America's First 'Wireless Newspaper' Killed Catalina's Carrier Pigeons

If you lived on the small Southern California island of Catalina at the turn of the century, news was hard to come by. The island had a rather unreliable carrier pigeon system and copies of the L.A. Times wouldn't arrive by boat until around 1:30 in the afternoon. News was slow moving. But all that changed on March 25, 1903 when Catalina got the country's first "wireless newspaper" — the latest news sent wirelessly from Los Angeles via Morse Code which was then printed and sold for 3 cents a pop.

Appropriately named The Wireless, this new experiment had amazing implications for the future of mass media. Finally, the people of Avalon (Catalina's only city) could wake up to a newspaper that covered both their small island, along with news from the rest of the world.

Newspapers and wireless telegraphy (not yet called radio) were forming an alliance that could help both industries enormously. Moving information from Los Angeles to Avalon no longer required deadtrees, a boat, or carrier pigeons. Sadly many of those pigeons died from over-exertion and hunting by sportsmen, according to Scientific American at the time.

The December 1903 edition of Wide World Magazine called The Wireless the "most unique newspaper in the world":

The telegraphic report of The Wireless consists of six hundred to eight hundred words, comprising a digest of the leading news of the day from all parts of the world, as appearing in the California papers of the same date.

This news summary gives the readers of The Wireless an inkling of what is going on in the great busy world, and serves as an appetizer for the fuller reports contained in the ordinary daily papers which they receive later in the day.

If you can forgive the imperfect analogy, it was a bit like reading a lone breaking news tweet on Twitter and then reading more in-depth reporting a few hours later. It was a perfect teaser for the Los Angeles Times.

America's First 'Wireless Newspaper' Killed Catalina's Carrier Pigeons

Until The Wireless arrived in 1903, the island didn't even have its own daily newspaper because it couldn't justify the expense of a printing press. Ironically enough, it was the wireless telegraph's delivery of news from the wider world that finally provided economic incentives to put editors and journalists on the island reporting on local happenings.

Again, from the December 1903 edition of Wide World Magazine:

In addition to the telegraphic feature The Wireless also contains a brief record of the local happenings on the island from day to day, including stories of marvelous catches by the anglers; the adventures of the wild goat-hunters; reports of golf and tennis games and other sporting and social events; lists of arrivals at the hotels; talks with travellers, and a great variety of interesting information for tourists and others, with pithy editorial comments.

Wide World Magazine described how high-tech futuristic news sausage was made:

Mr. C. E. Howell is the magician who conjures the "wireless" messages from the skies every morning at early dawn, and "Wireless Joe," the first "wireless" messenger boy on earth, is the lad who carries the messages from the wizard eye on the heights overlooking the beautiful harbour of Avalon down to the office of The Wireless, a new building specially constructed on Metropole Avenue.

Radio technology would evolve tremendously over the next two decades, moving from simple Morse Code messages over relatively short distances to the human voice being carried around the world. Many people in print media and radio broadcasting would eventually come to see each other as enemies in the fight over news consumers. But from 1903 onward, the newspaper industry saw that an island like Catalina no longer had to be a news vacuum.


Images: Interior and exterior of the Catalina telegraph station from the May 9, 1903 issue of Scientific American; First edition of The Wireless via EarlyRadioHistory.us