A Brief History of Trading on Wall Street

You don’t get to read about history in the Dealbook blog, but we get a great one today about the history of trading on Wall Street. It’s pretty crazy to think that in the early days of Wall Street, stock prices were communicated by runners:

Even after the introduction of the trans-Atlantic cable in 1865 and the telephone in 1878, brokers still relied on manpower over gadgetry. Market prices were listed on slips of paper, and runners, most younger than 17, would deliver letters between brokerage houses, according to a report by Alexandru Preda at the University of Edinburgh. The new technologies were not seen as reliable. Problems ranged from typographical errors in the closing stock prices listed by newspapers to outright forgery.

In the days after the Civil War ended, traders seeking a timely edge still relied upon foot speed. The fastest man on Wall Street was William Heath, a celebrated runner with a huge drooping mustache, who was nicknamed “the American Deer.” Standing an inch taller than the Olympic sprinter Usain Bolt of Jamaica, Mr. Heath was reported by The New York Times to have been “as quick in his locomotion as in his operation.”

On the invention of the first ticker symbol, which was unreliable:

In 1867, Edward A. Calahan, a draftsman with the American Telegraph Company who previously worked as a messenger on Wall Street, unveiled the first stock ticker. The device, which earned its name from the unique sound it created, featured two wheels of type placed under a glass jar. The ticker printed off company names and stock prices on a narrow strip of paper, which was read aloud by a clerk.

Mr. Calahan’s machine was the first step in a major technological revolution of Wall Street, but it was also slow and unreliable. Twice a week, the batteries had to be filled with sulfuric acid, which was carried around in buckets. More important, the wheels of type would not always print in unison resulting in a mash of letters and numbers.

Catch up on the rest of the history lesson here.

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