2272: Ringtone Timeline

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Ringtone Timeline
No one likes my novelty ringtone, an audio recording of a phone on vibrate sitting on a hard surface.
Title text: No one likes my novelty ringtone, an audio recording of a phone on vibrate sitting on a hard surface.


After the telephone was invented, a way of indicating when a call was coming through was needed. Special voltages sent through the line were used to activate a physical bell on the other end, leading to what we recognize as a phone ringing sound, and that method of generating sound persisted for quite some time, even when new methods of detecting and generating ringing sounds were developed.

Eventually, however, people realized they were no longer confined to the traditional bell ringing sound, as computers became more and more involved with the telephone process, and variations of bell-type sounds were introduced, often sounding like spaceship sounds from sci-fi movies. Probably the most iconic "cool space beeps" are the chirps from the communicators from Star Trek (which themselves resemble flip-phones in style). Another common ringtone was the Nokia tune.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, actual songs, or song snippets were able to be used as a ringing sound. It became common to record song snippets from the radio, or to use song MP3 files as ringtones. Many of these songs are grating to hear, and also a social faux pas if they sound in theatres or other listening venues. As an example, this Geico ad featuring bad ringtones, including "the worst ringtone [the Geico gecko has] ever heard", came out around the end of the "song and novelty ringtone" period (according to Randall's periodization).

As people got sick of that, they reverted to use the default ring tone, a spaceship / computer sound, although this time often of higher quality and more melodious in nature. Nowadays, there are more people electing to use a more traditional ringing sound, both as the novelty has worn off, and possibly also as an ironic statement about ringtones. Randall (in the person of Cueball) made a statement like this in 479: Tones in 2008, which according to his reckoning was in the waning years of the novelty ringtone epoch.

The final stage the comic is pointing to is do away with traditional sound entirely, and going with the vibrate mode most portable phones have; what little sound there is is more of a low rumbling sound. Using this setting is common for schools, workplaces, or churches, as it can be disruptive to have a phone ring in a public place. Some users have chosen to always set their phones to the vibrate setting, to avoid having to change their ringing settings back and forth. Randall claims that vibrate mode is the "final victory" over ringtones, which he apparently dislikes.

In the title text, Randall ironically uses a "novelty ringtone" which is an audio recording of a phone vibrating. This would sound like a phone on vibrate mode, but his actual phone is not vibrating, and is actually producing a "ringing" sound. However, if the original phone was vibrating on a hard surface (as opposed to in a pocket, muffled by fabric), the sound would be much louder and more grating. A recording of that sound, played as an audio ringtone, would go back to being annoying again. But maybe less imaginatively so than might be a version of the staccato "drum-da-da-drum-da-da-drum" of a phone's periodic handshaking with a mast, such as you sometimes hear over unassociated audio equipment, at pretty much any time it pleases.


[A horizontal timeline spanning between the years 1875 and 2022. Every year is indicated by a tick below the line, and labeled every 5 years. There is a gap between 1883 and 1989 with jagged lines to indicate a jump in time. 7 sections are labeled on the chart, each with a border except for the first and last:]
[1875, with no border:]
Telephone ringer invented
Normal ringing sounds
[Gap and jagged lines to indicate jump in time from 1883 to 1989]
Normal ringing sounds
Cool space beeps
Song and novelty ringtones
Cool space beeps
Normal ringing sounds
[2020, with no border:]
Everyone sets their phones to vibrate
[Caption below the panel:]
After 140 years, humanity is finally on the verge of winning the war against ringtones.

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Doing the Title Text. “That Guy from the Netherlands” (talk) 18:07, 24 February 2020 (UTC)

What about the era of "I would love to set my phone to a traditional ringing sound but this weird space garbage is the closest my phone will get"? 18:53, 24 February 2020 (UTC)

What kind of phone is this? circa 2000s flip phone? 08:52, 25 February 2020 (UTC)

I've got my smartphone set to the classic monophoncic Nokia 3310 tune. You can easily tell the >25y from the <25y generation apart from their reaction. -- //gir.st/ (talk) 19:22, 24 February 2020 (UTC)

I wonder if Randal actually found some data to support his timeline or if it's more of a general observation made by him. In my subjective experience, the trend towards having the phone on vibrate all the time has been going on since at least 2017-2018 rather than the future/present time indicated in his timeline. Bischoff (talk) 19:41, 24 February 2020 (UTC)

And I've not even noticed the change. I still hear ringtones going off when people get calls. I'm not even sure how it would work, since surely you'd at least need it to ring while charging or when you don't have pockets (like a lot of dressier women's clothing). And then there's the trend I have noticed of people actually playing their music out loud without headphones, which makes me think that people are not becoming more concerned about their phones making noise. Trlkly (talk) 10:35, 25 February 2020 (UTC)
Playing music out loud (from phone hansets or, these days, far meatier bluetooth units) is an active decision, uncaring of others and/or deliberately showing off. Even these people might baulk at a random incoming call (assuming not pre-arranged) sparking off whatever sound it creates, at otherwise inopportune moments like sitting in a toilet stall, crossing the road or window-browsing for the next model of phone. Personally, I have the vibrate-and-'ring' setting, which startx to vibrate shortly before it makes noise, usually giving me time to evaluate the incoming call and answer/mute/reject it before very much of anything audible (except for my own yelp/exclamation of surprise and quick fumbling in the pocket, in response to the sudden 'tickle') happens. I wouldn't even need that if I had one of those earpieces, but they eat battery and always seem too losable so I don't. 15:20, 28 February 2020 (UTC)

Early ringers were hand-cranked generators (or perhaps magnetos), so you might be able to tell who was calling by how fast they cranked. 19:51, 24 February 2020 (UTC)

No, in that period it was mostly still operators. I suppose you would know which operator was on duty, if your area was small enough. SDSpivey (talk) 22:07, 24 February 2020 (UTC)

Party lines shared the signal and differentiated the callee by ring. I grew up on 19-ring-12, i.e. line 19 (on the manual switchboard in the village) ringing one long and two short. There was a magneto, but you used it to request the operator to give you a line for an outgoing call; it signaled the switchboard, not another party.

I remember around 1982 staying over at a friend's house and hearing the electronic tweedling of their new landline phone and not knowing what it was. Prior to that all the phones I'd heard at homes, businesses, school, etc. were all normal ringers. So the cool space beeps starting around 1996 seems skewed to the right by about a decade. 20:21, 24 February 2020 (UTC)Pat

There's obviously plenty of overlap, and I think the boxes represent when a particular style was prevalent, not the entire duration. Barmar (talk) 20:37, 24 February 2020 (UTC)
In the UK, the so-called trimphone was introduced in the sixties with a warbling ringtone instead of the traditional bell sound. 23:12, 24 February 2020 (UTC)
The initial tones for tweedling or beeping phones were often pure sine wave tones, which are difficult for the human ear to locate. If you had five phones (not uncommon in some offices) you would need to pick up each in succession to find the one that was ringing. Snezzy (talk) 10:07, 25 February 2020 (UTC)
I also remember being told (in the era of mostly electromechanical bells, but echoed by the occasionally extant trimphone) that the time signature of the ringing was something weird, like 13/8 (or 8/13 - I'm not musical enough to know what the difference is, and it's probably not those numbers exactly anyway), on the basis that you couldn't subvert the rhythm into a pleasant tune (real or imagined) and so *had* to respond to it, like you possibly could with 2/4-time. And I've seen the mechanism at the (automatic, but largely mechanical) exchange that continually rotates with variously spotted electrical contacts on its axle that produce the required dialling/ringing/busy/etc signals to get 'tapped' for all currently relevent subscriber circuits (meaning that every phone in a street, neighbourhood or even whole town would be exactly in synch with any other phone also producing the same sound on either ringer or ear-speaker, notwithstanding speed-of-sound delays between the locales and audibility of each). A remarkable clockworkpunk solution to simplifying the otherwise quite complex array of Subscriber Trunk Dialling/etc mechanisms. 15:09, 25 February 2020 (UTC)

Interesting contrast to xkcd 479. LHN

I would like to point out that "a phone on vibrate sitting on a hard surface" may not have been receiving a call at the time of the audio recording so technically Randall's ringtone could be utter silence (or a very low coil whine). 00:56, 25 February 2020 (UTC)

I can't stand people who use the old fashioned 1950s bell ringtone. It's not cute anymore, it's just boring and overused. Almost as bad as the many "default" ringtones that people are too lazy to change. These are smartphones! You can easily use just about any song or sound imaginable! 08:52, 25 February 2020 (UTC)

Yeah, how dare people like something you don't You can easily use just about any song or sound imaginable, therefore you should limit certain ones because someone online might find it "boring". 14:49, 26 February 2020 (UTC)
I wouldn't call it lazyness. My phone hardly ever rings, because 1st, it is usually always on vibrate anyway, and 2nd, noone calls anymore. --Lupo (talk) 15:02, 26 February 2020 (UTC)

I will definitely not switch to vibration any time soon. I hate vibration in phones so much that I have installed multiple apps and mods to get rid of every single variant of vibration on my phone (which is surprisingly difficult), at least as long as the system is running. After shutdown it sadly still vibrates. Maybe I should screw off the vibration motor one day. Fabian42 (talk) 09:54, 25 February 2020 (UTC)

1820s to 1870s: whistle at end of long tube; (me, turn of the millenium: much abbreviated monophonic 'Composer' version of a complex polyphonic MIDI file of a classical tune I quite liked); Mid 23rdC: electronic version of a whistle through a long tube; Mid 24thC beeps 15:09, 25 February 2020 (UTC)

I did that (entered my own ringtone Nokia's on-phone Composer thingummy) with the Thunderbirds theme tune. Learnt just enough how to extract note data from a MIDI file via a quick-and-dirty Perl script. Then had to monophonise it to get the vital trumpet refrain just right where it overlapped "Duh dah-dah-d(DAH-DAH-DAAAH!) ...". Would you believe I also tended to wear lots of very colourful/cartoony ties? Still got 'em. But my phones just (sort of) ring these days - No fun in it once you could just start to plug in sampled MP3s/etc of anything. 21:29, 25 February 2020 (UTC)
Okay, now I want to change my ringtone with a slide whisle XD 04:32, 26 February 2020 (UTC)

My "general" ringtone is a recording of a dialup modem in action. Freaks out the older nerds around me. I know a young woman who set the custom ringtone for when her mother called to the theme for the Wicked Witch of the North (original Oz movie). Friend of mine set the ringtone for his wife to a recording of her saying " [Marty], it's [Diane]..." Cellocgw (talk) 16:36, 26 February 2020 (UTC)

Buying a ringtone: an audio recording of a phone on vibrate sitting on a hard surface?[edit]

Has anyone found a ringtone that is an audio recording of a phone on vibrate sitting on a hard surface? I tried and failed in the new and inferior iTunes Store. — FlashSheridan (talk) 13:06, 29 February 2020 (UTC)

Question: Why would you buy a ringtone? I mean, good luck to whoever puts what you want there to sell, but it's a bit Life Of Brian to 'individualise' your device with a potentially widely downloaded product. <crowd>Yes, We Are All Individuals!</crowd> (Even if you only sample your favourite chart hit/movie dialogue, you make it unique and your own 'art' by choosing how and where you slice it. And can at least be sure that the possible copyright infringement is done by yourself (surely mitigated by "fair use", if anyone cares enough) and not done by some moneymaking grifter who will commit unfair mass-piracy, before they skedaddle with their ill-gotten gains in the face of the IP lawyers. But then I'm not an iDevice user of any kind, so not sure how locked into pure purchases the Apple stuff is, and have never spent a red cent on my Android devices beyond the initial hardware purchasing (directly, though I have donated to developers - off app - if they don't effectively demand freemium payments to make their almost useful apps more useful) and of course any rolling network costs where applicable.
Anyway, that mild rant aside, get (or use, if you already have one) a sound recorder app and pester someone with a vibrating phone and a hard table (ditto) and try a few experiments. It'll do your geeky soul good! 16:52, 29 February 2020 (UTC)
I have made some custom ringtones (e.g. my default tone, going back to a Palm VII Midi browser plugin, of the Thunderbirds theme with an initial ten-second pause, which is sufficiently individualized not to overlap anyone else within earshot at the office who has also forgotten to mute his phone on a given day). But I’m happy to pay 99¢ to avoid duplicated effort.
FlashSheridan (talk) 15:34, 1 March 2020 (UTC)