ON DEC. 11, 1941, when Germany and Italy declared war against the United States, people in downtown Baltimore in the area of Sun Square (Baltimore and Charles streets) knew it soon after The Sun got the news. That is because they saw the news flashed in lights across the side of the Sun building. They were watching "Trans-Lux," the newspaper's "electric news sign."
The electric news signs, so long identified with Times Square in New York, were installed in three locations around Baltimore. The first, downtown, was at the second-floor level of the old Sun building at the southwest corner of Charles and Baltimore streets in November 1941. A second sign appeared in Highlandtown, at Eastern Avenue at Conkling Street, in November 1943, and a third was installed at North and Charles streets in October 1945. The electric signs at those locations flashed the news all day and through the night until they came down in March 1950.
The signs worked this way: As news arrived at the newspaper by wire service, a technician would use a special machine to perforate a tape that operated the crawl-by lights. All three signs were operated from the same downtown control room, but separate bulletins had to be prepared for each sign.
Here are actual headlines from The Sun and Evening Sun that were flashed across the Trans-Lux:
Monday Dec. 8, 1941: "U.S. Declares War. 1,500 Killed in Hawaii."
Monday, Aug. 6, 1945: "Atomic Bomb Hits Japan; 2,000 Times as Powerful as Largest Used Before."
Tuesday, Aug. 14, 1945: "The War Is Over. Japan Accepts All Terms."
April 12, 1947: Senators Play Orioles Today. Meet Birds in Washington, Play Here Tomorrow."
Along with the news, the Trans-Lux communicated the selective service draft numbers.
So popular were the electric news signs that Baltimore poet Amy Greif (who died last April), then a regular in The Sun, dedicated a poem to them, "Lines to the New Revolving Electric Bulletin on The Sun Building":
All hail ye letters one by one
Revolving, bright against The Sun.
Ye glitter as ye give out gloom,
And sparkling, ye presage our doom.
Relentlessly and calmly turning,
Ye tell of towns and cities burning,
Of raids and sinkings, battles raging,
Of tanks and bombers, warfare raging,
Of strife and conflict, loss and gain,
Of earthquake, fire and hurricane.
Oh flashing letters, heartless, gay,
Can you find nothing else to say?
And must ye tidings thus impart
Which catch the breath and clutch the heart?
So, standing with reluctant feet,
Where Baltimore and Charles street meet,
Agape we read you dire and graphic,
There in the midst of thundering traffic.
We see the world's no field of clover.
No wonder if we get run over!