5

UPDATE: thanks all, lots of good discussion but I think this question is a bit too vague to be answerable. I'm casting my own close vote against it and will re-ask a more specific one.

Specifically I think there's really two questions here:

  1. when did beeping first replace a more physical alarm/alert
  2. when did beeping first replace a physical "click" or "snap" of a button

The question #1 re. alarms/alerts I think is a ± unanswerable case of "convergent evolution" that happened as various objects progressed from mechanical to electronic to "app store download" implementations. (Vehicle "backup beeps" have their own history, beeping watches have their own history, digital egg timers have their own history, TV show time bomb tropes their own, etc. etc.)

The specific history of a terminal beep could be asked as a Q&A just to fill in this SE subdomain but I'll leave that to someone else if they'd like.


What was the first non-vehicle machine to "beep" instead of a physical switch "click" or a mechanical bell "ding"? Would it have been a "computer" per se, or some other sort of electronics like a clock/timer or machine controller?

I'm assuming the account at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bell_character is relatively uncontroversial as far as the progression from typewriter bells, to teletype/terminal feedback, to the GUI alert "bonk" we had until web and mobile apps took over. But I'm not convinced all usages of a "beep" could be traced back to the typewriter bell — at least in my mind that's a narrower range of usages that doesn't include things like "your casserole is probably done" or "this button feels so terrible you'll need some other way to know if you've pressed it or not".

I found an article titled "The birth of the electronic beep, the most ubiquitous sound design in the world" which sounded promising but basically says "Sputnik invented beeping and it was exciting, but now there's lots of beeping and it is concerning" which makes no sense to me. Radio telegraphy would have been beeping long before 1957 just for one counter-example. And "Things that Beep: A Brief History of Product Sound Design" gives some examples but is more concerned with exploring a general nostalgic ambience of sound design than any exact history.

"The ubiquity of the modern beep" comes the closest perhaps to pointing to specific origins:

The word "beep" is not very old. The onomatopoeic expression of "beep-beep" for a car horn only goes back to 1929, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. And the use of "beep" in the sense of a short, high-pitched sound is first recorded in an Arthur C Clarke science-fiction story in 1951.

Was the 1951 science-fiction story reference related to a human-computer interface, and did it actually predate real-world usage of short high-pitched (electronic) sounds in that context? Did games (e.g. "The Beeping, Gargling History of Gaming’s Most Iconic Sounds") help cement the association of "beeping" with electronics or was that already well established before game developers took advantage of the available hardware for their own sound effects?

Was there a notable product when a beeper replaced tactile feedback for the first time, e.g. a keypad that electronically beeped instead of physically clicking? Was there a clear transition in interface design when "beeping" became its own thing distinct from earlier bells/ringers in things like clocks or fire alarms?

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Chenmunka
    Jul 8 at 15:22
9

Tones as means of user interface were invented in 1908:

Invented by engineer August Kruckow, the dial tone was first used in 1908 in Hildesheim, Germany

Note that in Europe, call progress tones are single-frequency, and ringing and busy tones are effectively series of beeps of different duration.

While Wikipedia does not give an exact date for the introduction of the ringing and busy tones, it is reasonable to assume that if not simultaneous with the dial tone, they had been introduced shortly afterwards.

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  • Use use of single-frequency whistles played at different rhythms as a communications method certainly goes back further.
    – supercat
    Jul 6 at 14:58
  • @supercat As a communication method, sure enough. My answer targets the "user interface sense" in the title.
    – Leo B.
    Jul 6 at 15:10
  • I mention things like whistles played with different cadences because many forms of tone-based UI features are used to communicate information to humans through the use of sound without speech, which is the same purpose served by the use of either mouth-blown or machine-powered whistles.
    – supercat
    Jul 6 at 17:02
  • @supercat What would be an example of automatically produced whistles with different cadences as a UI feature? I can only think of continuous whistles for the purpose of indicating water temperature or pressure.
    – Leo B.
    Jul 6 at 17:20
  • 3
    This isn't quite what I was thinking [remotely-generated "tone" vs. locally generated "beep"], but a good answer especially given my original question. And admittedly from the perspective of the user they wouldn't necessarily know if it were remote/local.
    – natevw
    Jul 6 at 22:03
4

A beep is a fixed frequency signal generated by one of the most simple electronics possible. It predates for sure any more complex electronic sound. So the answer may be: It was used as soon as electronic generation was deemed more appropriate than using a physical bell. As such any reasoning is quite independent of computer usage, much like Leo's example about phone systems.


More interesting than beep or not might be a look at effort spend to not use a straight beep:

In the 1970s Siemens developed a series of mainframe terminals (*1), which of course also had a small (~1W) speaker to produce a signal sound (*2). They used a whole PCB (roughly Euro Card sized) to produce a nice bell like sound. It held two tuneable (!) frequency generator and several timers to shape the output sounding like a hammer striking a bell.

Its designers could have easy gone for a simple beep. That would have saved a reasonable number of parts and simplified the design. Instead they added circuitry to make the 'beep' a pleasing bell like sound - if that's not thoughtful UI design, then I so not know what is.

So a question to be asked might less be about first usage of beep, but rather why it degraded to be a beep in later terminal/PC generations?

First guess: Noone really thought about UI issues at all and went for the fastest/cheapest solution.


*1 - Working in block mode and using vector displays. IMHO the best terminals ever, but that's a different story.

*2 - Like when entering a non numeric character in a numeric field, or trying to input while input was locked and so on.

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  • Or perhaps something like "what is this ASCII 7 thing? Bell?! We need something to make a sound... What do we have?" Jul 14 at 13:35
  • @ThorbjørnRavnAndersen ??? what part you're referring to?
    – Raffzahn
    Jul 14 at 17:10

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