Annoying Sounds, Part One: Telephones

Yesterday I was on the phone with a friend. We were talking about phones. We reminisced about some of the great phones we've owned. Scintillating conversation, no?

Back in the 70's, I owned that wondrous Canadian invention: the stylish Contempra Phone. Well, not "owned" as such, because back then you leased the phone. The Contempra looked like ... well, it didn't look like anything, but it did have a fairly aerodynamic appearance. Also, since it was actually owned by Bell Canada, they designed it to survive all kinds of abuse. Naturally this encouraged me to take it apart.

Back then, phones had an ingenious device called a "bell". Instead of chirping or warbling, they'd actually ring. Adjustable tones? No way. You could lower the volume, but if somebody called, by golly they'd ring; there was no way to stop it – the phone was hard-wired into the wall. Since I was working swing-shift, this was a tad bothersome, which is the main reason I unscrewed the phone's cover for a peek inside.

I decided the primary culprit was the little brass clapper. ("Clapper" is the technical term; I prefer "bell-whacker".) By judicious use of tissue paper and cellophane tape, I modified the sound of the phone. Now when people called, the phone didn't jingle-jangle – it softly purred. I can't think of a better word for the sound. It just sort of went "mrrrrr". Quite comforting, actually.

Most people at that time were accustomed to phones that clanged and thus had no way to grasp the concept of a telephone that sounded like a contented cat. As a result, if I had friends over I might suddenly surprise and mystify them by saying, "There's the phone!" Well, of course, they'd think, there it is. So what? They'd then look at me quizzically as I lifted the receiver and started speaking, wondering why I was apparently talking to the dial tone.

Human hearing is an extraordinary thing. You've no doubt heard of "the cocktail party effect": even at a noisy shindig you'll notice if somebody on the other side of the room mentions your name. Well, you might; I completely lack this gift, which may be why I don't get invited to many parties. Yet even if my friends and I were listening to Led Zeppelin with the volume knob set to "Full Afterburners", I could hear my phone purr. This, I suppose, made me seem positively psychic.

Incidentally, I no longer have my trusty old Contempra: I had to give it back (minus the modifications) when I moved. I now have a 2.3 gigahertz digital spread-spectrum radio phone with redial, memory, alternative channel search, paging feature, headset and belt clip. Gosh. Very modern. Very 21st Century (well, late 20th). Yet in some strange lapse of technological insight, the designers provided no means to turn off the damn ringer. All you get is a choice of four tones ranging from mildly annoying to frighteningly raucous. I suppose I could open it up and try to figure out how to install a silencer switch, but since I actually own the thing I'm not sure I want to risk slicing up its innards. I also doubt I could effect any improvement with tissue paper. So when I go to bed, I remove it from the recharging cradle and place it underneath a sofa cushion.

You'll notice that in this dissertation on annoying sounds I've said nothing about cell phones. What could I say that hasn't already been said by a thousand stand-up comedians? We've all been incensed by thoughtless people who forget to silence their gadget. As much as we'd like to, we can't open up their phone and tape some sound-deadening material over the speaker. Cell phone noise is not something that can be cured by something warm and fuzzy like tissue paper or a sofa cushion. So when some twit's mobile starts serenading me at the cinema, I irritably muse that the appropriate solution would be a large mallet.

Used on the phone itself, I mean.

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