In days of old: Morse code, punched tape and cleft stick…


When this reporter first began at NZPA in 1958, the staff worked out of a cubby-hole office on the first floor of Wellington’s General Post Office, a building now a hotel site. Up the corridor a huge number of telegraph staff sat at banks of desks, glueing gummed tape to forms that became telegrams.

Copy from newspapers became essentially long telegrams, delivered to NZPA, edited and returned to the telegraph officers via old-fashioned pneumatic tubes for re-formatting and transmission over the P&T’s wires to all newspapers.

Not much had changed over the years. Race results from some country tracks still came via Morse Code direct from the course, taken down in copper-plate handwriting by white-haired operators.

Outside the main centres telegraph offices throughout New Zealand kept business hours and, if NZPA wanted news at night from smaller towns, a telegraph reopening had to be arranged.

With the owners’ approval, NZPA began to strike out on its own and grow in the 1970s, leasing its own circuits and using its operators for news transmission. Control of its own destiny at last.

Punched tape fed into teleprinters carried the news across continents

More than anything, the transformation of communications in recent decades changed the face of reporting.

Today’s young reporters, sitting in comfort with laptops at events at home and abroad, filing instantly to computers in Wellington, have little idea of how hard it was not that long ago.

This reporter carried a first-generation “laptop” down the mile-long corridors of Los Angeles Airport in 1979. It weighed 13kg but it did hook up to a telephone and transmit if it worked.

Alan Graham, covering the New Zealand cricket tour of Pakistan in 1976, walked four times a day to a post office 2km from the ground, in stifling heat, humidity and dust, to file his pre-play, lunch, tea and stumps reports.

At one venue telex was provided but Graham arrived at the press box to find the machine in pieces, from one of which a wire disappeared down the side of the building, across a car park, into a desert and finally into the jungle. Amazingly the elderly operator had it all back together by the start of play — and it worked, the dial-up to Wellington through the jungle signalling ZEAPRESS, NZPA’s answer-back.

Ron Palenski, celebrated sports writer, also overcame many filing difficulties. His toughest: Saarijarvi in central Finland, where he covered John Walker, running and being beaten in 1976 by then unknown Englishman Steve Ovett.

His hotel had a telex with an attached tape perforator but no-one knew how to work it.

The management permitted Palenski to try. He sat down at the telex keyboard to input the copy and cut a paper tape. He hadn’t reckoned on the Finnish keyboard, vastly different in configuration from the normal English layout. It was a slow and laborious process to produce a tape before feeding it into the telex for a call to Wellington.

Now it’s all over. No longer will the attribution “NZPA” appear at the end of newspaper stories. We’ll all be the poorer for the agency’s passing.


Lifted from Business Day.
A copy sharing model, so to speak