What’s Ticker Tape?
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What’s Ticker Tape?

Ticker tape was the earliest electrical dedicated
financial communications medium, transmitting stock price information over telegraph lines,
in use from around 1870 through 1970. It consisted of a paper strip that ran through
a machine called a stock ticker, which printed abbreviated company names as alphabetic symbols
followed by numeric stock transaction price and volume information. Although telegraphic printing systems were
first invented by Royal Earl House in 1846, early models were fragile, required hand-cranked
power, frequently went out of synchronization between sender and receiver, and didn’t
become popular in widespread commercial use. It was improved with clockwork weight power
in 1856, and became viable for commercial use with a resynchronization system in 1858. The first stock price ticker system using
a telegraphic printer was invented in 1863 and unveiled in New York City in 1867. Early versions of stock tickers provided the
first mechanical means of conveying stock prices (“quotes”), over a long distance over
telegraph wiring. In its infancy, the ticker used the same symbols
as Morse code as a medium for conveying messages. One of the earliest practical stock ticker
machines, the Universal Stock Ticker developed by Thomas Edison in 1869, used alphanumeric
characters with a printing speed of approximately one character per second. Previously, stock prices had been hand-delivered
via written or verbal messages. Since the useful time-span of individual quotes
is very brief, they generally hadn’t been sent long distances, so aggregated summaries,
were sent instead, typically once a day. The increase in speed provided by the ticker
allowed for faster and more exact sales. Since the ticker ran continuously, updates
to a stock’s price whenever the price changed became effective much faster and trading became
a more time-sensitive matter. For the first time, trades were being done
in what is now thought of as near real-time. By the 1880s, there were about a thousand
stock tickers installed in the offices of New York bankers and brokers. In 1890, members of the exchange agreed to
create the New York Quotation Co., buying up all other ticker companies to ensure accuracy
of reporting of price and volume activity. Stock tickers used the technology of the then-recently
invented telegraph machines, with the advantage that the output was readable text, instead
of the dots and dashes of Morse code. A special typewriter designed for operation
over telegraph wires was used at the opposite end of the telegraph wire connection to the
ticker machine. Text typed on the typewriter was displayed
on the ticker machine at the opposite end of the connection. The machines printed a series of ticker symbols
(usually shortened forms of a company’s name), followed by brief information about the price
of that company’s stock; the thin strip of paper on which they were printed was called
ticker tape. The word ticker comes from the distinct tapping
(or ticking) noise the machines made while printing. Pulses on the telegraph line made a letter
wheel turn step by step until the correct symbol was reached and then printed. A typical 32-symbol letter wheel had to turn
on average 15 steps until the next letter could be printed resulting in a very slow
printing speed of one character per second. In 1883, ticker transmitter keyboards resembled
the keyboard of a piano with black keys indicating letters and the white keys indicating numbers
and fractions, corresponding to two rotating type wheels in the connected ticker tape printers. Newer and more efficient tickers became available
in the 1930s, but these newer and better tickers still had an approximate 15-to-20-minute delay. In the early days of baseball, before electronic
scoreboards, manual score turners used a ticker to get the latest scores from around the league. Ticker machines became obsolete in the 1960s,
replaced by computer networks. Simulated ticker displays, still exist. One of the most famous outdoor displays is
the simulated ticker scrolling marquee in Times Square. Used ticker tape was used as confetti, to
be thrown from the windows above parades either cut up into scraps or thrown as whole spools,
primarily in lower Manhattan; this became known as a ticker tape parade. Ticker tape parades generally celebrated some
significant event, such as the end of World War I and World War II, or the safe return
of one of the early astronauts. Ticker tape parades are still held in New
York City, specifically in the “Canyon of Heroes” in Manhattan, most often when local
sports teams win a championship. However, actual ticker tape is not used during
these parades any longer; often, pieces of paper from paper shredders are used as a convenient
source of confetti.


  • Sar Jim

    I'm old enough to remember my broker having a functioning ticker tape machine in the office. This was in the late 60's, and it was common for tape quotes to still be fifteen minutes behind settlement prices. That is, unless the market had a big up or down day. Prices then could be as much as an hour late, and sometimes much more. Even when the first mainframes were taking over, the speed of the tickers still determined when you knew the real price of a share of stock. With the computers in use now, and volumes running at a rate of hundreds of times higher than in 1970, a delay of more than a second or two is unusual. The smart brokers were the ones who held on to their old tickers, especially if they were from the days when big brokerage houses had their machines personalized, often with ornate engravings, and the nameplates on the wood base were made of 14k gold. The machines were built out of sold brass and copper, and rare models sell for as much as $50,000.

    Ticker tape machines weren't just used for stock quotes. Gamewell and a number of other companies used them to enunciate and track fire and burglar alarms. Those red fire alarm pull boxes hanging on poles in many large cities sent out the alarm via ticker tape. They were used to transmit sports scores, and the main customers were newspapers and bookies. Merchant ships used them to keep track of what cargo should be loaded and unloaded in each port. Ticker tapes fulfilled many of the uses later taken over by teletypewriters, then faxes, and now texting and emails. Most of these changes have taken place within my lifetime, and the rate of change seems to keep on accelerating.

  • Martin Wooder

    Another brilliant video. Nice to see video that are about more niche things. Can I suggest a video about Nixie tubes and their original intended use. Also neon signage

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