National Press Club

National Press Club in history: The sound of news

June 24, 2019 | By Gilbert Klein |

 President Lyndon Johnson looks over wires with National Press Club President Al Cromley.

President Lyndon Johnson looks over wires with National Press Club President Al Cromley.

The clatter of wire service teletype machines and ringing bells that alerted reporters and editors to something important about to be transmitted was for decades the background noise at the National Press Club. An alcove outside the ballroom housed the Club's Associated Press and United Press International teletype machines.

Each machine spit out copy constantly on long rolls of paper. A Club employee cut those rolls into manageable sizes that would be attached to the wall. They often hung down about five or six feet. The machines need a constant supply of paper and fresh ink ribbons.

Members would stroll over to that wall of news to peruse for stories of interest to them.

The clatter of those machines was eternal. As a 1986 Philadelphia Inquirer story, “Saying Goodbye to the Teletype,” said: “Thanks to Teletypes, America read 20th-century history the day it was made. Da dacka-dacka. Lindy Makes it! Dacka-dacka. The Hindenburg Explodes! Dak-dak-dak. Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor! Germany Surrenders! Atomic bomb destroys Hiroshima! Kennedy shot!”

The most important piece of equipment on the teletypes was a chrome-plated, half-sphere bell attached to the outside. Dinging signaled something was happening.

Three bells was an advisory of a standard story. Four bells meant urgent. Five bells indicated a BULLETIN of a critically important breaking news story. But 10 bells for UPI and 12 bells for AP was called a FLASH – a breaking story sure to dominate the headlines and newscasts for days to come.

An explosion of dings would empty the Club in minutes as reporters rushed back to their offices or out on the streets to follow the news.

When the Club was remodeled in the early 1980s, the teletype machines disappeared from outside the ballroom. Two of those machines – one for AP and one for UPI - remain in the Club’s archives. Wire service news is still available in the library on a dedicated computer attached to Reuters. But the sound of news has been silenced.

This is another in a series provided by Club historian Gil Klein. Dig down anywhere in the Club’s 111-year history, and you will find some kind of significant event in the history of the world, the nation, Washington, journalism and the Club itself. Many of these events were caught in illustrations that tell the stories.