Most teleprinters used the 5-bit Baudot code (also known as ITA2). This limited the character set to 32 codes (25 = 32). One had to use a "FIGS" shift key to type numbers and special characters. Special versions of teleprinters had FIGS characters for specific applications, such as weather symbols for weather reports. Print quality was poor by modern standards. The Baudot code was used asynchronously with start and stop bits: the asynchronous code design was intimately linked with the start-stop electro-mechanical design of teleprinters. (Early systems had used synchronous codes, but were hard to synchronize mechanically). Other codes, such as ASCII, Fieldata and Flexowriter, were introduced but never became as popular as Baudot.
Mark and space are terms describing logic levels in teleprinter circuits. The native mode of communication for a teleprinter is a simple series DC circuit that is interrupted, much as a rotary dial interrupts a telephone signal. The marking condition is when the circuit is closed (current is flowing), the spacing condition is when the circuit is open (no current is flowing). The "idle" condition of the circuit is a continuous marking state, with the start of a character signalled by a "start bit", which is always a space. Following the start bit, the character is represented by a fixed number of bits, such as 5 bits in the Baudot code, each either a mark or a space to denote the specific character or machine function. After the character's bits, the sending machine sends one or more stop bits. The stop bits are marking, so as to be distinct from the subsequent start bit. If the sender has nothing more to send, the line simply remains in the marking state (as if a continuing series of stop bits) until a later space denotes the start of the next character. The time between characters need not be an integral multiple of a bit time, but it must be at least the minimum number of stop bits required by the receiving machine.
When the line is broken, the continuous spacing (open circuit, no current flowing) causes a receiving teleprinter to cycle continuously, even in the absence of stop bits. It prints nothing because the characters received are all zeros, the Baudot blank (or ASCII) null character.
Teleprinter circuits were generally leased from a communications common carrier and consisted of twisted pair copper wires through ordinary telephone cables that extended from the teleprinter located at the customer location to the common carrier central office. These teleprinter circuits were connected to switching equipment at the central office for Telex and TWX service. Private line teleprinter circuits were not directly connected to switching equipment. Instead, these private line circuits were connected to network hubs and repeaters configured to provide point to point or point to multipoint service. More than two teleprinters could be connected to the same wire circuit by means of a current loop.
Earlier Teletype machines had three rows of keys and only supported upper case letters. They used the 5 bit baudot code and generally worked at 60 words per minute. Teletypes with ASCII code were an innovation that came into widespread use in the same period as computers began to become widely available.
Speed, intended to be roughly comparable to words per minute, was the standard designation introduced by Western Union for a mechanical teleprinter data transmission rate using the 5-bit baudot code that was popular in the 1940s and for several decades thereafter. Such a machine would send 1 start bit, 5 data bits, and 1.42 stop bits. This unusual stop bit time was actually a rest period to allow the mechanical printing mechanism to recycle. Since modern computer equipment cannot easily generate 1.42 bits for the stop period, common practice is to either approximate this with 1.5 bits, or to send 2.0 bits while accepting 1.0 bits receiving.
For example, a "60 speed" machine is geared at 45.5 baud (22.0 ms per bit), a "66 speed" machine is geared at 50.0 baud (20.0 ms per bit), a "75 speed" machine is geared at 56.9 baud (17.5 ms per bit), a "100 speed" machine is geared at 74.2 baud (13.5 ms per bit), and a "133 speed" machine is geared at 100.0 baud (10.0 ms per bit). 60 speed became the de facto standard for amateur radio RTTY operation because of the widespread availability of equipment at that speed and the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) restrictions to only 60 speed from 1953 to 1972. Telex, news agency wires and similar services commonly used 66 speed services. There was some migration to 75 and 100 speed as more reliable devices were introduced. However, the limitations of HF transmission such as excessive error rates due to multipath distortion and the nature of ionospheric propagation kept many users at 60 and 66 speed. Most Teletype audio recordings in existence today are of teleprinters operating at 60 words per minute, and mostly of the Teletype Model 15.
Another measure of the speed of a Teletype machine was in total "operations per minute (OPM)". For example, 60 speed was usually 368 OPM, 66 speed was 404 OPM, 75 speed was 460 OPM, and 100 speed was 600 OPM. Western Union Telexes were usually set at 390 OPM, with 7.0 total bits instead of the customary 7.42 bits.
Both wire-service and private teleprinters had bells to signal important incoming messages and could ring 24/7 while the power was turned on. For example, ringing 4 bells on UPI wire-service machines meant an "Urgent" message; 5 bells was a "Bulletin"; and 10 bells was a FLASH, used only for very important news.
The teleprinter circuit was often linked to a 5-bit paper tape punch (or "reperforator") and reader, allowing messages received to be resent on another circuit. Complex military and commercial communications networks were built using this technology. Message centers had rows of teleprinters and large racks for paper tapes awaiting transmission. Skilled operators could read the priority code from the hole pattern and might even feed a "FLASH PRIORITY" tape into a reader while it was still coming out of the punch. Routine traffic often had to wait hours for relay. Many teleprinters had built-in paper tape readers and punches, allowing messages to be saved in machine-readable form and edited off-line.
Communication by radio, RTTY, was also common. Amateur radio operators continue to use this mode of communication today.
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