Wednesday, September 27, 2023

The Creed of bells 

Himalayan Paths

By Narendra Jha

Yesterday was a ten-bell day. But the teleprinter was not around to sound them in newsrooms across the world. A few generations ago, though, an overzealous operator nearly killed the Queen of England, well before her appointed tryst with Hades.

“What’s a ten-bell signal?” This would have been a fair question even in the frenetic newsrooms of the 1940s, 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s. Not everyone—especially reporters—knew about it. I speak of a time when such places resounded to the relentless clatter of machines that used microwaves, telephone lines and radio waves to transmit and receive text.

In the internet-driven millennium, however, the likelier question would be, “What the f*** is a teleprinter? Given the rate at which technologies are becoming obsolete now, it would be just as fair to ask it. In the history of telecommunications, the teleprinter would have slipped into the dark silence of the archives, but for the aviation industry allowing it a modicum of continuity.

Though the device’s invention is credited to Donald Murray, it was always THE CREED for us, eponymous with Fredrick John Creed, the man who made it indispensable on a grand commercial scale for more than half-a-century. Importantly, he was the first to employ punched tape, making it useful offline too. There was no idling time even as it allowed 65 words to be keyed in each noisy minute.

News came in TAKES of three brief paragraphs—often a paragraph being no more than a sentence—a convention wire services (or content providers if you are Reuters) follow to this day in their cyber reincarnation. These takes were in random order on seemingly endless rolls of paper. So some protocols had to be followed assiduously.

For example, a unique one or two-word SLUG had to identify a copy. If there was more than one take, it would end with the alert MORE. When the copy ended, your eyes rested with the word LAST. Corrections, even if they involved a solitary word, would come as RERUNS. But the slug remained inviolable, sacrosanct.

This is how the chaos of information was ordered into intelligible, cohesive news—mere desk discipline, nothing more.

So where am I taking this? What about the bells? You could not only see them as the Greek letter OMEGA, but also hear them tear through the cacophony of a 10 O’clock newsroom, each with the sureness of a well-directed arrow.

I do not know if all wire services (or content providers) followed it or different agencies had their own set of bells to signal the importance of what was to follow. But I think there was general agreement among them in the matter.

Three bells meant NORMAL, four bells URGENT and five bells BULLETIN. During my time with teleprinters—fact-check me here, please—we were told that a ten-bell FLASH had been used only once, by UPI, upon the assassination of US President John F. Kennedy. The convention was started to denote the single most important event in the Buckingham Palace and, believe me, it was not to announce the birth of the 14th in line to the throne. Only later was it extended to a handful of other designated flashes.

One night, half-a-century ago, a sleep-deprived keyboard cruncher rested his finger a little too long on the bell key and ended up with eight befuddling OMEGAS. The sounds could be heard all over the Indian Express newsroom.

An alarmed chief sub-editor immediately called the Press Trust of India, India’s largest news agency that had a monopoly of sorts on teleprinter rentals, through which news from all sources were channeled.

“Aiyyo!” he told his counterpart there. “What the hell is going on, da? Two more bells and we would have killed the Queen of England!”

Indeed. OMEGA is the last letter of the Greek alphabet for a reason. And it is to be used with care. I do so here below as allowed.

(Author is alumnus of Loyola School Jamshedpur. The views expressed are personal. )

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