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The Physical Stock Ticker Is a Relic, But Its Influence Reverberates Loudly Today

On this day 149 years ago, the first digital transmitter debuted

An original Western Union stock ticker from the Oakland Museum of California. (Daderot via Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonian.com

Physical stock tickers haven’t been much more than museum pieces since the 1960s, but the impact they left on the financial world still reverberates. As a pioneering means of digital electronic communication, the ticker changed the financial world by allowing people quickly buy and sell stocks without having to hit the pavement. Now, 149 years to the day after the first ticker made its debut on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, its influence resonates throughout the world.

Before the ticker’s invention, getting the best price on the commodity market meant getting the fastest runner you could. As the chief telegrapher for Western Union’s New York office, Edward A. Calahan had first-hand experience of watching messenger boys running back and forth between nearby stock exchanges, trying to beat each other to the punch, according to the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

At the time, the flood of runners sprinting back and forth between the brokerages and the stock exchange was so thick that passersby could easily be swept up in the flow. In fact, according to the Stock Ticker Company’s online history, Callahan himself was occasionally caught up in the crowd, sometimes in the midst of a rainstorm. To save the runners’ legs (and to free up the city’s streets), Callahan started working on a device that brokers on the stock exchange floor could use to quickly transmit information on prices from the stock exchange using keyboards labeled with special symbols, while their messages were printed on the other end of the wires on a long, constantly-updating spool of paper.

Even before Callahan’s invention debuted at the New York Stock Exchange, investors were lining up to fund the device. Dubbed “tickers” because of the sound the whirring printers made as they spewed out stock prices, the machines changed the game in the financial business, allowing brokers to stop relying on the fastest runners and being able to get quotes and make trades directly, History.com writes.

However, Callahan’s machines weren’t the only ones on the market for long. Soon enough other inventors began offering up their own versions of the device that promised to work better and be easier to operate. In fact, one of Thomas Edison’s first profitable inventions was a new and improved stock ticker. According to History.com, the money Edison made from that device allowed him to build his famous lab in Menlo Park, New Jersey, and get to work on other inventions, the light bulb and phonograph chief among them.

Mechanical stock tickers remained on the financial scene for nearly a century, until computerized tickers and television transmissions made them obsolete in the 1960s. However, its influence still remains in the form of the tickers seen at the bottom of many newscasts. Stock tickers may be long gone from exchange floors, but they laid the foundations for the lightning-quick connected world of the modern financial system.

About Danny Lewis

Danny Lewis is a multimedia journalist working in print, radio, and illustration. He focuses on stories with a health/science bent and has reported some of his favorite pieces from the prow of a canoe. Danny is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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