Jim Shulman | Baby Boomer Memories: North Street's electronic bulletin board
Most Baby Boomers can remember events like their first romance, first time driving, first time drinking (too much), and a handful of other first-time experiences. The one thing many of us cannot recall is when we first became aware of local and world news, more specifically — even before TVs — reading the local newspaper. It must have been in high school. Although I am sure comics and sports scores were earlier.
The one thing I do remember about reading The Berkshire Eagle was in about sixth grade, but it was not really the "paper" newspaper. It was at a big, electronic box with a window that was located on North Street over the railroad bridge next to the Bridge Lunch. I can remember seeing photographs and news stories posted.
This big box was an electronic bulletin board that would crank out news as soon as it was reported. The Berkshire Eagle first installed this bulletin board on North Street in 1915 locating it strategically on the railroad overpass bridge right near the newspaper's headquarters on Eagle Street.
This state-of-the-art item was actually manufactured in New York City under a 1910 patent. News bulletins would be transmitted from The Eagle's newsroom to the street by means of a cleverly designed, but temperamental system of gears and electric circuits. The bulletins were written on a special typewriter and transmitted from the newsroom.
In the pre-television days and before the daily newspaper was printed, people would gather on bustling North Street to read the latest news. National events, like elections, happenings in Washington or the latest news on a war in which we were engaged, would draw crowds of shoppers and business people.
Regulars included the sports fans that would look at the daily results or scores before retiring for the night. (This is an activity that is foreign to a generation raised on 24-hour television, ESPN and the Internet.) Another regular group of viewers was made up of the amateur firemen and policemen who wanted to know where the excitement was, long before scanners came along. The Bridge Lunch diner loved the nearby news source since many viewers would stop in for a bite to eat or coffee, especially on the crowded times.
By 1951, the viewers were dwindling, perhaps due to the popularity of radio, and the bulletin board was breaking down frequently. The Berkshire (Evening) Eagle was faced with eliminating the public benefit altogether. However, in 1952, the newspaper decided to replace it with a new "state of the art" electronic bulletin board. This creation was believed to be the world's largest unit of its type.
The board projected the latest wire news and had dials for temperature, barometric pressure, and velocity and wind direction. Photographs were regularly changed and posted below the news. It was this box that I first remember stopping to view every time I went by it and my first recollection of really paying attention to news.
This older 37-year-old method of news sharing was replaced in 1957 with a new fangled closed-circuit TV system. In the newsroom of The Eagle, news bulletins and pictures were placed on a large, wheel-like rotating drum. Then, using a small TV camera, staff transmitted the images on a closed circuit to the bulletin board. The pictures and news appeared on a 27-inch receiver. It was believed to be the first wired TV bulletin board in the country.
Sometime before the removal of the Bridge Lunch diner and the creation of Sottile Park (about 1982), the famous electronic bulletin board disappeared. The apparatus had become a relic, a victim of less downtown foot traffic, and modern communication, including instant television news, personal computers and cell phones.
Jim Shulman, a Pittsfield native, is the founder of the Berkshire Carousel and author of "Berkshire Memories: A Baby Boomer Looks Back at Growing Up in Pittsfield." For more information on the project and books (Volume I and II), go to berkshirecarousel.com.
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