The Ubiquitous Doorbell, from Buzz to Beethoven’s Fifth

By Bill Primavera

As I sat down to write a piece about doorbells, I realized that it’s been so long since we’ve had visitors to our home in Trump Park – because of the pandemic – that I had forgotten what our doorbell sounded like.  I got up and opened my door to check only to discover that I don’t have a doorbell at all: I have a knocker! How quaint, I thought.

It’s funny how a certain sound can evoke memories of something totally unrelated to an experience at hand. With me, whenever I think about a doorbell, I think of the Fuller Brush man who years ago would go door to door selling his wares.

My wife and I as newlyweds had just moved into our first small apartment in a high-rise building and, on our first day of residence, while still unpacking, we heard a bouncy kind of ping sound and realized it was the first use of our doorbell in our new home.

My wife threw open the door to the salesman, an older gentleman, who immediately admonished us for not looking through the peephole before opening the door. “Lady, please at least ask, ‘who’s there?’” he said. “This is New York City.  I could be a killer.”

Going further back, when I was a little boy, I remember when my parents bought a newly constructed home, it featured a doorbell with a particularly beautiful set of chimes just inside the door. I’m told that it was that particular feature that sold my mother on the house. 

From earliest times, visitors to a home were announced simply by banging one’s knuckles against a door. The task was made easier with the appearance of the door knocker where a visitor would lift an iron or brass knob and strike it against a metal plate. And, later, a bell on the inside of the house would be sounded by pulling a string from the outside. 

In 1831, the electric doorbell was invented by Joseph Henry, an American scientist who was the first secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. It was a simple device, much like the wired doorbells we see today, where an outside button is pushed and electrical current flows to an inside transformer which activates a noise signal.

In the beginning, this noise was an annoying buzz, but the sound was enhanced in the 1920s to bells or a chime.

In my former home, built in the early 18th century, the doorbell featured an annoying buzz sound, much like an insect zapper. Yet, I was convinced that the same device has been working faithfully since the 1920s.   

Well, maybe not so faithfully.

I remember a period where the doorbell somehow got disconnected and didn’t ring for a couple of years.

Visitors would call us on our cells saying they were waiting for us in the driveway. 

While the basic function of a doorbell has always been as an important signaling device, there are times when you just don’t want to hear it. For instance, I remember a visit to my local Subway where I was seated near the door trying to enjoy my meatball sandwich and, every time a customer walked through the door, there was an annoying and loud sound that all but stopped my heartbeat. I can only imagine the effect this must have on the staff members there who have to listen to it all day, every day.

From the first mechanical systems, it seems that inventors have spent a lot of time and effort devising new ways to alert people of visitors, from the first use of chimes to iTunes ringtones.

Today the major choice in doorbells is whether to buy a wired or wireless version, and there seems to be a debate about which is better. While wired doorbell systems are still the preferred choice, wireless has caught the imagination of younger buyers who prefer living in a wire-free world.

Wired doorbells are cheaper than wireless, but more involved to install. Wireless can be up and running literally in minutes. Aesthetically, wired doorbells are more appealing, with many designs, shapes and materials from which to choose, while wireless models are more utilitarian in design. Wireless wins out on portability in that its receiver, whether battery-operated or plug-in, can be moved around the house at will. 

Sound quality and the range of tunes are clearly better on the wired models, while wireless can have flaky performance if there is outside interference.

With the advent of iTunes, sounds announcing visitors are limitless, much like telephone ringtones.  I imagine what would best represent my personality in a customized sound. 

How about, “The Gang’s All Here?” Or maybe on a bad day, it might be the first four chords of Beethoven’s Fifth.

Bill Primavera, while a publicist and journalist, is also a Realtor® associated with William Raveis Real Estate and Founder of Primavera Public Relations, Inc. (www.PrimaveraPR.com). To engage the services of The Home Guru to market your home for sale, call 914-522-2076.

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