According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest published instances of the word beep appeared in the late 1920s and 30s in reference to the sound of a car horn. But in 1951 Arthur C. Clarke wrote in Sands of Mars, “The carrier wave … now modulated into an endless string of ‘beep-beep-beeps.'” The beep, as we know it, was born.
As far as I can tell, the first beep was designed to signal either success or failure. Years ago I asked Bruce H. Bruemmer, an archivist at the Charles Babbage Institute at the University of Minnesota, what he thought the first beep was. He found a mainframe computer manual from the 1954 UNIVAC which indicated it had a speaker. According to the manual:
UP, Marked HSB: connects the contents of the high-speed bus to a detector and audio amplifier, and so to stall speaker in the back of the control desk, so that an audible signal is produced whenever the computer is functioning properly. If the computer stalls, the continued silence alerts the operator. DOWN, marked SPEAKER: connects an 800-cycle signal to the stall-speaker amplifier, so that if the computer stalls, the signal will alert the operator. In this circumstance, no audible signal is provided when the computer is functioning properly. (p. 277).
Bruemmer also told me about the time he talked with one of the designers of the Control Data 1604, a mainframe computer developed in 1959. He asked the guy about the console of the machine, which he noted had an 8 inch loudspeaker. The designer laughed. The 1604 was so loud that when the computer hit a fault, it had to make a lot of noise to be recognized.
I like the dichotomy of the success/failure beginnings of the beep. Even now, electronic devices beep to warn us when time is up or just to simply acknowledge when buttons have been pressed. A beep may be optional. A beep can also strike an existential chord, like the EKG’s flatline beep of death, which I guess isn’t so far from the success/failure dichotomy.
Still, without us, there would be no beep, and in that way I find beep-beep-beeps reassuring. And not so reassuring.