You could say that 1986 was the year of my first tweet.
Ronald Reagan was president. The Berlin Wall was still up. The Mets were going to win the World Series.
Somewhere out there was a 10-year-old kid named Jack who was probably imagining alternate payment systems for his neighborhood newspaper route. It would be yet another two decades before Jack Dorsey and his co-founders would eventually create what became Twitter.
Back then I could have told little Jack Dorsey about sending short electronic messages to a large audience. Unlike tweets today, mine did not appear, mere pixels high, on a tiny device that could be slipped into one’s pocket next to the car keys.
My tweets were so big that their glow lit up Times Square. If King Kong were ever to have climbed a tweet, it would have been one of mine. My tweets were five goddamned-feet high and 880 feet long.
That’s because my messages were flashing across the Times Square Zipper in the heart of New York City. With around 350,000 pedestrians entering Times Square each day, and with maybe 10 headlines each night, I had an audience of several million views — to use modern Internet parlance.
After laying dark and disused through most of the previous decade, the Zipper — first lit by The New York Times onTimes Tower at One Times Square in 1928 — was relit in 1986 as a publicity stunt by Newsday, the successful Long Island daily newspaper that was then making a run at New York City. By reviving the Zipper, Newsday planted itself smack in the heart of Manhattan and at the center of New York newspaper history.
The Zipper may have been in Times Square, but those of us writing for it sat in an office building about 40 miles away in Melville, Long Island. Not that we minded — this was not today’s Disney, Olive Garden version of Times Square; this was the gritty old Times Square of adult bookshops and $1.99 porno movie houses, the Times Square where only two years earlier 2,300 crimes were reported — nearly 500 of them serious felonies — on just the one single block of 42nd Street between 7th and 8th Avenues.
Sitting there in our suburban newspaper headquarters, we could only imagine the parade of Times Square denizens who were our distant audience. Felons, taxi drivers, the homeless, the occasional bewildered tourist, hookers, junkies and chronic masturbators — somewhat like a portion of Twitter’s audience today, except back then in the pre-broadband era you had to venture out of your house to get your kicks. An audience of strangers, somewhere out there.
We sat there in the Newsday office in front of a monochrome-green Atex terminal, monitoring the wire services for breaking news and, late in the evening, finding out from the newsroom what the newspaper’s front page would show the next day. All of these were written up as headlines. We’d sprinkle in some promos — what people today might think of as “sponsored tweets” — such as, “NEW YORK NEWSDAY LIGHTS UP NEW YORK” (everything was all caps back then; we hadn’t yet realized it was rude).
Back in 1986, not everyone had a screen full of wire service feeds on their desk. Back then, this was a privilege granted only to trained individuals, in possession of journalism degrees, who had spent time pondering the big moral and ethical questions and thus were qualified to inform and educate others concerning what was going on in the world. If these professional gatekeepers elected to tell you about something, then you knew it was IMPORTANT. And if it was important enough, I would put it on the Zipper.
It must seem unremarkable in modern times to think of someone sitting in front of a monitor scanning news feeds; nowadays, we’re all doing it. Today, if a big enough story breaks, millions of people notice it nearly instantly and begin to tweet it to everyone else who has also simultaneously noticed it. It becomes what’s known as a “trending topic.” Someone gives it a hashtag, and an enormous tweetstream washes over us like a momentary tide before receding back out into the roiling sea of information.
But in the 1930s, long before my time when the Zipper was still new, cab drivers would pull over to let passers-by listen to President Roosevelt on the radio, while they stood and simultaneously read the summary headlines as they scrolled around the Zipper — creating “the first true multimedia event in Times Square,” according to Tama Starr in her book, Signs and Wonders: The Spectacular Marketing of America.
When pocket communication devices were still decades away, this was where New Yorkers got their breaking news.
The method for updating the Zipper was state-of-the art for 1986. Headlines, once written, were typed into an IBM PC programmed to depict a virtual representation of the Zipper, and then transmitted to Times Square over the telephone line using a state-of-the-art, squawking and screeching, 300-baud modem.
Over at One Times Square, in an empty office, an identical computer would receive the headline, update the headline file, and drive the Zipper. At the time the Zipper was made up of thousands of incandescent light bulbs — just as it had been when it first was lit in the 1920s — and maintained by the venerable Times Square sign company, Artkraft Strauss.
Think it’s hard to fit your thoughts into a 140-character tweet? Zipper headlines were spartan by comparison. We had 80 characters per headline — that’s about eight to 10 words, including spaces and punctuation. By comparison, Twitter users are blathering and verbose. Trust me, you can tell any story in 80 characters. Like the one you’re reading: ZIPPER VET TELLS TALES OF PRE-TWEET ERA.
Fast forward to the present day. Newsday long ago was routed and retreated to the suburbs. The original Zipper’s long since been pulled down, broken apart and sent off in pieces to museums. Times Square is plastered wall-to-wall with flashing electronic signs and giant video screens.
And no one’s looking, even in Times Square, because we’re too busy tapping out tweets on the tiny electronic devices we hold in the palms of our hands. I’m not sure it’s any better. But at least you’re not nearly as likely to get mugged walking down 42nd Street while you do it.
In the 1980s, Evan Rudowski ran the news ticker at One Times Square. Today, he is the CEO of SubHub, a leading provider of digital membership solutions for associations and publications. A native New Yorker, Rudowski now lives in Bath, England, with his wife and two children. He blogs at evanrud.com.