjoyed listening to his stories, so it seems appropriate to use a story-telling framework for the various parts of his lift.

I flipped through some materials, and realized that it would be easiest to start with something technical, so I wrote about his first job out of college.  He went to work as an Electrical Engineer for the Western Union Telegraph Company at its Hudson Street headquarters in New York. Of course nowadays we think about telegraph as an ancient and defunct technology, and Western Union as a company whose roots in technology pre-date the Civil War, and was surpassed by modern telecommunications.  But telegraph was a relay based message passing system that was the predecessor, if not progenitor of the internet (datagrams instead of telegrams).  It’s ironic that the Western Union building is now a major internet hub.

But I realized there is more to this story as I looked at the artifacts Dad saved from his work deploying the DeskFax across the country.  DeskFax was a desk top unit that transmitted and received facsimile, a system that allowed people to exchange documents — not just text — instantly and securely, without intervening eyes at the telegraph office.  The central office connected remote end-points, as in the long distance telephone system, and the individual units synchronized frequency and phase to move a stylus over a special paper.  This was a real tour de force of analog design.

I was also struck by the commercial foreshadowing.  WUTEL developed  special papers for converting the written message into electrical signals and vice versa.  And of course this paper was a ‘razor blade sell’ which I’m sure was immensely profitable.

But the part that was really the First of A Kind, at least in my view, was the use of television as a medium for introducing this new technology to the world.  Dad appeared on KTLA-TV in Los Angeles on August 30, 1949 to demonstrate the DeskFax, and we have the script of that show.

Anyway, read about my Dad’s part in the history of DeskFax on the new blog I set up at

So the more things change, the more they stay the same.  But one has to wonder how WUTEL became so complacent that they allowed other technologies to supplant them. There’s a lesson there.

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