The NBC Chimes Museum A Celebration Of Old–Time Radio’s Most Famous Signature

origin and evolution of the nbc chimes

part one: existing (often inaccurate) information
from the library of congress nbc history files

Although official memoranda and notes from the period appear to be lost today, an undated internal NBC Progam Analysis titled First Use of the Famous NBC Chimes credits announcer Phillips Carlin with the idea of using chimes to identify NBC on the air. (Phillips Carlin was one of the first nationally famous radio announcers; by 1929 he had become Vice President in charge of Programming for the eastern zones, a position he eventually held with The Blue Network through its split with the Red.)

The same document also states that “Chimes [were] purchased from Lesch Silver Co for $48.50” on December 22, 1926, slightly over a month after the formation of NBC. This is the only documentation of a source and price for the original set of dinner chimes, and I believe the information to be inaccurate. The earliest recordings of chimes on NBC are the least expensive dinner chimes manufactured by the J C Deagan company of Chicago; the 200 series with steel chime plates mounted over four tubular aluminum resonators held in a simple wooden frame. This set is listed in contemporary Deagan catalogs for a retail price of six dollars.

My guess is that the chimes were purchased for $8.50, a comfortable markup for the retailer. A later error in records or in typing most likely added a “4” to the figure. ($48.50 is also mentioned in an NBC press release dated June 12, 1964, commemorating the 38th year of the Chimes.)

The same document additionally states:

In the beginning [of 1927] there were seven notes in the chimes—then in the middle of 1927 three notes were dropped and only four chimes used GGGE, this practice continued until approximately 1930 when another note was dropped and the famous GEC notes became identified with NBC.

This is a bit oversimplistic and, judging from rare surviving network recordings, misplaces a few dates as well as a few notes; when four notes were adopted they were not GGGE, but rather GGEC—the first G being an octave higher than the G immediately following. That there was a steady evolution in the structure of the NBC chimes is evident from these recordings, but there are many factors to consider in how the chimes developed the way they did.

As to precisely when various sequences were used, no documentation from that era seems to have survived. All we have is guesswork, none of it educated—as evident from the varied and conflicting dates given in the following summaries:

  • An internal NBC telegram exchange from February, 1939 suggests “Chimes used since the first days NBC was founded but the present three note chimes adopted probably sometime in 1928”.
  • The audio service mark registration for the NBC Chimes, filed on November 20, 1947, specifies that the three notes G–E–C were first used in November 1927.
  • A handwritten note in the Libary of Congress NBC Chimes file offers “General Library says that the 3–note chimes were first used November 29, 1929”. (This note is initialed “RP”, which may stand for Rod Phillips, who in 1976 wrote a history of the chimes which asserts the November 29, 1929 date.)

Despite the varying years and dates given in the materials above, none of them accurate (as we shall presently see), we do have at our disposal newspaper and magazine articles from the period, which give both a more immediate and a more accurate picture of when the NBC Chimes began.

part two: existing information from newspaper mentions

In her “last night on the air” column of Friday, September 20, 1929, Georgie Flanders, radio editor of the Rome, NY Daily Sentinel, opened with the following:

Something funny has happened in radio circles. Have you fans noticed it? The usual “there will be a brief pause for station announcements” is 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 networks to make their own station announcements. The musical note, obtained from a specially designed four–note gong, serves the same purpose and is said to be infinitely more pleasing to the listener.

This would seem to pinpoint the beginning of usage of the NBC Chimes to the week of September 15, 1929, and then only during the daytime.

Ms. Flanders further mentioned the new chimes as NBC’s cue for station identification in her column of November 12, 1929, telling an apocryphal anecdote of a weary announcer at a formal dinner party who, hearing the hall clock chime the hour, stood on his feet and gave a station identification announcement.

Throughout 1930, NBC announcer Graham McNamee often devoted space in his “Graham McNamee Speaking” newspaper column to foibles and problems encountered by announcers while ringing—or attempting to ring—“those chimes you hear between station announcements in network programs”. In January of that same year he answered a reader’s question asking what the chimes were for by explaining that they were rung in New York to indicate a station identification break to local affiliates; upon hearing the chimes, the local affiliate’s announcer was to disconnect from the network, announce the local station identification, and then rejoin the network—all within fifteen seconds.

In the Schenectady, NY Gazette of April 29, 1930 there appears a theatre entertainment column titled “The Music Box”, credited to Rubato & Till. Among the items of note is a public presentation given at the NBC studios, then located at 711 Fifth Avenue, and the seven–note NBC chime sequence is described in print with an almost casual familiarity:

It is a program called “Microphobia” with Raymond Knight, one of the most versatile of the broadcasting artists, at the head. It tells the story of a day in the studio, starting with the arrival in the cold grey dawn, then “Cheerio,” and down through the day to the last signing off…By the way, those chimes (ta–da–da–da, ta dada), are struck by hand by the announcer…

A small press item in the Long Island City, Queens, Daily Star of October 3, 1931 notes that during the ten seconds or so following the ringing of the NBC Chimes in the middle of his program, Eddie Cantor took advantage of the fact that his own studio was off the air for that period, startling his studio audience by saying things like “Dinner is served in the dining room”, “Vive La France”, and “Mama, I want some candy”.

part three: audio evidence from surviving historic airchecks

the original chime sequence: seven notes

The earliest known recording of the NBC Chimes, from October 21, 1929, is of a sequence of seven notes; the first four notes, G–C–G–E, are played sequentially in a rather hesitant fashion, and are then followed by what sounds like a chord of all four chime plates struck together using four fingers, or perhaps spanning the handle of the mallet across the plates. The next oldest recording of the chimes dates from March 26, 1930, and is of a similar pattern, except that after the G–C–G–E notes are sounded the low G is repeated, followed by C. Both of these are played on a Deagan No 200 dinner chime. Other recordings from April 1930 were made on a film recording machine called the Pallophotophone; these are in the process of being restored by the Schenectady Museum, and they show a very clear sequence of seven chime notes, played on the Deagan No 200 dinner chime. By this time, the seven notes of the NBC Chimes had so permeated popular culture that they even show up in the Max Fleischer Talkartoon “Radio Riot”, just after the opening title sequence. This cartoon was released on February 13, 1930.

from seven to five to three notes

By 1931 the chime sequence had shifted slightly, although a Deagan 200 was still being used. Two recordings of the NBC chimes survive from that year; both were struck in the Chicago studios, and both on programs announced by Jean Paul King. The sequence of notes are high G, low G, E, C, and then a repetition of C. One of these was aired on February 4, 1931; the air date of the other chimes recording is unknown, but is presumed to be from around the same time since both programs offer the same premium. However, a recording from November 3, 1931 preserves the earliest known presentation of the three–note NBC chimes familiar to us today. This consists of the notes C–A–F, and is played on a Deagan No 20 chime. This chime was large, deep–toned, and quite sonorous. Two other recordings from 1932, one on March 24 and one on May 2, also have three notes played on a Deagan 20. The former is from Chicago, the latter from New York.

four notes mentioned, but no recordings survive

A 1950 press release announcing the audio trademark registration of the NBC Chimes mentions that a seven note, five note, and four note sequence were tried and discarded before a three note signal was devised and adopted; Musical Director Ernest La Prade is quoted as saying “When we used seven notes, it seemed no two announcers ever got them in their proper order”. This press release notes that La Prade, Chief Engineer Oscar B. Hanson, and Phillips Carlin “each had a hand in the development of the present–day three–note signal”; Carlin is mentioned most likely because the idea of using chimes is credited to him. Hanson and La Prade assisted with the later development of the electromechanical “automatic” chimes, Hanson bringing the idea to Capt. Richard Ranger, and La Prade helping to modify the output of the original Rangertone machine to make the sound more pleasing to the listener’s ear.

As to why and how the chimes actually evolved, there are as many theories as there are scholars of the subject. One theory is that different chime melodies were an internal signal denoting which network was carrying the program, while another theory says that the chime melodies denoted the city of origin. My own theory is that the chimes just simply evolved, that as network switching grew more complicated, a need was felt to have a signal that was clear, unambiguous, and brief.

The chimes were not the only switching signal used by NBC, however. In its coverage of FCC anti–monopoly hearings against NBC in 1938, the trade publication Broadcasting noted that in his FCC examination and testimony, NBC Traffic Manager B. F. McClancy revealed that although chimes had been used since early on, NBC also employed a parallel network of Morse lines for system cueing until 1933. Morse lines were still being used on occasions of special importance in late 1938, but were no longer used for every program because of the line charge expense. (Presumably “Morse line” refers to telegraph lines operated by AT&T.)

The original production and network switching centers in New York (November 15, 1926 for Red, January 1, 1927 for Blue) were joined by production and network switching centers in San Francisco (April 5, 1927), Washington (late 1920s) Cleveland (October 16, 1930), Chicago (February 9, 1931) and Hollywood (October 17, 1938). Because each of these facilities was capable of feeding programming to the network, and thus each had to tell the network and telephone company engineers when their feed had ended, each one of these facilities was equipped with chimes to be rung from each of their studios. The seven note sequence of 1929 sounds elegant, but the switching engineer had to wait for it to finish before he could do his job—a luxury he could not always afford, particularly after 1930 when the network was generating, routing, and receiving up to ten different feeds, spanning two networks and four time zones, every fifteen minutes.

so where were the nbc chimes sounded?

Unless a live remote broadcast was emanating from a theater stage or concert hall, the NBC Chimes were sounded from the NBC studio in which the program originated, by an NBC announcer. This NBC studio would have been located at an NBC owned and operated major metropolitan station, which would have been equipped with network switching facilites as well as studios capable of continuous network feeds.

The NBC chimes were the responsibility of the network announcer, not the engineer or the program/sponsor announcer. The NBC network announcer was responsible for joining his studio to the network at the start of his program period, and disconnecting his studio after ringing the chimes when the program finished. The engineering department set up the circuits and feeds for the program, but it was the announcer who actually completed the circuits to put the program on the air. For an in–depth look at how this was done, I recommend reading The Master Control Console Page of Dr. Rich Samuels’ Broadcasting In Chicago website. For an overview of the Announcer’s Delight console with which all this was accomplished, take a look at John Schneider’s The Radio Historian.

At its zenith, the NBC network was using the following stations as points of origin and network switching centers, and it was from only these facilities that the NBC Chimes were rung:

  • NEW YORK: WEAF (later WNBC then WRCA then WNBC) Red, WJZ Blue
  • WASHINGTON: WRC Red, WMAL Blue
  • CLEVELAND: WTAM (Red only)
  • CHICAGO: WMAQ Red, WENR Blue
  • SAN FRANCISCO: KPO (later KNBC then KNBR) Red, KGO Blue
  • LOS ANGELES: KFI Red, KECA Blue

NOTE: The Chimes were heard over KFI and KECA in Los Angeles, but in this instance the programs did not originate at these stations but at NBC’s separate “Radio City” facility. NBC only owned a studio and network switching complex in Los Angeles—it did NOT own its affiliates KFI/KECA, which were owned by local automobile dealer Earle C. Anthony, who refused to sell his stations to the network.