Silently, it streams across our desktops, but its onomatopoetic name still applies: the ticker, capitalism’s seismograph, recording the tremblers of money shaping and reshaping the economic landscape.
Before the ticker, the secret life of cash was known only to the J.P. Morgan & Co. Inc.s of the world, and that knowledge allowed them to build empires that astounded the Gilded Age. Then the ticker came along, wantonly spilling their secrets to anyone who could get through the doors of a brokerage.
The first stock ticker, essentially a telegraphic printer, was invented in 1867 by Edward A. Calahan, but it was perfected and given its transcendent form – a seductively revealing glass dome atop a sturdy wooden pedestal – in 1869 by the ubiquitous Thomas Edison. Leveraging the telegraph lines laid along the transcontinental railroad, the Edison Universal Stock Ticker connected the farthest outposts of the United States to the New York Stock Exchange, spreading the gospel of the free market.
Today, facilitated by the Internet, watching the ticker has become a national pastime and so central to our culture that we use its name to refer to another machine that tracks the ups and downs of the market. And how is the ol’ ticker, anyway?