2012.01.25 Sounds of the past remembered

Written by David Green.


A few weeks ago I wrote about the sound of the bell that used to ring every time a car drove into a gas station. The bell alerted a gas station worker that a customer had arrived and was ready to be served.

Definitely “old days” talk, like the sound of a dial telephone. Dialing an old-style telephone is one of the sounds that an article on the website Mental Floss called “11 sounds that your kids have probably never heard.”

My kids might have heard that sound because of the dial phone we still use at the Observer. I brought it out of storage during a power outage a few years ago and left it in place. It’s only a problem when you have to choose an option and “push three for customer support.”

It’s a great sound—the swooosh as a finger rotates the dial, followed by whirring as the dial “unwinds.”

The manual typewriter is second on the list. That’s a machine with a lot of good sounds, from loading the paper to pulling it out. There’s a loud clack when you push a key and it strikes the paper and a clunk when you push the shift key to lift the carriage. A bell warns when the end of the line is approaching and probably the best of all is the zipping sound when the carriage is returned to the start of the line.

The article also mentions the “bloop-hiss” of the old coffee percolators, the “chunk-chunka” of old cash registers, and the “tick, tick, tick” sound of film in the school movie projector.

In the 1960s, the Kodak Instamatic camera presented a revolutionary invention: the rapid fire flash bulb. You could take four photographs, one after the other, without adding a new flash bulb. Amazing, and there was a distinctive sound as the flash cubes popped.

TV sets used to have a circular dial to change channels and finding something to watch came with a sound. You “clunked” to a new station and heard either a program or a hiss of static, then “clunked” to another station.

There was no such thing as all-night television. When stations went off the air some time after midnight, you would hear some details about the station, the National Anthem, then a constant hiss of static—some good white noise for falling asleep to on the sofa.

I watched a YouTube video last week of a teenager’s first look at a phonograph record. Very funny. Her only frame of reference was a CD and she thought it was a very strange disc.

She will probably never know the sound of a 45 rpm record dropping onto a turntable followed by the stylus arm moving over and dropping onto the edge of the record. A little static and then the music began. 

If the record was scratched, the same few seconds might play over and over again. Sometime that day your mother would say, “You sound like a broken record.”

The author of the story, Kara Kovalchik, was interviewed on an NPR call-in show and several more dead sounds were suggested by listeners.

A steam locomotive letting out its steam at the end of the day. Film advancing in a camera. The real, authentic sounds of a pinball machine rather than the digital sounds heard now.

The hiss in the background of a cassette tape. The brief drop in sound when a kinked portion of a tape passes through the sound head. The tape got kinked when the cassette player ate it and it had to be rewound. The sound of an eight-track cassette as it’s taken in by the player.

The “whirring” sound of a VCR tape rewinding. The clicking sound of a carousel projector when the next slide is moved into place.

A golf ball meeting a persimmon wood club (much different than a ball against steel). The sound of a leather baseball meeting a hickory bat.

Metal roller skates traveling across rough sidewalk. An old-fashioned slot machine with its collection of wheels, springs and gears.

Most of these sounds are from decades past—at least a couple of decades—but someone suggested the modern but nearly defunct sound of a modem connecting via a dial-up internet system.

It’s amazing to think about how many sounds can no longer be heard. Maybe I should charge admission and let you listen to the Linotype in the back of the Observer. Dial me up for a reservation.

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  • Front.hose Testing
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