Before APC

While not a part of the story of the Army Pictorial Center, Signal Corps still and motion picture photography was an important part of Army history and laid the foundation for establishing this important photographic center in Astoria, New York.

 With the advent of online services, many examples of Signal Corps work can be found.  Among those is this topic.

Between the Wars:  The Lincoln Highway

 The Centennial of the 1919 Army Motor Train journey from the White House to Lincoln Park in San Francisco brought some early Signal Corps film work to the attention of Donald M. Scott.  The convoy, to dedicate the Lincoln Highway, included a Signal Corps movie crew, who filmed highlights of much of the journey.

 The trip was also captured in journals kept by Maj. Dwight D. Eisenhow, who accompanied the convoy as an observer.  This experience plus his observation of the military usefulness of high-speed roads in German in World War II led to the creation of the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, commonly known as the Interstate Highway System.

 The film footage taken by the Signal Corps during the trip includes the beginning and end of the trip and several scenes in Nevada and a section on King's Canyon Road between Carson City and Spooner Summit.  You can see the film here:

Scott also reports, “For an interview  with the author of the book about that journey, see:

He added, “I live in Carson City, near the old Lincoln.  The stretch from the Lower Kings Falls parking area to Spooner Summit, about 9 miles, is still a road.  Although it's in rough condition, folks still drive it.  I hike part of the old road weekly, weather permitting.”


Old Lincoln Highway

This is a section of the old road on the east side of the Sierra.




Signal Corps Photography


The beginnings of Signal Corps photography are sketched in Rebecca Robbins Raines’ book, “Getting the Message Through – A Branch History of the U.S. Signal Corps”.


Raines wrote about the early use of still photography by the Army:


During (the Spanish-American War in Cuba) the Signal Corps also experimented with another device – the camera. Although not an officially assigned function, photography fell within the broad definition of communications. Beginning in 1894 photography had been taught as part of the signal course at Fort Riley, and in 1896 the Corps had published a Manual of Photography written by then 1st Lt. Samuel Reber. While serving in Puerto Rico, Reber used his skills to draw topographical maps based on photographs.61 Moreover, signal companies in all three campaigns carried cameras with which to document their operations. Improvements in photographic technology since the Civil War made combat photography an easier task than it had been for Mathew Brady. Smaller cameras using rolled film had replaced cumbersome glass plates; high-speed shutters and shorter exposure time made action photographs possible.62 Thus began one of the activities with which the Signal Corps is most closely identified—one that has made “Photo by the U.S. Army Signal Corps” a well-known phrase. The Corps displayed a collection of its wartime photos as part of its exhibit at the Pan-American Exposition held in Buffalo, New York, in the fall of 1901, and some of the photographs were reproduced in Greely’s annual reports for 1898 and 1899.63


Raines also described the Army’s early use of motion pictures:


Signalmen began documenting (World War I) aboard the Baltic, taking still and motion pictures of Pershing and his staff. The Army controlled all combat photography, and civilian photographers were not permitted to operate within the zone of the AEF. A photographic unit served with each division and consisted of one motion-picture operator, one still photographer, and their assistants. Each army and corps headquarters had a photo detachment of one officer and six men.113 Photographic units also served with such private agencies as the American Red Cross and the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) to document their activities. Photographic technology had progressed considerably since the days of Mathew Brady, and a combat photographer in World War I could develop a picture in fifteen minutes using a portable darkroom. By l November 1918 the Signal Corps had taken approximately 30,000 still pictures and 750,000 feet of motion pictures that were used for training, propaganda, and historical purposes. Wartime censorship kept the public from seeing the most graphic images, however. The Signal Corps’ invaluable photographic collection resides today in the National Archives.


The Corps also retained its photographic mission, even though it had lost responsibility for aerial photography in 1918. The branch maintained two photographic laboratories in Washington, D.C.; one for motion pictures at Washington Barracks (now Fort Lesley J. McNair), and the other at 1800 Virginia Avenue, Northwest. Among its services, the Signal Corps sold photos to the public. Its collection of still photographs included its own pictures, as well as those taken by other branches. The Corps also operated a fifty-seat motion-picture theater where films could be viewed for official purposes or the public could view films for prospective purchase.54 In 1925 the Signal Corps acquired responsibility for the Army’s pictorial publicity. In this capacity it supervised and coordinated the commercial and news photographers who covered Army activities.55


Following their successful use during World War I, the Army increasingly relied upon motion pictures for training purposes. With the advent of sound films in the late 1920s, film production entered a new era. In 1928 the War Department made the Signal Corps responsible for the production of new training films but neglected to allocate any funds. To obtain needed expertise, the Signal Corps called upon the commercial film industry for assistance, and in 1930 the Signal Corps sent its first officer to Hollywood for training sponsored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.56 While photography played a relatively minor role in the Corps’ overall operations, it nonetheless provided valuable documentation of the Army’s activities during the interwar period.


Raines’ “Getting the Message Through” was published by the U.S. Government Printing Office.  You can download a complete copy of the book from the Center for Military History.

You can also find this – and many other fine books – at the U.S. Government Publishing Office Bookstore.

And, of course, you can find “Getting the Message Through” in paperback or Kindle edition on Amazon.


(Posted September 5, 2018.)