The Beep Generation

by JoAnn Yeoman Tongret

I’m at the ShopRite trying to grab a few things I need for dinner. It’s been a long day made even worse by a massive traffic jam, and I’m making a genuine effort to forget the cacophony of auto horns that competed during the rush hour backup on I-95. (Did you know that the average car horn emits between 100 and 110 decibels per honk?)

Deep inside my purse my phone beeps while I’m in the bakery section and I ignore it. I’m on a chocolate mission and I can’t stop now. It beeps again and I pretend I’m in the shower. Again a peep, but it’s someone else’s phone or text or e-mail. I ignore all this and manage to make it to the check out.

I’m relieved to have the exit sign in view and I give my discount card to the cashier. She scans it; it chirps. Suddenly I hear what seems like a hundred different devices going off. It’s a symphony worthy of Schoenberg or Yma Sumac or both. Just as quickly my hallucination disappears in time for me to pay the cashier and get out to the parking lot. Of course, I’ve forgotten where I parked my car and am forced to give my key ring a squeeze so that the Honda can whimper its approximate location to me. Will I be able to drive home in this condition?

I start to recuperate in the kitchen, but it’s hopeless since the doorbell rings with a package from Amazon; my refrigerator whines because I’m leaving the door open too long while I decide what to defrost; my cell moans three more times to indicate a text; and my dryer drones a tiresome arpeggio, demanding my presence at a folding fest. After that I can look forward to my iron pinging when it’s hot enough for me to flatten everything that isn’t permanent press.

Based on a purely unscientific survey I’ve discovered that most “beeps” are pitched to sound on the B-natural above middle C (give or take an eighth of a pitch). Don’t ask how I conducted the experiment. It involves random humming in public places and searching for a tuning fork.

Instead of deciding who to blame for this avalanche of unnecessary coercion, I start to think about mankind’s attraction to audible reproach. How and when did we get this way? We probably surrendered our individual responsibility to organize a long time ago, but the whistling tea kettle might be a good place to start.

The first mention of a whistling device goes to Charles E. Coats in 1890. “Though, in this case it appears he was primarily concerned with the level of the water growing too low, as noted in an article about his patent: “…the object of my invention is to construct a tea-kettle into which water may be introduced at any time without danger of burning hands, and which shall also be provided with an automatic signal to indicate when the water is getting low.” But for a kettle whose patent specifically mentions a whistling capacity we need to go to 1915 and Jorgen Madsen’s patent for the “combined tea-kettle and signal,” which we would now recognize.

A possible predecessor of the alarm clock or watch beeper might be the repeater alarm (around 1892), but even earlier and more familiar to us is the grandfather clock which was created around 1680 by a British clockmaker, William Clement. “Clement disputed credit for an anchor escapement with another early clockmaker, Robert Hooke, and they were soon joined by Thomas Tompion, the most prominent of British clockmakers … In the early 20th century quarter-hour chime sequences were added to longcase clocks.” This quarter hour potential became especially memorable for me when I unexpectedly had to spend the night on a friend’s sofa directly next to said quarter-chimer.

Back to the automobile horn. One of the first trailblazers of car horn manufacturing was Miller Reese Hutchinson. “In the early 1900’s the inventor became inspired to create an improved horn after nearly hitting a pedestrian while driving. Car horns were important features on early automobiles.” (Think Harpo Marx’s bulb honker). “In fact, the biggest change in the car horn since its inception isn’t the feature itself, but how it is used. Matt Anderson (curator at the Henry Ford Museum) says that “You were expected to honk your horn if you were coming up on pedestrians to let them know you were bounding down the street. You’d be thought rude if you weren’t using your horn, which is the exact opposite of where we are today.”

And sometimes we’re held hostage by devices outside of our control. For example, having paid $250 for a “Hamilton” ticket, you find the first act ruined by a lady in the row ahead of you answering a call or taking a photo. Or perhaps in the middle of Beethoven’s 7th a hearing aid battery goes off. Soon we may need a beeper to remind us to turn off our innumerable beepers. Or, in extreme cases, perhaps an electric shock if we don’t respond promptly.

But, like the Hutchinson horn, there are a few noisy gizmos that have been successful in assisting the public: The Amber Alert or Hurricane warning on your cell. The smoke alarm. The ambulance siren that asks you to make way for an emergency. The school bell that offers relief from your most boring class. The Mack Truck that warns you when it’s backing up and can’t see you. Of course this is often neutralized because the pedestrian in question is wearing ear-buds. In a quick, casual count I have been able to identify 32 alerting devices that are well within my daily routine or experience. I invite you to make your own list. I’d give you mine, but my cell just went off to remind me of a call I need to make right now. I know you’ll understand.

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