A History Of The NBC Chimes
by Bill Harris

©1995, Bill Harris
Used with Mr Harris' Permission

"This is the National Broadcasting Company, Bong Bong Bong." Almost anyone who has ever listened to radio has at some time or other, heard the famous three note chime that has been the long time trademark of NBC. These chimes were used on the hour and half-hour to announce station breaks on the network.

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. However the book told very little about the fourth chime, but dealt 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?

A letter to the editor of Antique Radio Classified brought some results. My request for more information was published in the December 1994 issue of ARC "Radio Miscellanea" column, and shortly I received a letter with a copy of an article by Rod Philips about the history of the chimes. I also made inquires on the "Old Time Radio Digest" on the Internet computer network. I was particularly looking for a recording of the "fourth chime". The response was great to say the least, and I began to be able to piece the puzzle together.

As I began to gather information, there seemed to be at least two versions of how the chimes came to be. Perhaps only those early radio broadcasters who were involved with the beginning of the chimes know exactly how it happened, but hopefully the information I have collected will shed some light.

The National Broadcasting Company was formed on September 9, 1926. It was a corporation owned jointly by GE, RCA, and Westinghouse. The NBC network began broadcasting on November 15 of the same year from studios WEAF in New York City. There was a combined group of nineteen scattered affiliated stations, using more that 3500 circuit miles of telephone wires.

As the number of affiliate stations grew, there was 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. 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, a former engineer for AT&T, Earnest la Prada, an NBC orchestra leader, and Philip Carlin, an NBC announcer. During the years 1927 and 1928 these men experimented with a seven note sequence of chimes, G-C-F-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-C- F-E. This was later reduced to the three notes G-E-C, and 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.

I also received information from a person who worked for WSB-TV in Atlanta , Georgia for 24 years, that the chimes had their origin at Atlanta radio station WSB. Supporting this, Paul Terry phoned in the following to the St. Petersburg Times that appeared in the February 9, 1995 "Action" column.

"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."

Terry, 87, started working for American Telephone at age 12 and retired 52 years later. When not working he would hang around station WSB, and that is how he came to know about the chimes. Mr. Terry passed away two days after phoning in his story to the St. Petersburg Times. Elmo Ellis who was hired by WSB in 1940 and retired as general manager of that station ten years ago, confirmed Terry's story.

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.

The original chimes were manufactured by the J. C. Degan Company of Chicago. Three note bars were mounted on a wooden box that acted as a sound chamber; the bars were padded with leather bumpers on each end. A handle was attached to the side of the box so the announcer could hold it up to the microphone while striking the notes.

Starting in 1932 the, chimes were electronically generated by means of finely tuned metal reeds that were plucked by fingers on a revolving drum, much like a music box. The unit was invented by Richard H. Ranger who also invented the electronic organ (see picture). The reeds formed part of a capacitor in an oscillator circuit to generate the tones, which were amplified and sent out over the network at the push of a button.

Text accompanying photograph: Title "NBC's Chimeless Chimes".
"Capt. Richard H. Ranger (left), the inventor of the pipeless organ, the bell-less carillon and RCA's facimile transmission, explains his latest invention to O.B. Hanson, manager of Technical Operations and Engineering of the National Broadcasting Company. The new automatic device now supplants the familiar three-note NBC chimes.

The fourth chime, is what started my interest in this subject. The book The Fourth Chime stated that it was originally contrived as a confidential alert to signal the members of the NBC news staff, engineers, and other personnel responsible for broadcasting the news to the people. 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, and sounded again with the news of the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

The fourth chime continued to be used throughout World War II to alert the NBC news department and the radio audience of special news bulletins. According to the book, The Fourth Chime; "The Fourth Chime will ring out again and again from the NBC Newsroom in New York whenever events of utmost significance demand the intensive nationwide coverage of the news the American people have come to expect from the National Broadcasting Company."

The home of the chime was the RCA building in NYC, room 404, the "News and Special Event's Room."

I received a tape of a documentary produced by a radio station in Washington D.C., of NBC news broadcasts of the 1944 D-Day invasion of Europe. At one point the chimes using the fourth chime were heard. In reading what Rod Phillips wrote in his article on the history of the chimes were he states that the fourth chime was a second strike of the "C" note, I assumed that the fourth chime sequence would be G-E- C-C. I was surprised at what I heard on the tape. The sequence of the notes was B-D-G-G, in the key of G. 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.

Why did NBC use that sequence for the fourth chime? Was there a patriotic reason because of the war song, or did it just sound better than G-E-C-C? Why was it sounded in the key of G instead of the key of C?

In 1950, NBC filed with the U. S. Patent Office to make the chimes a registered service mark, the first such audible service mark to be filed with that office. The following is from the Patient Office register;

        Serial Number : 72-349496
	Type of Mark: SERVICE MARK
        Mark Drawing Code: (6) NO DRAWING

        Description of Mark: THE MARK COMPRISES A SEQUENCE OF

	               10112 CORPORATION DELAWARE

NBC discontinued the use of the chimes in 1971, however in November of 1976 the network began using the chimes once again following all broadcast in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the network. I have not heard the chimes on radio in several years, but they can still be heard occasionally on the NBC television network.

The Fourth Chime, NBC, 1944
A Pictorial History of Radio, by Irving Settel
The Chimes You Hear From Coast to Coast: A History Of The NBC Chimes, by Rod Phillips
Electronics magazine, October 1932
The St. Petersburg Times, St. Petersburg, Fl, February 9, 1995
U. S. Patent Office Register

My thanks to the following individuals who contributed  information on
the chimes: Richard Paul - WAMU-FM, Washington, DC, recording of the
fourth chime Aubrey Bullard - WSB-TV, Atlanta, Ga., information on
beginning of chimes at station WSB. Dave Morton - picture of  "NBC's
chimeless chimes" from Electronics magazine, 1932 Ken Diable - Patent
office research

From The Reproducer, the quarterly journal of The Vintage Radio &
Phonograph Society, Inc., Irving, Texas