Anthony J. Pennings, PhD


Times Square’s Luminescent News Tickers and Public Spaces

Posted on | January 1, 2018 | No Comments

Times Square has a storied history as one of the planet’s more recognizable public spaces. Its “zipper” is an electronic news display that has reported and reflected our collective response to news events. It helped establish Times Square as the place to be when major events happen, as we are reminded every New Years Eve.

Each December 31, crowds gather to celebrate the dawning of a new year (Except for pandemic-ridden 2020). Thousands line up, often in freezing cold weather, to see the famous crystal time ball drop. The ball was created by Walter F. Palmer as a way to celebrate the arrival of 1908 and was inspired by the Western Union Telegraph building’s downtown clock tower that dropped an iron ball each day at noon. Now millions participate with the Times Square crowd as television audiences from around the world tune into the final countdown.

Times Square is now flooded with variously evolved reader boards (Reuters, ABC, Morgan Stanley, etc.), all based on the original 1928 Times Tower electric ticker.

Evan Rudowski argues he was sending tweets long before Twitter emerged in 2007. In 1986, Rudowski got a job scanning the newswires like AP and UPI and entering short 80-character news briefs into what has been called the “Zipper”, a five feet high and 880 feet long electric display providing breaking news and stock prices to the passing crowds. He typed in the messages on an IBM PC and transmitted them from an office in Long Island to the famous ticker display at One Times Square in New York City.

In 1928 the New York Times encircled its signature building with an outdoor incandescent message display. In its November 1928 print edition, it headlined “HUGE TIMES SIGN WILL FLASH NEWS.” It explained, “Letters will move around Times Building telling of events in all parts of the world.”

The zipper’s first message announced the results of the 1928 Herbert Hoover – Al Smith presidential election. The crowd reaction was probably mixed as the loser Al Smith was from New York. On the other hand, he didn’t even carry the state in the electoral college.

Nevertheless, the zipper would reach out to the nation through major announcements such as the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the end of World War II on V-J Day, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and the release of 52 hostages that were held in Iran for 444 days.

The surrender by the Japanese drew one of the biggest crowds. On Aug. 14, 1945, the “zipper” flashed: “***OFFICIAL***TRUMAN ANNOUNCES JAPANESE SURRENDER” just after 7 pm that evening and the Times Square crowd exploded in celebration. A picture of a sailor kissing a young nurse he didn’t know by Photojournalist Alfred Eisenstaedt memorialized the event as it symbolized the relief of a dramatic war coming to its end.

V-J Day in Times Square By Photojournalist Alfred Eisenstaedt

The foot traffic in Times Square is extraordinary, with the daily number of pedestrians exceeding 700,000. It’s a mesmerizing and sometimes dizzying experience as you cross 42nd street on your way up Broadway. Hundreds of different displays provide a kaleidoscope of vivid imagery.

For a history of the stock ticker, see my post on Thomas Edison.



AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, PhD is Professor and Associate Chair of the Department of Technology and Society, State University of New York, Korea. Before joining SUNY, he taught at Hannam University in South Korea and from 2002-2012 was on the faculty of New York University. Previously, he taught at St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas, Marist College in New York, and Victoria University in New Zealand. He has also spent time as a Fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii.


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