As we move toward an age of quiet gadgets that do everything possible not to get in our way, we’re losing our appreciation for all the magic under the hood. Not long ago, the sounds our devices made reminded us that they were doing something truly important, whether that task was connecting us to the Internet or bringing us back to the beginning of our favorite VHS movies.
A child born today has a greater chance of hearing a real cloned dinosaur roar than a busy signal. But for those of us who lived through the beginning of the PC revolution, these 13 tech sounds will always be hardcoded into our memories.
Getting error messages is bad enough, but having your computer literally yell at you every time you hit the wrong key is real torture. Nevertheless, many Mac users were amused by the sound of a demonic chipmunk screaming “uh-oh” when they experienced an error. It was cute maybe the first 300 times.
Long before the age of Netflix, we rented tapes from the video store and lived in constant fear that, if we forgot to be kind and rewind them, we’d get charged a penalty. So before we could grab that nearly overdue copy of “Sorority Babes at the Slimeball Bowl-a-Rama,” jump in the car, and run three red lights to get to Blockbuster in time to avoid a late fee, we had to sit through five minutes of tape whirring as we waited for the VCR to bring our tape back to the beginning. The most satisfying part of the rewind sound was how the whirring noises seemed to get louder as the gears sped up in their race back to the beginning of the tape.
One thing that’s missing from today’s high-speed computing experience is the sense of anticipation. Back in the '80s and even the '90s, we waited with bated breath as our PCs tried to read our data off of floppy disks. As the loud drive head whirred, we crossed our fingers and hoped that a scratch or magnetic exposure hadn’t trashed our term paper. A scraping noise could spell impending doom.
In the age of 4G and fiber optics, it’s hard to remember a time when we had to use copper phone lines to dial up to our Internet services. But back in the days of CompuServe and Prodigy, we had to enter a local number into our computer’s dialer and then listen as our 2,400 baud modem dialed the phone, the phone rang, and then the two modems made a long dance of beeps and boings that sounded more like Ricochet Rabbit getting into a gunfight or Fred Flintstone foot-driving his car than two finely tuned computers connecting.
Back in the old days of copper phone wire and real live phone operators, you’d hear a dial tone every time you picked up the phone, just to let you know that you had an active connection. If you didn’t act quickly and dial, the phone would get angry at you and start making louder beeps to get your attention. Today, some VoIP phones still give you a dial tone as a way of emulating that past, but in reality, the need for this noise disappeared the minute people started using digital methods of communication. Still, it was always wonderful to pick up your phone and hear the comforting dial tone that let you know that, yes, you still had service, even when the power in your house was out.
Remember the days when you had to call a number over and over again just to get through? With services like voicemail and call waiting coming standard today, you never hit a dead end when you dial a friend. But not too long ago, you could be dialing your mom to tell her that you just got engaged and be blocked by the busy signal — that shrill-voiced virtual bouncer — over and over again, because she was on the phone with your aunt.
Today, our cellphones make tones when we hit the numbers just for our own edification, because in reality, the dialing is all digital. However, back in the days before buttons, we had the pleasant, but time-consuming task of turning a rotary dial to make calls. It’s hard not to miss the hypnotic whirring noise that the dial made as it slowly returned to position after you moved it down to a high number like 8 or 9.
Because the time you spend waiting for your computer to start is wasted time, many computer-makers don’t want to make the boot process any more conspicuous than it has to be. But back in the day, every computer made a satisfying beep noise as soon as you hit the power button. A single beep noise was music to the ears because it meant the computer is “good to go.” Double beeps or triple beeps meant there was something wrong.
Remember when you actually wanted to receive email? Today, our inboxes are an unholy mixture of Viagra spam and Nigerian banking scams, with a sprinkle of legitimate correspondence thrown in. But back when the Web was new and AOL was the most popular ISP, users couldn’t wait to hear the sound of a man’s voice saying “you’ve got mail” each and every time a new message arrived.
Before Windows 95 launched, PC users always knew exactly when their computers were powered down. With earlier versions of Windows and DOS, you’d simply exit your program to a command prompt, hit the power button and watch as your computer turned off immediately. Starting with Windows 95, users had to actually hit a shutdown button and wait anywhere from seconds to more than a minute for the computer to shut off. The musical shutdown sound let you know that, even if you were across the room, your PC was successfully turning off, rather than getting stuck.
Long before the days of color laser printers that churn out 30 pages a minute, we had dot matrix printing. There was something hypnotically relaxing about the sound of the chirpy print head moving from left to right as reams of paper slowly pulled past it. We could meditate to that sound.
Today, our flat-panel TVs and monitors turn on and off in silence. Unless they have very conspicuous status lights, we often can’t tell whether our screens are on or off. With tube TVs, there was the wonderful pop of the tube powering up and the crack of it powering down.
While some gamers and typing traditionalists still use mechanical keyboards, all notebooks and most desktops today come with loathsomely laconic letters. When IBM ruled the desktop, PC keyboards produced a terrific tactile sound for every key you hit. To serious typists, this symphony of springs is more beautiful than Beethoven’s Ninth, because it gives them audible feedback that their strokes have registered.