Wednesday, March 30, 2011


The other day I saw a glitch in book review which reminded me of a recent post on the diminishing role of editors newsrooms and publishing houses. Every day we see evidence of the mistakes made by editors too rushed to give full attention to their work and, more rarely, we see — when they've time enough — how much they're able to contribute to the success of a piece of writing.

The glitch was either a typo or the result of some other bit of inattention. It appears in Geoffrey Nunberg's review of The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick. The review appeared in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago. It's James Gleick’s History of Information and in it Nunberg summarizes a section of the book on a kind of shorthand used by people sending telegrams: "frugal customers hit on the expedient of using economical abbreviations for common messages, like 'gmlet' for 'give my love to' — texting avant la lettre." The mistake is the use of gmlet where gmlt is intended. Gleick is talking about the compressed style that came to be called telegraphese. He quotes Alfred Vail, Morse's partner in inventing the telegraph. Vail said telegraph users could make their communications private as well as compressed by using a simple system:

{The American electro magnetic telegraph, with the reports of Congress, and a description of all telegraphs known, employing electricity or galvanism by Alfred Vail (Lea & Blanchard, 1845)}

Vail's method of compression reminded me of a long-ago friend who worked at the home office of an international conglomerate. Her job was to key messages into a Teletype machine for overseas transmission. The TT machine, or Telex, is a mechanical device for converting keyboarded text into a variation of Morse code. Because this code is limited to 64 characters or codes, the Telex has a very simplistic keyboard — 32 keys, giving UPPER CASE LETTERS, numbers 0-9, some symbols, a spacebar, and the switch (two shift keys) from letters to numbers/symbols and back.

Teletype operators would communicate with each other as well as preparing and sending their business messages. They'd do this using a compressed lingo like Vail's gmlt. The only one I remember is BIBI, used to say goodbye to the receiving operator. (As I said, TTs output only upper case letters.) A brief web scan turns up a few more: TX = thanks and TKSVM = thanks very much; CUL = see you later (this could be rendered as BCNU. In Britspeak LO = hullo, GA OM = go ahead old man, and TTFN = ta ta for now. I got these from a discussion on the origins of internet shorthand.

When punching the keys, the operator simultaneously generates both typed output on a roll of paper 8.5 inches wide and hole-punched output on a roll of 1.5-inch paper tape. It's the holes in the paper tape that get translated into the signal which is then transmitted to another TT machine, possibly one half way around the globe. The TT operator had to be both quick and accurate: quick because telex transmissions were high priority, expensive communications, and accurate because, although it might be possible in theory, in practice you didn't correct a hole-punched tape.

This is the Model 28 TT used in newspapers, large businesses, and government offices from the end of World War II up to the mid-1960s.

{Model 28-ASR; source:}

You can hear what a Model 28 sounds like in this mp3 from sounddogs:

This is the Model 35 which replaced it. You can see the tape output in this photo.

{Model 35-ASR; source:}

This is the Model 33 of about the same vintage as the 35-ASR. Though less robust, it was cheaper and more compact than the 35 and was thus found in smaller businesses and government agencies. When it came out in the mid-1960s mainframe operators noted that its paper tape output could be used to prepare computer code. Thereafter you'd often see versions of this machine in the computer operation centers. This is the TT model that's most familiar to people my age.


This shows the keys on the Model 33. By counting the keys you can tell there's a new larger character set in use. The larger set became possible in 1963 when the code was upgraded from the International Telegraphy Alphabet developed in the 1930s to a new set called the American Standard Code for Information Interchange — encoding was expanded from the 5-bit format that had been used since the 19th century to a new 7-bit one. (Since the tape was wide enough to accommodate an 8th bit,provision was made for use of an optional check digit. Hence ASCII is usually thought of as 8-bit code.) The ASCII set included control characters for use by computer operators as well as ones useful in TT transmissions. If you look at the key caps you can see these special codes. The "rubout" key was the TT's "delete" key; it instructed the TT to ignore the previous line of tape punches. Though it might have allowed for use of lowercase letters, the TT version of ASCII remained all caps.


Some sources:


SMS language




Baudot code


Teletype ASR-28


The electric telegraph

The New Shorthand - OMG! DYKWIM?

New Online Shorthand

Teletype Corporation - Teletype Model 28 Page Printer


The telegraph instructor by George M. Dodge, 1901

92 Code

Over to you: Telex messaging, Geiger counters and statistics

The origins of 'Net shorthand

ASR 33 (Automatic Send/Receive)

Torrey Pines Software museum on the TP software site

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