For several years in the 1970s I commuted from near
Camden, N.J., to Baltimore, usually in the middle of the night. As I drove down
I-95, KYW(AM), the all-news outlet in Philadelphia then owned by Westinghouse
Broadcasting, was a regular companion, keeping me awake and informed.
Model 15 AP teleprinter from the collection of James O’Neal (including box of
paper labeled ‘Fanfold Teletype, Property of the Associated Press’).Photocourtesy
on-air people — less pontificating and definitely more locally focused than those
of my other favorite, the BBC — used a professional, conversational tone and a
calm, even vocal delivery. Behind the announcers’ voices and between news
items, listeners could hear the cadence of teleprinting machines.
station used this effect to add drama and credence as well as fill the voids
between items as they spaced stories and information pieces apart.
radio newscasts in America at that time aired the sound of teleprinters,
setting off the news from other program elements. Machines from the Teletype
Corp. dominated newsrooms, with the company name placed boldly on the front. Most
industry folks just called any printer a teletype machine.
I dug out a 1960s-vintage aircheck (yes, Virginia, before I became an
internationally recognized consulting engineer, I’d been a lowly disk jockey). During
my news read one can hear the background sounds of teletypes — played off of
audio cart — lending a compelling rhythm and aural authority to the headlines.
a young girl hearing this tape asked me, “What’s that noise in the background?” Ahh,
what youth have missed.
Check the wire
news on radio was an important program component and not just an interruption
in an hour music sweep or rant, teletype machines were standard equipment, as common
as a bathroom (although the machines probably were kept in better repair).
not always been the case. In radio’s infancy, stations for a time actually were
forbidden to air news. Newspapers had forced the regulation into the books; they
didn’t want the upstart technology to scoop their headlines or usurp their ad business
a symbiosis was reached wherein stations would air the headline and a little of
the story, essentially a tease to get people to buy a newspaper for the “rest
of the story.”
spread of radio into areas not covered by newspapers and a move by papers toward
features and data brought a rescinding of restrictions on radio news
also began acquiring news using their own resources, looking beyond the
newspaper telegraph services or rewritten newspaper copy. Eventually stations
started developing their own news services.
how to get information from many different locations into the station? The
answer was the radio news service teletype.
1914, the Associated Press had introduced the teletype machine using primarily
telegraph wire circuits to disseminate news to and from member newspapers.
Eventually membership was opened to radio stations, although few had
entered radio, it was not unusual for stations to have multiple teletype
machines, providing material from several sources. In my time, United Press
International, the Associated Press, Reuters and the emergency weather wire of
the National Weather Service were the usual suppliers of information that kept
those teletypes in a constant cacophony.
teleprinter, in its simplest description, was an electric typewriter commanded
by a pulse chain sent sequentially (serially) down a pair of wires or aurally
over a radio link. These units were cousins of today’s RS-232 standard serial
debut version, a standardized Baudot code was used consisting of five bits for
transmission items, such that 44 different characters and/or commands could be
achieved. The code contained a regular, repetitive bit, a singular piece of
positive information used to alert the decoding process that a character or
command was coming. The ensuing bits of data selectively would activate small
relays, setting up the striking of a particular typewriter key or activating a
command such as ringing a bell once.
first teletype used a code speed of 45.5 baud, the equivalent of about 60 words
per minute. Later, the carrying capability of these machines and their
connection circuits evolved, until teletypes of my generation (still just shortly
after the dinosaurs ruled the earth, around 1967) were about 100 baud.
wire services provided a near-instantaneous view of the world for stations and
their listeners. Every word was made to count and the amount of material
available was stunning.
San Francisco NBC announcer Bud Heyde checks a row
of teletypes in 1954. Photo courtesy John Schneider
instance, at KELP(AM) in El Paso circa 1968, the AP wire transmitted the
headline summary at, say, 15 minutes after the hour, so that these could be
used in a 20-20 news format (with news at 20 minutes after and 20 minutes of
the hour) or headlines at the half hour.
pre-written 3-1/2 minute (average delivery speed) story block was transmitted
at something like 15 minutes before the hour, to be used in a five-minute,
on-the-hour newscast (3-1/2 minutes of news, 30 seconds of commercial, 30
seconds of sports, 15 seconds of weather with bumpers including the open and
close billboards filling the five minutes).
the wire throughout the day were sports, stock closings, obits of famous people
sent in advance for the file, backgrounders, human interest stories, almanac
copy, pronunciation guides, even jokes.
was a small time slot in which all the radio newsroom teletypes in Texas would
be fed Lone Star material from the Texas AP or UPI bureaus in Dallas or the
capital, rather than the national wire.
It tolls for thee
was an interesting feature, its sequence of rings famously announcing an
example, a ring of four bells on UPI wire service machines meant an “Urgent”
message, five bells was a “Bulletin” and 11 bells was a “Flash,” used only for really
An 11-bell signal usually meant that the story was
so significant that it required immediate airing and might even change history.
Such bells might herald war or the death of a president.
Newsrooms of the day, and KELP was no exception, were filled with
hanging files of copy “to be used,” boxes of marked-up copy that had aired (the
lawyers, even then, wanted every word read on air saved to avoid liability) and
huge trash cans full of printer paper, material that would not be or could not
the din of all those machines in the KELP newsroom, news announcers like
gravel-voiced former Master Sgt. Ed Gilbow would work close to the mic, giving
our news an urgent gravitas enhanced by the teletypes’ paradiddle in the
went to quiet hot print or dot matrix technology fed by satellite circuits in
the early 1980s, replacing clack-clack with zip-zip. In the 1990s paper could
be eliminated altogether and a wire service could send copy direct to word
processor, with not a scissor, eraser or trashcan needed.
the staccato tattoo of the teletype generally is absent now, its nuance is
still felt in the music of many news programs and the theme that has appeared
in every James Bond picture since “From Russia With Love.” In New York, listeners
to WINS(AM) still hear the sound effect of the teletype under the news copy.
today are far quieter places. The electronic cutting and pasting of stories
compiled from diverse information sources including the Internet mimics the
sound of silence. The choir of striking keys pounding out the history of the
day is long gone, forgotten by most.
time we’ll talk about the technical details of how these teletypes worked, including the differentiation of
receive-only and receive-send systems.
If you have never heard a teletype
machine or would like a few moments of aural nostalgia, take a look and listen
Share your recollections of the teletype and its environs.
S. Fitch, W2IPI, is a registered professional consultant engineer, member of
the AFCCE, senior member of the SBE, lifetime CPBE with AMD, licensed electrical
contractor, former station owner and former director of engineering of WTIC(TV)
in Hartford, Conn., and WHSH(TV) in Boston.