Academic journal article Journalism History

News in Lights: The Times Square Zipper and Newspaper Signs in an Age of Technological Enthusiasm

Academic journal article Journalism History

News in Lights: The Times Square Zipper and Newspaper Signs in an Age of Technological Enthusiasm

Article excerpt

When Herbert Hoover was elected president of the United States on November 6, 1928, thousands of New Yorkers learned the news from The New York Times s new electric light display on Times Tower. The Times had barely installed the moving-letter sign in time for election-night crowds, which had habitually gathered to learn of election results and other breaking news since the newspaper had relocated to Times Square from Park Row in 1905. A "ribbon of light" 380 feet long and five feet high, the sign circled Times Tower along the building's fourth-floor cornice. The Times originally called it "The Motograph News Bulletin" and later "The New York Times Electric Moving Letter News Sign." Eventually, it became popularly known as "the zipper."1 Its 14,800 light bulbs spelled out seminal news headlines for the next thirty-five years, until the newspaper sold Times Tower in 1963. A successor to the sign continues to operate on the building in 2018.

The Times was not the first newspaper to use its building to display news or promote its newspaper. For decades, newspapers on Park Row had been displaying bulletin boards with election returns, sporting results, ship arrivals, and other breaking news. The advent of the telegraph as a news-gathering device had whetted the public's appetite for instantaneous news, particularly in New York City, where residents frequently assembled at newspaper buildings to learn of the latest news. Later, during the Civil War, crowds were drawn to newspaper buildings for the latest headlines and casualty lists scrawled on chalkboards.2 Just as they had once used newsboys to hawk papers, newspaper publishers used signs to promote themselves and to rapidly transmit news. So, too, would newspaper signs move the news from the printed page to the street, helping to reorganize readerships into audiences and expand the news cycle beyond morning and evening print editions-in a sense anticipating the act of watching television news. Newspaper signs also transformed the solitary act of reading the newspaper into a communal experience-readers consuming individually, but doing so in a group. Over time, New Yorkers would form the habit of gathering for big news stories, such as election results. In a word, this shared experience became a ritual.3

The Timess zipper differed from the newspaper building signs that came before it. Never had such a large and complex electric news sign been constructed for a newspaper. The zipper was the forerunner to the type of electronic displays that came to dominate Times Square and the centers of other large cities in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. The innovative way in which the sign animatedly delivered news also foreshadowed the ticker-like design of "crawls" displayed on the lower third of television screens during news broadcasts.

The Times's motograph was installed during a period of high modernism, the height of what Thomas S. Hughes calls the "age of technological enthusiasm," whose chief characteristic was "inventing, developing, and organizing large technical systems," including those related to communication.4 It was a time in which science was king, inventors were revered, and world's fairs were staged to dazzle and amaze. As cultural historian Norman Klein points out, the fairs themselves had become objects of national pride, providing society with an industrial epistemology. Machines were the fairs' central attraction, their displays treated as a type of theater.5 By the time of the Chicago World's Fair of 1893, it was the electric light that had taken center stage and had, as David E. Nye wrote, "eclipsed the great machines."6 Whether bathing buildings in light to create the Chicago Fair's "White City," or colorfully lighting jetted water fountains, electrical displays inspired awe. According to Frank Presbrey's 1929 history of advertising, the novelty of electrified signs would "excite wonderment." It describes how, in 1895, The New York Times sign "composed of 250 'jets' over the entrance to its building in Park Row," led "an unprejudiced writer" to describe the sign as "striking and almost startling to behold. …

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