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Movietone and the UPI Wire Service 1963

One of the advantages of Movietonews working alongside United Press is that UPI had a teleprinter service.  The company had access to over a quarter of a million miles of leased “wire”.  This meant that stories would be transmitted across the world via teleprinter and we could read it within minutes of it being sent.

It was like owning your own telex system. The teleprinter was also used to communicate between one UPI bureau and another.

The teleprinter had its own language, not unlike that which is used today by texters or webspeak.  All the major cities of the world had two or three letter initials, thus we had “LN” for London, “HK” for Hong Kong.  All predictable, but it worked out quicker than writing the whole name.  A package might be sent to London and this would be expressed in the teleprinter message as “PACKAGE ELLENWARDS”.  ASAP was in constant use as well as FYI, “for your information”.  We were all known by our initials on the teleprinter and, eventually, we would be referred to in conversation by our initials.  I was known as “TMG“.  Dick Clark was “RSC” but signed his messages “Diclark”.
The teleprinter only had upper case lettering and was normally operated at 60 words per minute.

There was a code book for hundreds of words.  This was necessary because the message service shared lines with the UPI news output to subscribers and although it was possible to isolate the messages from the news service, accidents happened and the opposition would be able to see what the various bureaux were up to.  Years later this would lead to some hilarious consequences.

So the code book would have words for dollars, these would be “copalms” or “royals”.  Many of the groups of letters did not form a known word.  Mostly, those who were using the teleprinter every day, knew the code word for most of their requirements otherwise it would be a considerable chore to have to look up every other word in the secret word directory.

Here are list of examples which show that almost all the code words were non words, but sounded like words.  Frequently used words required several code words so as to avoid repetition which is the main cause of codes being decoded.

Associated Press – Castor, Henagar, Amair, Gerlaw.
American Airlines – Gloimlawr
Catholic – Niveous
Tom Curran – Calmar, Michie, Elnath
(Tom Curran was Vice –President of UPI Europe and warranted three code words)
Dollars – Copalms, Riyals.
ESSO – Mirfak
President of France – Mechel
Greenwich Mean Time – Seedkin
Claude Hippeau – Granch
(Hippeau was manager of UPI France and North Africa)
Istanbul – Monowi
Independent Television News – Arcana, Cudbear
Japan – Senatobia
Kuwait – Olar
Language – Bragot
Message – Babul
New York City – Maxwelton
Overdraft – Ruff
Pan American World Airways – Dagus
Satellite – Ferkin
Troops – Rebel, Architects
UPI – Alpin, Caxon, Pairadian, Monati, Tensaw
Union – Bagreef
War – Toast
Warship – Rink
Yesterday – Shay
Zero – Zag

While working overseas, especially in the Middle East, we would not carry a codebook with us.  For the most part the code-words were used when UPI representatives and bureaus were involved in contract deals with clients and potential clients. Of course, they were also used in terms of inter-bureau messages concerning news items.

We had no need of a code-book when exchanging messages with base.  We would make up some of our own words that were known to the office back in Denham.  Whenever we worked in a foreign country, we always knew that our messages could be vetted by the local security services.  One of our code words was for the ruler of the country we were in, he was called “Himself”.  The exception was Sheik Isa of Bahrain who was referred to by us as “Charlie Drake”.   Local currency was referred to as “Strokes”.  We always had to be careful what we wrote in a message in case we appeared to be offending someone.

In Bouverie Street, London, there was a teleprinter floor which was staffed by male operators.  This was a twenty-four hour service and the men only regime started when it was thought unsuitable for women to work through the night. There would have been a dozen or more machines. The operators would type out the messages and news stories in a rhythmic fashion, all at high speed. Some of the messages would go on to the wire directly others were “recorded” on a perforated tape for later transmission.

Punch tape study

Image by firexbrat via Flickr

The perforated paper messages were, sometimes, several feet long.  In our newsroom, there was a man whose job was to clear the tape machines of incoming messages and allocate them to the addressee. He would keep the machines loaded with paper rolls and blank perforated paper.

His name was George Carey and George was able to read a perforated tape by pulling it through his hand and reading it as quickly as if it was typewritten.  UPI had a number of people who could do that, but George was the only one at Denham.

Wire messages referring to news stories were torn off and impaled on a spike.  This was known as “The Spike’ which journalists were obliged to read every so often to keep up to date with what was going on.

It was possible for one bureau to call another by selection a word code for the recipient bureau.  This was followed by a time and date which was expressed as figures such as 15114 – which represented the 15th of the month at 11.40 hours.  It was obvious what month it was.

Replies to these messages always referred to the date/time number to clarify what message was being answered.  During various news story mayhem, the flow of messages could be at such a rate that it might be difficult to know what a given reply was referring to.

In the mid sixties, there was a change in the system. What it was, I do not know, but it became necessary to use a coded introduction to messages in order that they did not come up on a subscriber’s teleprinter machine.

A Teletype Smile

Image by wwward0 via Flickr

The boffins of UPI decided to instruct the staff world wide.  I cannot recall the exact details, but it went something like this:
They had demonstrated what would happen before they intended to.
It took a while to fix the problem to say nothing of the boffins having to live it down.

Every year on the build-up to Christmas, we would start to see an exchange of Christmas messages.  There would be from a particular UPI Bureau distributed to all the rest in the world.  These greetings were in the form of wonderful artwork all done by using the characters on the keyboard.   Some of the greeting were several feet long and one had to wonder how long it took the artist to complete them.  I wonder if any of these pieces of UPI artwork have been preserved.

ASR 33 Teletype. A computer terminal manufactu...

Image via Wikipedia

Somehow, the teleprinter seemed to be the centre of the entire business of newsgathering. It provided us with what was going on in the world.  It enabled us to contact foreign bureaux, immediately, and, on occasion, it provided us with background information not readily available elsewhere.

Even in the sixties, an overseas telephone call could require a booking with the overseas telephone operator, with an expected delay of a day or so, while a cablegram could take half a day to be delivered.

It is difficult to imagine what would have happened without the teleprinters and their operators.

© Terence Gallacher and, 2011.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Terence Gallacher and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

For other articles about Movietone click here.

One Comment Post a comment
  1. Priceless!

    February 14, 2012

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