Saturday, April 02, 2011

Meander, second post

Newspapers owners and editors recognized the usefulness of the telegraph soon after the technology became available to them. Although the financial community quickly became the dominant users, newspapers, railroads, governments, and military establishments were not slower in recognizing its value. The technology's value to financiers is many-fold: financial markets rely heavily on flows of information. Speed is essential and the size of transactions is such that transmission costs are unimportant. And last but hardly least, the information needed can be captured in short messages. In varying (lesser) degrees, the telegraph's other prime users shared these incentives. For all of them costs were a major concern and all but the railroads found it a challenge to keep messages brief.[1]

From the outset news was seen as a main content of telegraph transmissions, perhaps the main content. The letters of Alfred Vail, co-developer of telegraphy in the early 1840s, show the transmission of news to have been one of his main goals for the technology. Even before the telegraph was opened for public use, he employed it to send news of a presidential nomination.[2]

Newspapers saw that they could reap great benefits if they could contain costs. They and the financial community were also challenged to prevent the technology from being abused. Neither group wanted to have their messages intercepted by competitors, neither wanted interruptions of service from wire-cutting, and neither wanted to be duped by false information. A cooperative telegraphic service, the New York Associated Press, was one early means for newspapers to deal with all these threats.

The New York Herald was one of the five founding members of the NYAP. The most innovative paper of its time, it made extensive use of the new technology.[3] This anecdote shows the high costs and some of the perils of news telegraphy in a time when the network of wires was still small.
In New York, the principal journals formed an association, many years ago, to telegraph in common, sharing the expense (this was the NYAP). Each journal was, however, at liberty to order for itself any extra intelligence, giving the others, or any of them, the option of sharing it.

Mr. Jones[4] relates that one of the earliest telegraph feats, after the extension of the telegraph lines west to Cincinnati, was brought about by the agency of the "New York Herald," and before any regular association of the press was formed in New York.

"It became known that Mr. Clay (the presidential candidate) would deliver a speech in Lexington (KY), on the Mexican war, which was then exciting much public attention. Mr. Bennett, editor and proprietor of the 'Herald,' desired us to have Mr. Clay's speech reported for the paper. We at once proceeded," says Mr. Jones, "to make arrangements to carry it into effect. We had a regular and efficient reporter already employed in Cincinnati; we also had one in Philadelphia in cooperation with us.... From Lexington to Cincinnati was eighty miles, over which an express had to be run. Horses were placed at every ten miles by the Cincinnati agent. An expert rider was engaged, and a short-hand reporter or two stationed in Lexington. When they had prepared his speech it was then dark. The express-man, on receiving it, proceeded with it for Cincinnati. The night was dark and rainy, yet he accomplished the trip in eight hours, over a rough, hilly, country road. The whole speech was received at the 'Herald' office at an early hour the next morning, although the wires were interrupted for a short time in the night, near Pittsburg, in consequence of the limb of a tree having fallen across them. An enterprising operator in the Pittsburg office, finding communication suspended, procured a horse, and rode along the line amidst the darkness and rain, found the place, and the cause of the break, which he repaired; then returned to the office, and finished sending the speech." The cost to the Herald was about £100 (or $500 in the currency of the day).
-- The electric telegraph by Dionysius Lardner and Edward Brailsford Bright (J. Walton, 1867)
In time, the New York Associated Press would evolve into a national organization called simply Associated Press. By the turn of the 20th century the AP had organized itself to achieve remarkable speed and economy in delivering news to its member newspapers. As part of this effort telegraphers of the old NYAP had developed a set of abbreviations that were something like the ones used by court reporters. A 1905 article on AP written by its head manager explains:
The [AP] telegraph operators are men of exceptional skill, and receive higher salaries than are paid by the telegraph or railway companies. To expedite their work, they use automatic sending-machines, which greatly exceed hand transmission in speed, and employ a system of abbreviations which can be sent with surprising rapidity. The receiving operators take the letters by sound and write them upon a type-writer, and since no one is able to manipulate a Morse key as swiftly as he can operate a type-writer, there is a constant effort to hasten the sending in order to keep pace with the ability of the receiver. The following example will illustrate the system of abbreviation. A message is sent thus:

And it is rendered thus by the receiving operator:
The Supreme Court of the United States to-day decided that the power of the President of the United States does not extend to the Philippines, on the ground that all past congressional legislation on the subject is unconstitutional.
In the larger cities, where many copies of the messages are required, a sheet which has been immersed in wax is used in the type-writer. When written upon, it forms a stencil, which is placed upon a rotary cyclograph operated by an electric motor, and as many as three hundred copies of the message may be reproduced in a minute. One of these is thrust into an envelop bearing the printed address of a newspaper and shot through a pneumatic tube to the desk of the waiting telegraph editor in the newspaper office. Even this almost instantaneous method of delivery is too slow, however, for news of a sensational character. A bulletin wire connects the Associated Press office with every evening newspaper in New York, and the bulletins are flashed over it by operators of the highest skill in emergencies. When the result of a great race arrives, the receiving operator shouts the news through a megaphone, and every sending operator in the room flashes it over his circuit.

-- "The Associated Press, News-Gathering as a Business" by Melville E. Stone, The Century, Volume 70 (The Century Co., 1905)
From a book published in 1897, this shows the AP telegraph room in New York. At these desks the telegraphers would both key outbound messages and receive inbound ones. When receiving they would listen to the Morse dit-dahs that were emitted from the elevated square devices, transpose the code to English, and write out the results on sheets of paper.

{source: "Great Business Operations — The Collection of News" by T.B. Connery, Cosmopolitan, Volume 23 (Schlicht and Field., 1897)}

Taken in 1923, this shows a man transcribing a telegraphic transmission using a typewriter. He's listening to the dit-dahs that have been keyed at the other end of the line and mentally transposing them into English. As he does this he types the text. As you can see, the box at his ear is a telegraph receiver with a sounding board. In front of him there's another of these "sounders". (The location is the White House; I couldn't find a photo that showed an AP operator doing this job.)

{Telegraph Room, White House, 8/1/23; source: Library of Congress}

Phillips Code was the dominant shorthand method used by AP, other news agencies, and the newspapers themselves. Western Union and the other offices where the public at large would send telegrams would transmit each word in full without abbreviation. They normally charged per word and, since the service was relatively expensive, a compressed language called telegraphese evolved as a cost saving measure. This pidgin English was necessarily ambiguous and given to creative and frequently humorous manipulation.

Stories of this practice are often apocryphal. In one well-known example a magazine editor supposedly cables Cary Grant's agent: "HOW OLD CARY GRANT" to which Cary Grant himself replies "OLD CARY GRANT FINE HOW YOU".[4] Apparently newspapers did not always use Phillips Code, because quite a few of these tales involve reporters in the field. One of the best known goes like this: "Once the transatlantic cable was established, from 1860 onwards, cablegrams were charged per word, 6/- initially, soon reduced to 1/-. A newspaper editor cabled a lazy foreign correspondent YUNEWS. The reply - UNEWS. The editor cabled UNEWS UNJOB".[5] This exchange is a bit easier to understand in another version of the story: "A London news editor worried about the silence from a foreign correspondent cabled WHY UNNEWS. The reporter wired back UNNEWS GOODNEWS, to which the editor replied UNNEWS UNJOB.[6]

The biographies of Evelyn Waugh say that he actually did help perpetrate a well-known bit of telegraphese. In 1935 he covered the Italian invasion of Ethiopia for the Daily Mail. Soon after he arrived in Addis Ababa his editor sent a wire telling him to investigate the rumored killing of an American nurse: "REQUIRE EARLIEST NAME LIFE STORY PHOTOGRAPH AMERICAN NURSE UPBLOWN" Waugh investigated and swiftly replied: 'NURSE UNUPBLOWN.'[7]



Some sources:

Frederick Theodore Frelinghuysen on wikipdia

Associated Press on wikipedia

Henry Morton Stanley on wikipedia

Electrical telegraph on wikipedia

Phillips Code on wikipedia

Alfred Vail on wikipedia
"Alfred Lewis Vail (September 25, 1807 – January 18, 1859) was a machinist and inventor. Vail was central, with Samuel F. B. Morse, in developing and commercializing the telegraph between 1837 and 1844.[1] Vail and Morse were the first two telegraph operators on Morse's first experimental line between Washington, DC, and Baltimore, and Vail took charge of building and managing several early telegraph lines between 1845 and 1848. He was also responsible for several technical innovations of Morse's system, particularly the sending key and improved recording registers and relay magnets. Vail left the telegraph industry in 1848 because he believed that the managers of Morse's lines did not fully value his contributions."

Walter Phillips

Sketches old and new by Walter Polk Phillips (J. H. Bunnell & company, 1897)

Journalism in the United States, from 1690-1872 by Frederic Hudson (Harper & Brothers, 1873)

Memoirs of Henry Villard

News over the wires

"The Associated Press, News-Gathering as a Business" by Melville E. Stone, The Century, Volume 70 (The Century Co., 1905)

"Great Business Operations — The Collection of News" by T.B. Connery, Cosmopolitan, Volume 23 (Schlicht and Field., 1897)

Early history of the electro-magnetic telegraph, from letters and journals of Alfred Vail by Alfred Vail (Hine brothers, 1914)

Sir Henry Morton Stanley

The Humours of Newspaper Enterprise, Chambers's journal Volume 72 (W. & R. Chambers, 1895)

Telegraph Lore

The electric telegraph by Dionysius Lardner and Edward Brailsford Bright (J. Walton, 1867)

Favorite Quotations by Mike Harney

Last word 'No invention more clearly showed the benefits of brevity than the telegram'



[1] prime users; why railroads terse

[2] Early history of the electro-magnetic telegraph, from letters and journals of Alfred Vail by Alfred Vail (Hine brothers, 1914)


April 30th, "Telegraphed all day. The 2 wires worked well 22 miles." May 1st, "Telegraphed all day. In the afternoon announced the nomination of Mr. Frelinghuysen."

This seems to have been the first message, by telegraph, of a public nature.

May 2nd, Vail to his wife: "I yesterday announced the nomination of Henry Clay and Frelinghuysen to Washington."

October 14th, Washington. A. Vail to G. Vail: "Prof. M. returned on Friday—I am busily engaged here in telegraphing Election News."

The introduction of the telegraph was its great theme. Morse had no greater friend and supporter than the Herald. It felt that with the electric wire a new impulse would be given to the country and to the Press. It liberally used the wires from the first flash over them. It has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in tolls. One of the probabilities of the future is that the Herald, as well as all others, will have all its news come by telegraph — that the mails will be as obsolete as stage-coaches.
-- Journalism in the United States, from 1690-1872 by Frederic Hudson (Harper & Brothers, 1873)
[4] This was Alexander Jones. He managed the New York Associated Press in its early years and then moved to the New York Herald where he eventually became the commercial editor.

[4] Earnest efforts have been made to track down the origins of this story. See The Legend of Cary Grant's Telegram and How Old Cary Grant? Old Cary Grant Fine, How You?.

[5] Martin White, in an email to the Telegraph (U.K.): Over to you: Telex messaging, Geiger counters and statistics

[6] World Wide Words, Issue 697, 31 July 2010

[7] Twentieth-century English by Christian Mair (Cambridge University Press, 2006)

[8] Black mischief: Scoop; The loved one; The ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold by Evelyn Waugh, edited with an introduction by Ann Pasternak Slater (Random, 2003)

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