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Dial-up modems, a cacophony of digital bleeps and bloops that is ingrained in many of our brains. But would a member of Gen Z even recognize it? How about AOL Instant Messenger? Or a rotary phone?

Today on The List Show, we're telling the history of 7 sounds that kids today have probably never heard. I mean, when was the last time YOU used a mechanical typewriter?


1. For years, the exciting possibilities of the Internet had a distinctive soundtrack.

[Dial-up sound]

If you’re about 30 years or older, there’s a pretty good chance you’re familiar with the discordant (though now, oddly nostalgic) sounds that accompanied dial-up Internet. But did you ever wonder what all of those beeps and boops were accomplishing? It’s a fascinating (and, in my opinion, adorable) footnote in the history of technology.

Hi, I’m Erin McCarthy, and on today’s episode of The List Show, I’ll break down that digital medley and discuss other sounds today’s kids might have never heard, from the whirr of a film projector to the click-clack of a mechanical typewriter.


You might very well be using a modem to connect to the Internet right now, but it probably doesn’t require the kind of audible connection that underpinned dial-up connections. Those now old-fashioned noises were basically the way two different modems could speak to one another. So, what were they saying?

The process started with your modem making an actual phone call (a sound that itself might be a bit unfamiliar to a generation accustomed to a digital contacts list and silent modes). On the other end, a modem from your internet service provider would pick up. Computers, at their simplest level, communicate in the binary language of 1s and 0s, but those bits and bytes can be translated into an analog format, like sound, where they’re expressed as different volumes and wavelengths (or pitches) of sound waves.

That process is known as modulation. It allowed information to be sent via a medium that was already available in many homes of the 1990s: telephone wires. A Finnish software developer named Oona Räisänen actually dug into the International Telecommunications Union’s standards, and translated the entire “dialogue” between two modems into a creative commons graphic. You can follow it along second by second, if you can find a working dial-up modem.

Steps in the graphic include admittedly anthropomorphized language like, “Please don’t reduce your power by more than 6 dB.” Sure, modems wouldn’t be offended by rudeness (nor do they even “speak” anything close to English), but as Räisänen told Popular Mechanics, “I thought every rule of etiquette should mandate a level of politeness.” Even if a direct translation of the digital communication is, in a way, impossible, the steps necessary to create those early connections were very real.

The two modems basically needed to figure out what one another was capable of and engage in some workarounds for piggy-backing onto existing telecommunication lines (which had been optimized for users who were a little bit more, ya know, human.) A little bit of testing ensued, ensuring the connection was viable, and soon you were free to enjoy Geocities to your heart’s content.

2. Once you were online (provided no one picked up the phone, thereby interfering with the modem dialogue I just outlined, and kicking you off the Internet), you might engage in some AOL instant messaging. Long before “slipping into the DMs” was a familiar phrase, your heart might be sent aflutter by this simple sound.

[Door opening sound]

That digital door opening effect represented one of your buddies logging on, and if it was your crush, it might be time to put up a particularly lovelorn away message. Hopefully you’d get a message from them before hearing the dreaded door closing, indicating they had logged off.

[Door closing]

Purely for my entertainment, please post an emo lyric you might have used as an away message in the comments below. I was 100% a Dashboard Confessional girl, and I regret nothing.

3. Let’s put that AOL CD away (although before we do, fun fact: there was a time, according to the company’s one-time chief marketing officer Jan Brandt, that AOL was producing 50 percent of all CD-Roms worldwide in an effort to grow their user base).

Depending on your age, you may or may not have ever had a rotary phone in your home. I had one in my childhood home and I can report that it was extremely satisfying to play with the rotary while worrying I might make an actual phone call. Though it might seem inefficient compared to telling a digital assistant, “Call Home,” the technology behind rotary phones was actually developed to speed things up.

Originally, telephone users had to rely on human operators to connect them to people on the other end of the line. With rotary phones, you’d generally put your finger in a hole and rotate the dial until you got to a defined stopping point. [Rotary phone dial being rotated] Remove your finger and the dial would spring back to its starting point. You’d go to the next number, and so on. Those telephones could translate that mechanical action into electrical signals—so the number two might correspond to two electrical pulses, for example (although, oddly enough, that wasn’t the case in every country). That series of pulses eventually connected you to the person you were calling.

Almon Brown Strownger received the first patent for rotary phone technology in 1892, and it didn’t take long for it to become the industry standard. It remained that way until the 1960s. In 1962, at Seattle’s Century 21 Exposition, Bell Telephone showcased touch-tone dialing, and soon it had largely supplanted rotary phones.

Honestly, the Century 21 Exposition was a huge win for Bell, all around. In promotional materials, they laid out the next few decades of tech: “ … you’ll see machines ‘talking’ to machines and … the picture phone, which one day may make it possible to display books, clothing, groceries, and even art treasures in your home.” That is a 100 percent hit rate, especially if you count videos of dogs befriending birds as “art treasures.”

4. If it wasn’t clear by now, some kids have probably heard some of the sounds we’re discussing today. Anyone who’s used a fax machine, for example, has heard a dial-up modem. And, as we discussed in our episode covering misconceptions about Japan, faxing is actually not uncommon, today, in certain industries and countries. Similarly, there are definitely still payphones around today, but I’d wager a fair number of under-20-year-olds have never heard this particular sound.

[Payphone change return sound]

That’s the noise a payphone makes as it returns your coin to you. A number of payphone systems were tried out in the late 19th century, but things really took off in the 1900s when pay-first, coin-operated versions started to proliferate (a precursor to that technology involved paying after making your call, and basically just operated on the honor system. Simpler times).

By the 1960s, Bell had installed its one millionth payphone. The coin return mechanism was first introduced by an engineer named Otto Frosberg, who worked for Western Electric. When you pop your coin into the phone, it basically goes into the world’s tiniest escrow account—in this case, a physical space—where it awaits the result of your attempted phone call. If the call is completed and you aren’t owed any change, a tiny battery inside the phone powers a mechanism to send your money into the phone’s coin collection box. If the call isn’t completed, the coin gets sent down another path to get refunded.

5.  There’s a certain kind of exaggerated “rewind” sound effect that today’s kids are probably pretty familiar with.

[Rewinding noise]

I, personally, never heard this sound in the wild, though I suppose it does drive home the idea of turning things backwards. The more subtle whir of a VCR rewinding a tape sounds more like this, in my experience.

[VCR rewinding whirring noise]

It was, obviously, the sound of the tape literally being rewound onto the appropriate reel. The disappearance of VHS tapes is actually associated with a 30 percent decrease in global kindness. Source: I just made that up.

6. The sound of a film projector is a little less subtle than those tapes.

[Film projector whirring]

Of course, you can still hear it in some cinemas, but today you’re much more likely to see a movie via digital projection, to the chagrin of Martin Scorsese and other film-loving cinephiles. The general concept behind film projection is pretty simple: you show the audience a series of still images, our minds interpret the series of images as movement, people run for their lives from incoming trains and/or learn the correct order with which to use one’s utensils from Kathy Bates, voila. Movie magic.

But if you start to think about how the illusion of movement effect is achieved, you’ll realize what little marvels of design projectors really are. If you simply ran a film reel in front of a lens with the assistance of a strong lightbulb, you would…just see a series of blurry images moving vertically past a lens. The solution to this problem is what gives us the distinct sound we associate with film projectors.

Even though the film is moving constantly inside the projector, each frame has to appear as a static image—to pause, for a brief moment, as it gets shown on the screen. An early solution to this problem involved something called a Geneva gear (also called a Geneva mechanism or Geneva drive). It involves a rotating pin occasionally slotting into a groove; this enables simultaneously constant and intermittent motion. The fast clacking sound we associate with film projection came from the rapid (and rather violent) movement of that gear. The movement of the film itself around various sprockets adds the subtle purr that accompanies the mechanical chatter.

The ability to advance film frame by frame explains why projected images aren’t totally blurry, but why don’t we see the moments, even briefly, when the frames change? The projector’s shutter (or, in modern projectors, its multiple shutter blades) blocks the light being shone through the film, very briefly, at just the right time. We’re actually seeing a series of alternating images and essentially black absences as the shudder blocks that light, but our brains interpret it as one continuous image.

7. There are still mechanical typewriter aficionados out there. Tom Hanks has said he travels with at least two typewriters, for example, which seems like possibly two too many, but I am definitely not here to rain on the parade of America’s dad.

As I discussed in a previous video, Cormac McCarthy’s light blue Olivetti Lettera 32 typewriter sold for over a quarter of a million dollars back in 2009. For typewriter enthusiasts, the sound of typing up a letter must be a veritable symphony of now-rare sounds. You’ve got the pull of the paper through the rollers as you get started [Paper being put through roller sound], the signature sound of the letters setting off the hammer up against the ink ribbon [Typewriter typing sound], the peppy ding when you get to the end of a line [End-of-line ding], and, perhaps best of all, that satisfying [Carriage return sound] as you pull the carriage back.

That’s it for this nostalgic episode of the list show. If there’s a noise from your childhood that immediately brings YOU back, let us know in the comments. Thanks for watching.