From Morse code to Marimba: The noisy history of technology alerts

Since we invented communications devices, we've had to come up with ways they can let us know we should pay attention to them. Based on what we see in the world today, maybe they do too good a job.

REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

Last year, New Yorkers trying to enjoy an evening at the Philharmonic were instead subjected to the seemingly unstoppable sound of the iPhone's iconic Marimba ringtone, which went on so long that conductor Alan Gilbert had to stop the performance. Could such a weird moment have been predicted back when the ironically named Alexander Graham Bell first (supposedly) invented the telephone? Let's take a look back at the history of communication alert sounds to see how it came to this.

The first widespread form of long-distance communication that travelled faster than animals could run was the telegraph, and while Morse code dots and dashes were originally inscribed by pens onto strips of paper, telegraph operators soon learned to understand the code by ear alone. That's good, because they had to listen carefully to endless clattering of messages across the network to hear the two-letter code indicating a message was intended for them. This video gives you a good sense of what it sounded like.

When telephones first debuted, they began as point-to-point devices: you'd want to call from your home to your office, so you'd you buy a phone at each end and connect them directly. If you wanted to get someone's attention at the other end, you'd whistle into the handset! Obviously this wasn't a solution that scaled, so the idea was developed of sending an electrical current through the line that rang a mechanical bell. This video gives you the sound of such a bell from a 1901 phone.

High-tech, for 1951

By midcentury, we had moved from the days of purely electrical communication into the realm of electronics. How were our new computers to get our attention? The Ferranti Mark 1, a British computer that first came online in 1951, was built with rudimentary sound capabilities, initially just to let its operators know when it had completed a task. That ability was soon harnessed to create music, as a recording unearthed by the BBC revealed: It could play "God Save The King" and get partway through "In The Mood."(The first ringtones?)

They must always make him say it at parties.

AOL took e-mail out of the domain of techies and sent it to the masses, and part of the way it did that was by adding a human voice to it. This 1998 article by future best-selling novelist Curtis Sittenfeld outlines how Elwood Edwards became the voice of AOL: his wife worked at its predecessor company in 1989, Edwards had done commercial voice work in the past, he spent some time in his living room with a tape recorder, and a star was born. This video will help you put a face to the "You've Got Mail" voice.


1996 saw two important advances in message-alert technology. The first came from the United States: Motorola's StarTAC 100, in addition to being an iconic, industry defining cell phone in any number of ways, came with the ability to switch to vibrate, so you could tell you were getting a call without bothering everyone around you (unless you left it on a wooden table, in which case it'd be even louder than an electronic ring).

Japanese ads always seem very EXCITED

Meanwhile, that same year Japan was coming up with a less practical but much more awesome invention: a phone whose ringtones you could customize. NTT DoCoMo's Digital Mova N103 Hyper, and ad for which is shown here, contained a few different MIDI tunes that you could select from that would ring when your friends called. It was the primitive version of a fad that would take the turn of the century by storm. By 1998, Finland's Radiolinja offered a service called Harmonium from which you could download new ringtones.

By 2001, pocket-sized devices could play not just simple MIDIs but full-featured MP3s, which meant that ringtones that sounded exactly like your favorite songs from the radio were on the horizon. Again Japan took the lead: in 2002, a service named au began offering what it called "Truetones," and the first was "My Gift To You", from the Japanese band Chemistry. Who wouldn't want this playing out of their phone in the middle of a crowded restaurant?

By the middle of the decade, ringtone mania was in full swing. Perhaps nothing demonstrated the absurdity so much as Crazy Frog, which began life as a weird noise a Swedish man recorded on the Internet and became a ringtone pushed by a British company that then turned it into a chart-topping cover of "Axel F." Music companies sold ringtones as quickly as they could, and hoped they would lead a resurgence in profits lost to file-sharing.

What happened next? In one word: Apple. Steve Jobs, determined to create a ringtone that would sound culturally sophisticated and also show off the iPhone's speakers, unleashed Marimba and a host of other classy-sounding ringtones when the iPhone was released, though those New York Philharmonic patrons probably didn't find it that upscale. There were also tools that would help you make ringtones from your music collection -- for free.

The upshot: revenues from rigtones vanished as quickly as they had ballooned. One record label exec noted that "We made more money from ringtones than anything else; it accounted for more than half of our income stream. And now ... it's basically zero." Even anecdotally, it seems that you don't really hear ringtones in public anymore. The fad has passed.

But that doesn't mean there aren't other kinds of fads and gimmickry in the communication alert business! For instance: You may have noticed that Facebook, in its attempt to make Facebook messaging more omnipresent, plays little bleepy bloopy noises every time you get a new message now. But did you know, as BuzzFeed revealed, that the chord those bleeps make consists of the notes F-A-C-E? This is at least as cool as a guy named Bell inventing the telephone.

Related story: 20 historic tech sounds you may have forgotten