Monday, December 15, 2014

First Check by Radio

On April 20th 1926 a check was sent by radio for the first time ever. So don't go feeling smug just because you can check your bank balance on your iPhone. This check was sent 88 years ago without the aid of TCIP, CDMA, lithium-ion batteries, or even solid state electronics. For this feat we can thank the utterly obscure Richard Howland Ranger. He is usually the man credited with inventing the fax a.k.a. the wireless photoradiogram, or the the transoceanic radio facsimile.  That's him in leaning left in the center.

Captain Richard H. Rager was an electrical engineer born in 1889 in Indianapolis, IN. He was a member of the U.S. Signal corps in WWI, and served again in WWII. He graduated from MIT in 1923. He had all the credentials of a boy genius. That image I cropped below is from the famous Einstein group photo at RCA here. He fit in with that line up of brilliant inventors.

So back to that check. In 1924 he sent a photograph of President Calvin Coolidge from New York to London. It was the first radio facsimile. The RCA book Radio Facsimile published in 1938 covers this in great detail but the first name on page one is Richard H. Ranger. Now bear in mind the fax already existed, Alexander Bain patented his Electric Printing Telegraph in 1843. Ranger had to convert this to a broadcast-able code that could be received and reconstructed over wireless. He summarized the image as 65 dots per square inch, that's about the same as news print of that era.

So two years after the first "test" broadcast of President Coolidge's mug they were ready to try a bit of online banking. The president of RCA, Gen. James G. Harbord wrote a check to RCA for $1,000.00. Within 20 minutes they confirmed receipt of all messages by Morse code. The chairman of the board of Directors of RCA Owen D. Young sent greetings  to Vice President Charles G. Dawes. A newspaper article of the day noted that the check would be honored if there were no "legal impediments."


Ranger also had a number of other really notable inventions. He invented the Rangertone, an early electronic organ in 1932. The organ was marketed directly by his company Rangertone Inc. on Verona Ave. in Newark, NJ.  He also invented the NBC chime machine which generated those three tones we all know so well. He was inducted into the New Jersey Inventors Hall of Fame in 1997. He died in 1962.