Wednesday 27 November 2019

G-E-C (And Another Note)

They were an old friend. They ended every TV show on NBC. The sound of Bong-BONG-Bong as a slithering line formed the network’s initials.

I still smile when I hear the NBC chimes at the end of old radio shows, especially the version that was hand-struck by the announcer holding a little box with three rectangular metal plates.

We’ve written about the chimes in this post and this post. Well, here’s another post.

I’ve been curious when the network started using the sound. I think I’ve finally traced it to 1929. Here are some random and amusing newspaper clippings about the chimes.

Hartford Courant, Sept. 20, 1929
A Pleasing Innovation.
The usual "there will now be a brief pause for station announcements," has been missing from NBC daytime programs this week. In its place is a musical note. The "brief pause" phrase was used to warn stations on the network to make their own station announcements. The musical note, obtained from a specially designed four-note gong, serves the same purpose and is infinitely more pleasing to the ear.
Columbia, of course, has a musical signature for this purpose in both evening and daytime features. It is to be hoped that NBC will extend its use to the gong of the after-dark hours. In these days of long drawn-out commercial talks and program introductions, the fewer the routine statements to be made, the more pleasing the general effect, particularly if the program is a musical one.

Hartford Courant, August 6, 1930.
New Recipe for Chimes.
Inspired by the out-of-tuneness of those NBC chimes, Franklyn Baur, tenor, has submitted a suggestion for a new set to a New York newspaper. With apologies to Rube Goldberg, he submits the following recipe:
“Fill a hot water bag with water (not beer, because that 1 1-4 per cent stuff is too flat and other prohibited beverages are too sharp.) Then take four empty ginger ale bottles. Pour the first one-quarter full of water, the second one-half, the third three-quarters and the fourth entirely full.
“Science tells us that water seeks its own level. This is where I am relieved of the responsibility and science once more proves itself by holding the bag.
“So the musical vibrations given off at the finish of an orchestral number have the water in the water bag vibrating tremendously. Now the water in the four ginger ale bottles feels the common call of the water in the vibrating hot water bag and immediately seeks its own level. The announcer strikes the four bottles gently and you hear the most wonderful tones in tune.”

Graham McNamee Speaking column, October 26, 1930.
Chimes a Jinx.
Those chimes you hear between station announcements in network programs contracted a sort of a jinx of their own a few days ago. Every time an announcer had to sound them he would nearly have heart failure wondering what would happen next.
The chimes, which indicate to local stations that there will be a break in the program so they may announce their call letters, are struck with a small mallet. Ted Jewett seemed to start all the trouble one day when the head came off the mallet after the first crack, and be had to finish with just the handle. It was pretty sad. All you could hear was a tinkle.
The next day Neel Enslen was the goat. It was at the end of a program, and he had already sounded the chimes, just fifteen minutes previously. The mallet had been there, and he had put it carefully back in its place when he had finished. But he realized suddenly it was nowhere in sight.
Thru the window of the control booth he noticed the control engineer had an unlighted pipe between his teeth. In a trice Enslen had dashed into the booth, jerked the pipe from the engineer's mouth and was back at his place, using the pipe right merrily as a mallet. The disappearance of the original is still a mystery.
Jeff Sparks rounded it all off a evening at home for Charles Tramont, one of NBC's announcers.
Tramont was dozing peacefully on a couch in his apartment while Mrs. Tramont listened to the radio. The music stopped, and the identifying chimes of an NBC program vibrated the speaker. Tramont started to his feet and rushed toward a corner of the room, with his wife tugging at his arm. "Let me go," he protested sleepily, "I have to make a local announcement."

Wisconsin State Journal, December 28, 1930
Could Play 28,000 Tunes on NBC Chimes
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.

John Skinner column, Brooklyn Eagle, January 14, 1931
"WELL," boomed the hearty voice of The Man With the Big Ear way down the corridor, "I suppose you've noticed they've changed the N. B. C. chimes again. What d'ye know?"
"That you made an appointment with me to come and talk music," we replied, turning our cigarettes over resignedly as he entered, "not N. B. C. chimes." "Well," said our jovial snooper, "I was going to say something about the Symphonic Rhythm Makers. It's only that when I was up at N. B. C. watching them the other night. I had a chance to see that this frequent change of chime strokes can confuse even the best of announcers. Our friend John S. Young started the fifteen minute announcement gong with last week's strokes and ended with the latter part of the theme song of this week's strokes.
"However," he continued, tilting back his topper, "little matter. Asked him the cause for the changes in the manner of hitting the dinner gongs they use. Said it was to relieve the monotony. Seems the monotony could be relieved better by a special and complete dispensation. Ha!"

Birmingham News, March 22, 1931
Robert Stuart, Great Neck. Long Island, waits for NBCs morning chimes before dashing off for the train, while Mrs. Stuart sets the clocks. Recently the chime was omitted. Calmly, then aggressively, the Stuarts argued the matter. Finally Mrs. Stuart drove her husband by automobile to the depot, only to find the train gone. More words. Then neither spoke for two days. Later Mrs. Stuart asked NBC to verify absence of chimes, won her point, spent 15 cents telephone toll in telling her husband. Stuart called her back, spent 15 cents saying how sorry he was.

Syndicated story, October 11, 1931
“Dinner is served in the dining room,” Eddie Cantor roared out to startled visitors during a pause in the Chase and Sanborn Hour. The Broadway comedian learned that a “dead spot” of about 10 seconds follows the ringing of the NBC chimes signaling network stations to make local station announcements. During that period the studio is off the air and Cantor takes advantage of it to make unexpected remarks as “Vive La France,” “Ah ! Lunch is served” and “Mama, I want some candy.”

David Bratton, Brooklyn Daily Times, December 16, 1931
There appears to be a woeful lack of technic in regard to chime ringing is apparent. During the NBC-WEAF “Old Hunch” program we listened attentively and as the chimes rang at the close we moved over to WABC to catch Morton Downey. Imagine our surprise to have the CBS chimes almost exactly coincide with the NBC chimes.

Broadcast Weekly, June 5, 1932
Modern composers' habit of appropriating every-day noises and incorporating them into a musical composition, is making life more difficult for announcers. Sid Goodwin, of the NBC announcing staff in San Francisco, was standing in the studio the other morning, awaiting the moment when he should give the stand-by announcement—"KGO, San Francisco." The familiar sound of the NBC chimes told him the program coming from Chicago was ended, so he pressed buttons on the announcers' box, released all the stations on the KGO network, gave the stand-by—and then glanced at the clock. Then he hastily reached for the buttons again—for the chimes he had heard were part of the jazz composition still pouring out into the ether from Chicago.

Syndicated story, Sept. 18, 1932
Chimes on NBC To Alter Tone
The NBC chimes, which for years have had the important task of keeping the far-flung networks in synchronous step, are going to change their tone. An automatic electrical device, sending out a modulated, even tone at a constant level, will replace the familiar hand-struck chimes on all programs emanating from the NBC New York studios beginning Sunday, September 18.
The contrivance, invented by Captain Richard H. Ranger, designer of the pipeless organ and the bell-less carillon, has been installed in the main control room of the NBC building in New York. If the trial period proves its operation practical and its precise notes pleasing to the public, it will, be adopted as permanent equipment at the studios and also installed in the main control rooms of NBC studios in all other cities.
The purpose of the chimes, which previously have been run by the announcer striking one of the small hand sets with which each studio is equipped, is to synchronize local station identification announcements and to serve as a cue to engineers at relay points all over the country to switch various branches of the networks on or off as the programs change each fifteen minutes.
For some time NBC technicians have been seeking some automatic instruments which would insure a more constant level than could be obtained when different announcers were required to produce the three notes on different instruments.
Recently while working on the pipeless organ, Captain Ranger and O. B. Hanson, NBC manager of technical operation and engineering, were struck with the thought that the principle used to produce the organ tones might be applied in the creation of chimes.
After extensive experimentation, Captain Ranger perfected the idea, a centrally located contrivance, available for use on all programs originating from New York and capable of being operated by pressing a button in any New York studio.

Daily American, Nov. 20, 1933
Allen Schulman got an inspiration from listening to the NBC chimes—the ones that sound just before the station call letters are to be announced to the anxious listeners—so he sat down and wrote a musical composition which he calls "NBC Fantasies." It is in five movements, the last of which is "Announcers' Nightmare."

Redbook, February 1934
IF you have wondered why your three-tone NBC chimes occasionally come through your speaker with a fourth note, you may be interested to know that this is the emergency chime—the signal for any one of a list of some twenty executives and staff members to telephone NBC headquarters.
When the idea was inaugurated last spring, there was only one extra note sounded, and the entire list had to phone to find out what the trouble was and who was wanted at the studio. The signal was repeated until the desired party had communicated with headquarters. Nine times out of ten, however, the signal was for William Burke Miller, director of special events, so Mr. Miller not long ago instituted a change. Now, when the fourth note sounded is the highest, he telephones. When it is the lowest of the four, he calmly ignores it and lets the other nineteen worry.
As it is, Miller averages about four calls a week.When Jimmy Mattern was completing his epochal flight, the fourth high note went out on the air almost every fifteen minutes all day long. The regular three-note chime of the National Broadcasting Company is now rung automatically by an electrical device. However, when the emergency chime is needed, the fourth note is sounded manually by the announcer on duty.

Hartford Courant, Dec. 16, 1934
If you happen to hear what sounds like the NBC chimes around 6.45 megacycles, don't pass hastily on to some other station thinking you have an American short-wave station. You'll find it to be HJ1ABB at Barranquilla which has adopted an exact replica of the three chimes of the National Broadcasting Company for its identification signal.

This video shows a restored Rangertone chime machine. NBC sped up the pace of the chimes in the early 1950s so perhaps this box only dates back that far.


  1. When NBC celebrated their 50th anniversary in 1976, and switched their logo from the snake to the abstract 'N' (a logo which it turned out Nebraska Public Television had already copyrighted), their promos of the time used the fourth note of the chime, which brought out at least one story I remember explaining what the fourth note use to mean (considering how much NBC's ratings were in free-fall in 1976, as they dropped below ABC to the No. 3 spot, using the fourth note to signal an emergency may have actually been kind of appropriate. But apparently, it was just an accident, and the people making the promo ads had no idea what the fourth note was supposed to represent).

  2. I still remember when "SNL" started one episode with the song "I Love You (Three Little Chimes"), an old and obscure song based on the NBC chimes, as if it was on a 1930's radio broadcast. I'd love to see that again.

    1. You can hear the song here:

    2. SNL Season 4, episode 1, 1978

  3. Hulu has the episode from October 7, 1978 which featured the song in the cold opening. The show’s organist Cheryl Hardwick played the NBC signature on a set of orchestral bells.