That ole-timey modem sound

Brendan Chilcutt has created the Museum of Endangered Sounds, where you can revisit technological sounds of yesteryear: PacMan, a dot matrix printer, a dial telephone, and a 56K modem connecting over a phone line. It was that last example that caught the fancy of Atlantic Technology columnist Alexis Madrigal:

Of all the noises that my children will not understand, the one that is nearest to my heart is not from a song or a television show or a jingle. It’s the sound of a modem connecting with another modem across the repurposed telephone infrastructure. It was the noise of being part of the beginning of the Internet.

As it connects, an old-fashioned modem (did I really write that?) goes through a sequence of squeaks, buzzes, and wheezes familiar to anyone who used one of these devices. An experienced user could tell from the  sound when a modem had failed to connect, which was often on my oild rural landline.

Madrigal wondered what the modem was doing during the various distinct element in its familiar sound sequence. Finding no good guide on the internet, he posed the question on Twitter, and was rewarded with enough information to produce an elegant annotated graphic:


[Click the image for a larger view]

John Pemberton has gone one step further and produced an animated version of the graphic. Click the orange go-button, then watch, listen, and read as the modem goes through its paces:



“What you’re hearing,” writes Madrigal, “is the way 20th century technology tunneled through a 19th century network.”

Next please: An IBM Selectric typewriter (except I’m afraid Chilcutt is too young to find that in interesting or nostalgic).