War Dialling

Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger getting the latest information on the situation in South Vietnam (April 29, 1975)

War Dialling:
Image Transmissions from Saigon
Presentation by Susan Schuppli
17 February  2012, Imperial War Museum (London)
“Considering Vietnam” conference


On June 8 1972 the Muirhead K220, a portable picture transmitter, took 14 minutes to relay a series of audio signals from Saigon to Tokyo and then onwards to the US where they were reassembled into a B&W image to reveal a young Vietnamese girl running out of the inferno of an erroneous napalm attack. Better remembered as “the girl in the picture”, Kim Phúc’s anguished terror appeared a day later on the front page of the New York Times and papers nationwide. It is no doubt one of the most searing images to emerge out of the conflict in Vietnam and yet its iconic status as a visual artefact provides little evidence as to it secondary origins in sound, save the interface between the picture transmitter’s acoustic operations and the photographic representation of Phúc’s silent scream. In order for these early picture transmitters to send their image-data, they measured tonal variations across the surface of a print and converted them into electronic pulses that could be sent by standard telephone systems. Understanding the genesis of the published image of Kim Phúc as reliant upon sonic processing is crucial — I contend — for reactivating the affective potential of the image, which has by now largely dissipated through its prolonged public exposure. It is only at the threshold of a change in ontological intensity that the significance of objects is revealed to us anew. In the case of Kim Phúc’s image, it’s at the critical points of conversion between its sound and image flows that the relevance of the photograph can itself be renewed as a matter of ongoing concern and not simply a matter of fact consigned to history.

War dialling is a term related to computer hacking in which a software script tries to scan and connect with other computers to infiltrate their systems. Historically this was done via modem connections but a next generation of broadband based war dialling has emerged.


Muirhead Picture Transmitter – Photos: Michael Ebert


Sound of the Muirhead Picture Transmitter sending a photograph over standard telephone relay