“The internet,” said a greying philosopher, “is a land where people go to have their idiosyncrasies validated.” Buried beneath the porn and advertising (which can be the same thing) are virtual oases which cater to every conceivable arcane interest. And where one learns that, yes, someone else delights in the same arcane interest, too.
There isn’t just one, but several web sites devoted to a familiar sound on radio and television for decades—the NBC chimes. During my boyhood, they accompanied the network’s letters slithering into formation on the screen. A generation earlier, they ended every radio broadcast. In fact, they were even parodied in animated cartoons going back to the early ‘30s.
There’s likely more esoterica about the chimes on the internet than you’d probably want to know. But allow me to add some more.
Out of curiosity, I decided to hunt through some old newspapers to find the earliest reference to the notes that ended each NBC network programme. So here are some clippings.
Winnipeg Free Press, Jan. 4, 1930
B.C.L. writes in the Milwaukee Journal:
“You listeners-in must have noticed the chimes now being used by the NBC for station identification. It’s a great relief from the old hackneyed “A brief pause for station announcement” but it’s rather wearing on the announcers. For these individuals the musical notes mean GET IN FRONT OF THAT ‘MIKE.’ Wherever they go chimes are sure to ring out. One announcer recently attended a formal dinner and the hall clock chimed the hour. The announcer is said to have revived some 15 minutes from the fit of coughing which overtook him as he almost swallowed his soup spoon when the chimes startled him.
Imagine the embarrassment of an announcer in church when the chimes ring out, wake him from a half slumber and he suddenly rises from his seat and delivers the station call letters.”
San Antonio Express, Nov. 16, 1930
...one day when the hammer that is used to sound those terrible NBC chimes which mark the 15-minute periods was mislaid, [Neel B.] Enslen grabbed a pipe out of Ed (Engineer) Knapf’s mouth and boomed away . . . said Announcer Enslen as he returned the improvised hammer . . . “that was a pipe.” . . . O-w-w-w-w-.
Tralfaz says: Enslen had been at NBC since 1929. He had been a baritone with the American Opera Company. He committed suicide, age 38, on May 22, 1938, sticking his head in a gas oven. He had been battling alcoholism and had returned to work after four months off dealing with it. With that pleasant report, let us continue.
Wisconsin State Journal, Dec. 14, 1930
The chimes used by the National Broadcasting company every 15 minutes as cues for network stations to make their local announcements, are heard on an average of 141 times a day. There are 143 synchronizations each weekday and 128 on Sunday.
Wisconsin State Journal, Dec. 20, 1930
Following a recent argument in the Chicago NBC studios, Walter Lanterman, studio engineer, made a rather interesting discovery about the four-note chimes now being used between programs in national broadcasts. By mathematical computation, he has found that 87,296 different combinations are possible with the chimes now in use.
It is improbable that NBC will experiment with all the possible combinations, for it would take a man more than a week to try them all out, allowing five seconds for each combination.
If NBC ever did desire to use sufficient chimes every day, however, the possible combinations would be sufficient, to last for more than 200 years without repetition.
Peter Dixon, Beacon Syndicate, Nov. 1, 1931
It remained for Ray Perkins to stage the best gag around the NBC chimes. In a recent program Perkins built up a very “English” atmosphere and then said:
“In a moment you will hear the sound so dear to every Englishman, the chimes of Big Ben.”
And then the NBC chimes rang out.
Tralfaz says: Perkins emceed an amateur show on CBS through the ‘30s, became a reserve in the Army Intelligence Service, moved to Denver where he worked in radio, then TV. He’s noted for the words “In case of a tie, duplicate judges will be awarded.”
Associated Press, July 22, 1932
By C.E. BUTTERFIELD
New York, July 22—(AP)— The day of the announcer-operated chimes on the networks may soon be at an end. An electrical device has been designed to do the job.
At the same time there will be eliminated the “sour” notes that often materialized when the announcer failed to hit the three-note xylophones used to produce the chimes in the proper sequence or with the right force.
The new device is a development of Capt. R. H. Ranger, radio engineer, noted for his work on the electric organ and in facsimile radio transmission.
All the announcer need do is press a small button. That not only “rings” the chimes but cuts them into the proper network.
Oakland Tribune, Nov. 4, 1934
The old tradition of the theater, “The show must go on,” holds good in radio, too. On a recent Friday night the “One Man’s Family” episode was one long agony for Minetta Ellen, who has the role of Mrs. Barbour, gentle voiced, kindly mother in the Carlton E. Morse serial of American family life.
Although she was suffering from a severe case of ptomaine poisoning, she went through with her part. She collapsed as Announcer William Andrews was striking the NBC chimes at the end of the drama. She was taken to the hospital and on the following night, when the serial went on the air for Eastern ears, Verna Felton doubled for her.
Syracuse Herald, March 9, 1936
To countless listeners all over the world, the NBC chimes are three melodious notes heard before local station identification. To operators at NBC associated stations they are the unerring signal to announce identifying call letters and to the telephone repeater station operators to break down existing network set-ups and reestablish new connections.
To the engineering and musical experts who designed them, however, they are not chimes at all, but electrically and musically perfect tines which vibrate at the touch of a button on an announcer’s studio panel.
It has been four years since the old hand-struck chimes were used. They varied too greatly in volume. If the announcer struck them too lustily with his padded hammer, the sound would blast annoyingly through loudspeakers and sometimes circuit breakers would snap out. If they were sounded softly, operators at relay points along interconnecting lines might miss the cue to throw switches for local announcements and network realignment.
To thrust such irregularities definitely into the past, the NBC engineering department, under the supervision of O. B. Hanson, chief engineer, and Capt. R. H. Ranger, inventor, designed and created the mechanism now relied upon for its smooth and constant volume.
When the announcer touches the button on his panel in a studio, a relay clicks floors away and the chimes machinery starts, A motor turns and two second after the button is pushed, the first gong sounds. The two other follow at one second intervals.
The metal tines which produce the chime tones are not struck. They are plucked by pins on a motor-driven drum. That particular part of the chimes operation suggests the workings of an old-fashioned music box.
What listeners believe they hear when each of these notes is struck is a melodious tone like that of a perfectly tuned bell. What they actually hear for each is the harmony of eight of these metal tongues, plucked in union by pins on the revolving drum.
The first of each series of tongues is the fundamental. The other seven are harmonics which give the richness to the tones. The fundamentals sound in order. G below middle C; E above middle C, and middle C. Considerable tuning and balancing of the harmonics was required before the chimes could be brought to their full richness.
When these series of tunes are struck, they are barely audible to the ear. The vibrations are fed into the circuit by utilization of the electro-static principle. Close to each tuned tine is an untuned tine. As the tuned tines vibrate, the electrical capacity between it and the untuned tine varies, thus inducing electric vibrations which finally are translated by the listener’s receiver into a musical tone.
San Mateo News Leader, Dec. 2, 1937
Temperament gum-shoed its ugly way into the joint and everything went to blazes! Last Thursday night a great and glorious tradition crashed ‘round the heads of Bing Crosby and Bob Burns when, at the halfway mark in the broadcast, Ken Carpenter refused to ring the NBC chimes.
This coming on the heels of guest star Chester Morris’ remark that above and beyond Bing’s singing and Bob’s bazooka-ing, he enjoyed the way Ken rang the bells, was a rude awakening indeed for Music Hall veterans.
While stooge and star alike stood agape and a shocked nation refused to believe what it all too plainly heard, Ken, in tones flat with despair, said, “I just don’t feel like it tonight. I’m not in the mood.”
And there just weren’t any bells!
Obviously, this can’t go on. Bing’s Music Hall must have bells ringing somewhere along the halfway mark.
Will this Carpenter lethargy linger? Did Chester Morris’ praise too much for Carpenter, the artist. If so, will a committee have to be appointed to wait upon Mr. Carpenter and coddle him into a bell-ringing mood?
Whatever has to be done, must be done. Bing, you’ve got to see to it. It’s your hall, they’re your bells and Ken’s being paid good money to ring ‘em.
We’ve grown mighty attached to their merry little pong! pong! pong! We wait impatiently each week for Ken’s masterful rendition. In fact, we’re inclined to agree with Chester Morris that it’s the best part of the show.
Yes, this Ken guy has sure got a touch!
While the spotlight of attention flickers with a questioning light on the moody Carpenter, Edward Arnold and Barbara Weeks, both from the screen, and Joseph Knitzer, American violinist, will rally ‘round to lend moral support to a nervous and over-anxious cast.
Ken’s just got to ring them bells! (KPO, 7 p. m.)
Connesville Daily Courier, August 18-19 1938
By JOE CARSON
You’ll soon be able to compete with KEN CARPENTER, chime-ringer extraordinary for the Bing Crosby show, right in your own home. Ken has created such hullabaloo over chimes in the last few months that now NBC has arranged a tie-up with a bell manufacturer to put a set of standard NBC chimes on the market. It’s all part of a deep dark plan to make America chime-conscious . . . Why? I don’t know.
More about chimes tomorrow!
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The NBC chimes, most-famous of musical trade marks, will begin sounding the hour for the thousands of New Yorkers and out-of-town visitors who daily pass through Radio City and the adjacent plaza and walks of Rockefeller Center.
Synchronized with one of the large ornamental clocks overlooking the Sunken Plaza, the familiar chimes which have identified the two networks of NBC for more than a decade, will mark each hour between 8 A. M. and 1 A. M. for all in the vicinity of Radio City.
Only recently extended to use outside radio, the chimes have already been adopted by three large American railroads. For several weeks travelers on the Baltimore & Ohio and Alton systems have been called to meals in the dining cars by the sound of the melodious chimes. This week they were adopted by the New York Central Railroad for the same purpose, and 150 sets of hand operated chimes are now being placed in. service on that road.
To make the chimes sound in the streets about Radio City, a system has been set up including a loud speaker, three small clocks, and the large ornamental clock in the south facade of the International Building.
Madison Capital Times, June 30, 1940
The dedication of a new, six-foot square, three-quarter-ton, NBC-chimed clock and the broadcasting of the first sounding of the chimes which are expected to become as familiar to visitors o£ Chicago’s Loop as Big Ben’s chimes are to Londoners will be presented as part of the Merchandise Mart's Tenth Anniversary celebration during the National Farm and Home Hour program at 10:30 Monday morning over Station WIBA.
The celebration will open with “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” current theme tune of the National Farm and Home Hour, followed by “Over the Waves,” which was the theme 10 years ago when the Farm and Home Hour moved into new studios in the penthouse of the Mart, world’s largest building. A dramatic review of the history of- the building will serve as an introduction to the presentation of the clock. The ceremonies will be broadcast from the North Bank Drive entrance way of the building.
During the presentation, Frederick D. Corley, president of Marshall Field & Co., and Edward J. Kelly, mayor of Chicago, will speak, and the noon chimes, and the striking of the clock, will, be heard.
The unit, of the clock which regulates the NBC chimes was made especially by NBC engineers and will be housed in a special studio on the fourth floor of the Merchandise Mart.
Associated Press, Jan. 22, 1944
By C.E. BUTTERFIELD
NEW YORK, Jan. 22 (AP)—Three notes of the NBC chimes—G E and C—have now acquired voice and have joined the fourth War Loan campaign. They say: “Buy War Bonds.”
The chimes, which signal time or station breaks on the network, have “learned” to talk or rather sing, with the aid of three notes struck on an organ, a feminine voice and a device known as a sonovox. The engineers describe the effect as “voice modulated tones.” It is this same equipment which makes trains, musical instruments or other gadgets talk, and has come into wide use for radio sound effect purposes.
Associated Press, Dec. 11, 1945
By C.E. BUTTERFIELD
New York, Dec. 11 (AP)—Those chimes in Walter Winchell’s latest ABC broadcast—and they were NBC chimes by the way—didn’t bong on purpose. It was just one of those odd studio incidents that occur on occasion. The ringing did blot out item a twenty-seven word brief about a marriage.
ABC leases studios from NBC. The panel which announcers for both networks use has a pushbutton which automatically operates the three-note chimes NBC rings at station breaks but ABC does not. It was this button that announcer Ben Grauer accidentally hit shortly after the broadcast started.
After Bill Paley’s talent raids in 1948 netted him Amos ‘n’ Andy and Jack Benny, Broadway columnist Earl Wilson joked in print that the NBC chimes weren’t going to be changing networks.
There’s oodles of information about the chimes at THIS web site, and you can hear the famous radio version of them, circa 1949, by clicking on the button below.