I somehow stumbled across a bit of questionable trivia regarding NBC’s audio “logo” – that the three familiar notes are “G-E-C”, in honor of the initials of NBC’s one-time parent corporation, General Electric Company. I also found a mention of the tones in a newsgroup posting that added: “Back when NBC was more of a radio operation, a four-note version (with a higher note at the end) meant “all news people to their stations; breaking story coming in.” Looking into this opened up a whole can of internet worms that I got way too involved in.
Consulting Google reveals that a guy named Bill Harris has written two of the most ‘authoritative’ essays on the subject, available online here and here. His introduction to the earlier article betrays the fact that he’s just as easily obsessed as I am:
“I became interested in the history of the chimes after discovering a book at the library titled ‘The Fourth Chime’ by NBC, printed in 1944. I had never heard of a “fourth” chime and my curiosity was aroused. I checked out the book to find out more about this extra chime, but the book told me very little, dealing mainly with the role NBC played in the reporting of special world-wide news events, primarily during World War II.”
“I began to seek more information on this fourth chime. Was it a different note from the other three or maybe a repeat of one of the others? Where could I get a recording of this fourth chime?”
Harris recieved this response to an early article mentioning the chimes, from an 87 year old former employee of Atlanta radio station WSB:
“I read in your Jan. 17 Action column that NBC officials said the chimes used for network identification are the musical notes G, E, and C and originally stood for General Electric Corporation which was part owner of NBC. I think if you research this a little further you will find that the chimes really originated in Atlanta, GA., at radio station WSB”.
“In the late 1920’s, WSB station manager Lambdin Kay began using a miniature xylophone to hit those same three notes to signal station breaks. Later, when WSB joined the NBC network, WSB cut in one day during a Georgia Tech football game with the chimes. NBC liked it so well that it got permission to use the chimes for its own identification.”
This story was later confirmed by a former manager of WSB. Harris elaborates on where the notes came from in the first place:
“The notes used by WSB were the first three notes of the World War I song Over There, which are the notes E-G-C. This becomes important when discussing the fourth chime as I will clarify later. NBC rearranged the notes to G-E-C. Station WSB went on the air in 1922 and became an affiliate of NBC on January 9, 1927 shortly after the formation of NBC.”
In the wake of Harris’ first article on the subject, several other radio stations came forward to claim credit for the origination of the chimes. WGY in Schenectady and KFI in Los Angeles reported stories similar to the WSB story. Harris wrote about this conundrum in his more comprehensive follow-up essay.
His further research uncovered an additional story of how the chimes were developed internally at NBC:
“At the end of a program the NBC announcer would read the call letters of all the NBC stations carrying the program. As the network added more stations this became impractical and would cause some confusion among the affiliates as to the conclusion of network programming and when the station break should occur on the hour and half-hour. Some sort of coordinating signal was needed to signal the affiliates for these breaks and allow each affiliate to identify. Three men at NBC were given the task of finding a solution to the problem and coming up with such a coordinating signal. These men were; Oscar Hanson, from NBC engineering, Earnest LaPrada, an NBC orchestra leader, and Phillips Carlin, an NBC announcer.”
“A set of hand dinner chimes was purchased from the Lesch Silver Co. of Manhattan for 48.50 and during the years 1927 and 1928 these men experimented with a seven note sequence of chimes, G-C-G-E-G-C-E, which proved too complicated for the announcers to consistently strike in the correct order, so the sequence was reduced to four notes G-G-G-E. Sometime later two Gs were dropped and a C added to become the three notes G-E-C. These three notes were first broadcast on November 29, 1929, the notes were struck at 59 minutes 30 seconds, and 29 minutes 30 seconds past the hour.”
The purpose of the fourth chime was to notify NBC staff of breaking news. In his article, Harris reports that “it was first heard on the air with the crash of the dirigible Hindenburg, in 1937 at Lakehurst, New Jersey, and during the Munich crisis in 1938. It was next heard with the news of the bombing of Pearl Harbor.” Harris also reports he was surprised to find, while reviewing NBC news broadcasts of the 1944 D-Day invasion of Europe, that the sequence of notes was B-D-G-G, in the key of G. He continues:
“If you sound this sequence in the key of C, they become E-G-C-C. As stated in an earlier paragraph the note arrangement of E-G-C are the notes as originally used by radio station WSB, and the first three notes of the World War I song Over There.”
I hypothosize that this is all due to inconsistency in the playback speed of the original source recordings, which I imagine is why Harris thought to transpose the notes he heard to the key of G. The subject is not addressed in the article. I looked into the song ‘Over There’ a bit – those of you with an interest in hearing it can do so in either the lifeless midi format or the craptastic realaudio format, which offers both vocal and instrumental versions. The lyrics are available here.
The method by which the NBC notes were sounded changed over the years – the early chimes were simply three note bars mounted on a wooden box, struck by the announcer. Beginning in 1932 the chimes were generated automatically by a music-box-like machine that functioned at the push of a button. While Harris’ article doesn’t spend much time on the inner workings of the machines, I was pretty excited to discover that NBC had built electro-mechanical devices simply to play three notes. This was presumably done to ensure the uniformity and accurate reproduction of the chimes – almost a rudimentary sampler.Harris explains how the machines came to be known as Ranger chimes machines:
“In 1932, two NBC engineers, Robert M. Morris, and O. B. Hanson visited a Captain Richard H. Ranger at his home in Newark, New Jersey. The purpose of this visit was to see an electronic organ Captain Ranger had invented. Morris describes the organ as “quite complex, and had many features of the pipe organ but the equipment consisting of countless tubes, relays, oscillators, amplifiers, filters, modulators, etc., occupied all of a two car garage.”
“After their inspection of the electronic organ was complete, Captain Ranger accompanied Morris and Hanson to the Robert Treat Hotel for some refreshments. It was here that the subject of a possible electronic version of the NBC Chimes arose. It was suggested that Captain Ranger design such a unit and present it as a proposal to NBC. Approximately a month and a half later Captain Ranger had a working model.”
A bit more digging turned up Brian Wickham’s short article on a salvaged Ranger chimes machine, recued from the trash by an NBC engineer:
“The chimes are now used to herald “The Ticker” on NBC football games and have been doing so since sometime in the 1994 football season (possibly 1993, it’s not something you write down and remember). The actual sound used is a recording of a restored “Electric Chimes Machine” that was found in the garbage at NBC in 1977. The machine, from about 1930, was rescued by a radio engineer and given to me, as I was known to have an interest in these things. It was later returned to NBC and restored by Radio Net Maintenance to good working order and even modified so that it gave a clean ring off.”
“My understanding is that it was Dick Ebersol’s idea to use the chimes at a low playback level to alert the viewers to the “Ticker” which gives the current scores in all games. I thought it was a lame idea but when I heard it on the air I had to admit that it sounded pretty good and that it worked as intended. Besides, it’s nice to hear the original chimes on the air on a regular basis.”
You can view the schematic and inner workings of an NBC chimes machine here.
Like any great cultural icon, NBC’s chimes worked their way into popular culture:
“There have been many songs written about the chimes and even concerts performed around the famous three notes. In 1935 Paul Whitman’s band performed Announcers Blues that uses the chimes in a jazz arrangement. The tune was written by Frank Trumbauer, the bands saxophonist, and Harold Stokes. Composer Kurt Maier wrote a composition titled “The NBC Polka”, around the three notes. The selection was first played on NBC-TV in 1949. For the 25th anniversary of NBC in 1951, a tribute to the chimes was written by Meredith Willson, The Three Chimes of Silver.
- You can listen to the NBC chimes in .wav format here, or in the vastly inferior realaudio format here.
- You can view a vintage station identification animation (also with sound!) here.
- A recording of the NBC chimes with the fourth chime intact can be heard in .wav format here.
- You can listen to a recording of a song about the chimes called ‘I Love You,’ here.
- Several other audio clips are available here.
References / further reading:
- Three Famous Notes of Broadcasting History – The NBC Chimes by Bill Harris
- A History Of The NBC Chimes by Bill Harris
- More on the NBC Chimes by Brian Wickham