Smart Machines

Investors and newshounds of yesteryear used push technology to stay up to date

For months, push technology has been hailed as the next big thing: it spells the end of Web browsers, say the pundits, and is the best hope for building business on the Web. But push, at bottom, is nothing new. Variations on the concept go back more than 130 years.

The essence of push technology is preselection and speed. The customer requests specific information before it happens--stock updates on Eli Lily, sports news from the Chicago Sun-Times, weather reports from Tasmania--and the provider sends it as soon as it does. Today's incarnation of push, of course, involves the transmission of one's selections over the Internet, via services like Pointcast. Those of yesteryear used the telegraph, the first lightning form of mail for point-to-point communication, as their medium. Primary among push's predecessors were the stock-ticker and news-wire services, both of which delivered preselected information instantaneously and continuously to subscribers.

The origin of the stock ticker dates back to 1863, when Dr. Samuel S. Laws, manager of New York City's Gold Exchange and an amateur electrician, invented the gold indicator to put an end to the crush of messenger boys scurrying into the Exchange and back out to their clients with the latest gold price in hand. As the price of gold changed, an electrical signal sent from the trading floor would cause a hand on the device--a clocklike dial rimmed with numerals--to move until it pointed to the latest trading price.

Laws initially placed a gold indicator in a window at the Exchange, but he soon began installing them, through his newly founded Reporting Telegraph Co., in brokerage firms throughout Manhattan and pushing the latest prices of gold over the telegraph wires. Thus, as early as 1866, brokerage houses willing to pay the monthly fee could base trades on up-to-the-minute market information rather than waiting for runners to bring the news.

Other inventors improved the technology fast on Laws's heels. Franklin Pope, superintendent at the Reporting Telegraph Co., developed an apparatus that printed Roman characters on a moving strip of paper. Boston telegrapher E.A. Callahan, with backing from the Gold & Stock Telegraph Co., modified the design of a European-made telegraph so it would print not just gold prices but stock-market quotations on paper tape. The clickety-clack of its type wheel earned the machine the name "stock ticker." Inspired by the device's commercial promise, another Boston inventor-telegrapher--Thomas A. Edison--made improvements to it, patenting his design in 1869.

Just like the pushing of information over the Internet, the pushing of gold and stock prices by telegraph became a highly competitive business. Prices emanating from the Exchange (to become the New York Stock Exchange) could be recorded and marketed by any ticker service with a representative on-site. Such firms proliferated, buying or licensing--from the likes of Edison--the tickers necessary to build a network.

The Big Board's chief rival, the New York Curb Exchange (to become the American Stock Exchange), found it necessary to push quotations to a large network of subscribing brokers in order to survive. The aptly named Curb Market began in the 1790s, when traders who were excluded from the blue-blooded Exchange gathered informally to make markets at curbside. In 1921, the year the Curb moved indoors on Trinity Street, its push network included 266 tickers; by 1930 the Curb ticker service fed 2,643 machines nationwide. Just as today's push services can follow clients through time and space via wireless devices, one brokerage service in the 1920s installed Curb tickers on several ocean liners, using radio transmission to send the information.

As with the ticker services, the news-wire services exploited the telegraph to sell time-sensitive information to subscribers--in this case, late-breaking reports for newspapers. The first such service, the Harbor News Association, was founded in January 1849 by a group of leading New York City dailies. The name referred to the fact that the consortium cleverly stationed two boats in New York Harbor to intercept incoming ships for news, which was then sold to papers outside the city. With reorganizations and name changes, the New York Associated Press emerged firmly in control of telegraphic news reporting by the 1860s.

Competition flared in this information business as well. Press associations patterned after the Associated Press soon appeared in other regions of the country. By 1900 two aggressive rivals were chipping away at the Associated Press's market: United Press Associations, established in 1907 by Edward Wyllis Scripps, and the International News Services, created two years later by publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst. It's worth noting that Scripps set up his own more customized outfit because he was dissatisfied with the Associated Press's content. The Associated Press supplied news for the morning papers, whereas Scripps, who ran several evening papers in Ohio, needed news from later in the day.

The difference between the push technology of the 1800s and that of today is largely a matter of degree, not kind: the former was accessible to smaller numbers of people, of course, and the information being pushed was less customized than that crossing the wires today. But the mind-set behind the technology was the same: don't make consumers search and retrieve, a practice that leaves them with much unwanted information; instead, ship them only what they've asked for--second by second.

David B. Sicilia is an assistant professor of business and technology history at the University of Maryland, College Park.