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Nov. 6, 1928: All the News That's Lit

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Old 11-06-2008
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Nov. 6, 1928: All the News That's Lit
1928: The New York Times begins flashing headlines to pedestrians outside its offices at 1 Times Square, using an electronic news strip that wraps around the fourth floor of the building.
The Motograph News Bulletin, or "zipper" as it was known informally, was a technological marvel of its day. It extended 380 feet around the Times Tower and, with a band 5-feet tall, the moving letters were visible from a distance of several city blocks.

A Times column from 2005 described how inventor Frank C. Reilly's remarkable sign worked:Inside the control room, three cables poured energy into transformers. The hookup to all the bulbs totaled 88,000 soldered connections. Messages from a ticker came to a desk beside a cabinet like the case that contained type used by old-time compositors. The cabinet contained thin slabs called letter elements. An operator composed the message letter-by-letter in a frame.
The frame, when filled with the letters and spaces that spelled out a news item, was inserted in a magazine at one end of a track. A chain conveyor moved the track, and each letter in the frame brushed a number of contacts. Each contact set a light flashing on Broadway.

Reilly, the Times said, calculated that there were 261,925,664 flashes an hour from the zipper's 14,800 bulbs.
It was the first use anywhere of the zipper, which was itself big news on a big news day. A headline in the Nov. 6 edition of the Times declared: Huge Times Sign Will Flash News. It also happened to be election day, and the zipper's first streaming headline announced a new president:HERBERT HOOVER DEFEATS AL SMITH

Less than a year later, the zipper would be flashing the collapse of the stock market and the events that brought on the Great Depression.
Throughout the 20th century, historic moments became frozen as zipper headlines in the national consciousness:
PRESIDENT ROOSEVELT IS DEAD
OFFICIAL: TRUMAN ANNOUNCES JAPANESE SURRENDER
PRESIDENT KENNEDY SHOT DEAD IN DALLAS
MAN ON MOON
NIXON RESIGNS
In between monumental news events, the zipper kept churning out the headlines, which later included weather forecasts and sports scores.
Even before the advent of the zipper, Times Square was a mighty crossroads, home to theaters and restaurants that kept the district humming 24 hours a day. Illuminated signs began springing up with such profusion that even in the early 1900s Broadway and Times Square were referred to as The Great White Way. The first neon sign in Times Square -- advertising the automaker Willys-Overland -- appeared in 1924. But the zipper, with its streaming headlines, was something new and arresting.
When the Times left 1 Times Square in 1963 for its new building on West 43rd Street, New York Newsday took over running the zipper. But as modern Times Square gradually vanished into an orgy of commerce, punctuated by garish neon and LED displays that make midnight feel like high noon, technology had clearly passed the zipper by.
Newsday was ready to pull the plug in 1994, but the zipper was saved when a British company picked up the lease at the midnight hour. As 1 Times Square, like every other building in the area, was gradually buried in an avalanche of modern signage, the old zipper was acquired by Dow Jones and given a complete face lift.
What was once the Motograph News Bulletin is now one of several high-resolution displays on Times Square, distinguishable from the others only by the use of amber LEDs.
Source: Various


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