Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Days of Teletype Machines

Long before the Internet and long before satellite delivery of data, radio and TV stations as well as newspapers relied on teletype machines for delivery of news services.

These were large, noisy machines that had a typewriter type mechanism in a metal housing, paper was supplied in a thin cheap quality off white newsprint type paper that came in boxes and sat under the teletype machine. Data was transmitted to the machine over a dedicated phone line and speed was limited to about 60 words per minute, or about 45 baud. That's 45 baud. Early personal computer modems were 300 baud, followed fairly quickly by 1200, 2400, 9600 and 14,400 baud. Speeds over traditional copper phone lines eventually reached 56,000 baud - but those teletype machines were fed data at 45 baud. That was slow - but about as fast as a good typist could type.

AP, Associated Press, and UPI, United Press International used similar machines to transmit news to newspapers and broadcast stations. Everything the news service produced was printed. I hate to think how many tons of paper were ripped from teletype machines and thrown in the trash because it was something of no interest to a particular newspaper or broadcast station.

The National Weather Service also had a data feed called The Weather Wire and used a machine somewhat like the AP and UPI teletypes. The weather wire used rolls of yellow paper (yellow so you knew it came from the weather wire and not the AP or UPI machine).

Both types of machines used a black or black and red ribbon. As part of the fee that stations and newspapers paid to AP and UPI, paper and ribbons were supplied for their teletype machines as part of the service.

Paper and ribbons for the weather wire had to be purchased. But the weather wire at that time didn't transmit nearly as much data as AP or UPI - as there were circuits for each state. So Missouri had a weather wire fed by the National Weather Service offices in Missouri that concentrated on Missouri weather.

AP and UPI also had their data delivery separated for newspapers and broadcast use. The newspaper data feed had a lot more information than the broadcast wire feed - so broadcast stations weren't stuck printing out  reams of paper for stories that would only be of interest to the print media.

The machines were noisy enough and produced enough heat, that they were kept in a small room dedicated to the teletype machines. Radio and TV newsrooms sometimes used the sound of teletype machines in the background for breaking news.

Here's a short video of a working AP teletype machine from that time period:

Typewriters were used to write local news for on air use and archiving stories consisted of saving boxes of printed stories in the basement. Newspapers also saved stories on paper. Where old news stories were stored was called "The Morgue". The station kept local news stories in The Morgue for a year or two and then old stories were put in the trash.

The news services turned to satellites for delivery of their products in the early 80s and satellite technology made much faster data speeds possible. Faster data speeds made teletype machines obsolete. Teletype machines were replaced first by fast dot matrix printers and about that time paper and ribbons were no longer supplied as part of the service - but everything the news service fed was still printed. Eventually personal computers found their way into the newsroom, and news service data was captured by software that allowed the printing of only what was needed.

Third party companies wrote that early news service software and most software also had the capability to write and archive local news. The station first purchased a Dell 286-12 personal computer around 1986/87. That computer was expensive, over $2,000 for the computer and a printer, but the computer paid for itself in the first year of use by not printing everything that the news service fed. We used a program called Mercury, written by a small company out west. This was before software like Windows made multi-tasking (running more than one program at a time on a PC) possible - so that Dell only captured UPI news and the weather wire but it did allow the writing of local news stories.

David Gerstmann started a company called WireReady in Medford, Massachusetts around 1987 that specialized in capturing news service data and writing and archiving local news. His company would later add audio capabilities to the same program allowing stations to replace cartridge tape machines with computer based audio.

Eventually the news services had their own software - for a price - but many broadcast stations already had software like WireReady - so they weren't interested in the news service software.

Although many of the software companies, like the one that produced Mercury, are long gone, WireReady is still around today. Their software not only captures news service data, ControlReady is an automation system - allowing the automatic recording of news and program feeds and more recently WireReady has moved into the television newsroom business. That lets TV station capture and edit news service data for on air use, write local news and even incorporate video as part of the WireReady system.

A lot has changed since the days of teletype machines. But change is good. Newspapers and broadcast stations saved a lot of money and lots of paper with computers. In that respect, they were "Green" a long time before being Green was cool.

So  it goes.

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