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The History of the Doorbell

A lot of people might be surprised to know that the ‘seemingly ordinary’ musical chime of today was a luxury item of the yesteryears. Yes, the doorbell has a vast and colorful history that is loaded with anecdotes that can initiate a feeling of engrossment even in the most disinterested person. But why care to even collate information on a topic as mundane as doorbells? Because, as insignificant as it might seem, a doorbell plays a very important role in the scheme of things in our day to day lives. Because it announces the arrival of some of the brands that have attained colossal status today. Because, it wouldn’t be possible to fathom the very existence of the electrical bell without taking a stroll in its past. Yes, today when you buy a Nutone or a Rittenhouse, spare a moment to think about the time when each one of these companies were led by one or two people trying to register a patent for their own version of the electrical doorbell.

Before the electrical doorbell

The practice of informing the host about a visitor at the door started much before the electrical bell was invented. Door knockers were in vogue. The door knocker which is still found in medieval castles or homes with vintage designs has a part attached to the door and is connected to another part by a hinge. It can be lifted up and used to strike the door making a wooden ‘knock sound’ or a metal clang. Not very ornate or audible. The other common type of doorbell used in those days was a string attached to a large bell (something like a church bell). It took a fair amount of effort to ring those bells continually until the host eventually was informed. Remember the bell in Dracula’s castle?

The electrical era begins

With the advent of electricity, dawned a new era for mankind. By now, we all know that the first electrical doorbell was invented by Joseph Henry in 1831. But it certainly wasn’t the most perfect piece of electronic engineering. It was tweaked repeatedly, several kinks were removed. Sound range and quality were addressed as important factors in the usability of a doorbell. And by the beginning of the 1900’s the first ancestors of the present day doorbells had made an appearance. The irritating ‘Bzzzz’ buzzer sound which the electrical doorbells made was replaced by a much more pleasant ‘Ding Dong’. In the years that followed, the doorbell was worked upon with much interest and fascination. Musical door chimes made an appearance sometime in the late 1920’s and the world of doorbells was never the same again.

The demand sparks frenzy

Musical door chimes were so popular at one time, that advertisements claimed that they were a relief to housewives whose nerves were jangled courtesy the jarring sound of irritating door bells. They were everywhere. Doorbells became the perfect gift items for weddings or Christmas. Would you consider heading to Wal-Mart today and buying a doorbell as a Christmas gift? New homes were custom designed with a specific doorbell niche. It was de rigueur for upscale homes. Then, in the 1930’s began a rampant frenzy of patent activity for door chimes. Some of the ideas were dead simple whilst others were extremely complicated.

The Brands arrive

  1. Edwards and Telechime (General Kontrollar) was the earliest known company to manufacture and market solenoid versions of the doorbell. In fact, it is claimed that G.L.Bossard (founder of Kontrolar) was the person responsible for introducing J. Ralph Corbett, the founder of Nutone into the chime business. References suggest that he might very well be the mysterious figure called ‘The Dayton man’ in the history of Nutone. The Kontrolar doorbells were sophisticated and popular. Some of the doorbells had elite functions like servant bells along with the regular musical melodies. Some reports also claim that Kontrolar and Nutone had formed an alliance where one invented while the other marketed. Telechime products are extremely rare today and can fetch quite a price.
  2. Nutone was founded by J. Ralph Corbett, who was the son of a wine maker. It is said that after one broadcast sessions of one his popular broadcast shows called ‘''Notes on Business’, he was approached by a Dayton man for funds for a ‘musical chimes’ business which could easily render the buzzer doorbells obsolete. In 1936, the Dayton Man went bankrupt and Corbett took over the business. He relocated to Cincinnati, renamed the business as Nutone Chimes Inc and the rest as they say is history.
  3. Rittenhouse Company was formed in 1903 by Arthur E. Rittenhouse. The company originally manufactured and sold small electrical devices. It entered the musical chime business in 1935 just before Kontrolar went bankrupt and Nutone was a couple of years away. Rittenhouse is considered to be one of the pioneers in the chime business.

 

In the years that followed the patent frenzy, several small time manufacturers jumped into the market to capitalize on the popular demand for doorchimes. Very soon the market was flooded with faulty and poorly designed models. But most of these companies didn’t last as long as they thought they would. A mass exodus followed and today, there are very few reputed chime manufacturers in the United States. The history of the doorbell is certainly not the most accurately documented one. Several of the references are speculative. A lot of the historical details were lost in the years following the Second World War. All the information represented here are taken from various online and offline sources.