Why were modems so noisy? #BoomerTech

Back in the day, modems were really noisy. But that was a good thing.

Anyone born in the last century, would recognise the modem sound.

That was your modem telling you that everything is ok. And that you were now allowed to surf the internet for as long as your mum would let you.

But why did they make any sound at all? It all began with this other piece of beautiful pre-boomer tech: The humble telephone.

Before the invention of the mobile or cellular phone – you would pick your phone up and listen before you dialled a number. And the sound (or tone) that you heard, would let you know if your phone was ready for making a call.

If you picked up your phone and heard the dial tone…. You could start dialling the number.

If you heard someone else talking, you knew your sister was on the phone. “Mum, tell Carole I need to use the phone!”

If you heard nothing at all, then you would rapidly click the receiver and say “Operator, operator” before declaring the line to be dead. I learnt this one from the movies.

Then there were the other obligatory tones such as the “busy tone” or the “ringing tone” … Yada yada yada.

So there was always a lot of listening to tones when it came to using phones.

And then modems came along. Modem actually stands for Modulator / Demodulator. It modulates digital signals into sound, the sounds go down the telephone line, and then it demodulates the sound into digital at the other end.

So you can see that noise is a recurring theme here.

And when commercial modem’s were first used, they were actually called “acoustic modems”, and their speakers and microphones were inside giant suction cups that you would place your phone on.

Back then, the big phone companies didn’t allow things to connect to the phone lines directly, hence these bizarre looking modems.

But how did you know the line was busy, or if there was a modem at the other end of the line? You listened for the tones. In fact, you made sure there was a modem at the other end before you even placed the phone onto the giant suction cups, unless you were a maverick renegade.

After a while, the phone companies started allowing things like modems to be directly connected to the phone lines and a new wave of modems hit the shelves.

Now modem manufacturers had a new problem. Since you didn’t pick up the phone and listen for a modem, how would you know that your modem had successfully connected to another computer?

Instead of coming up with a creative and silent way of addressing this, the manufacturers pulled together their best engineers and declared:

“Ummmm…. Maybe we should just chuck in a speaker.”

Sure it was a crude solution, but it did the job. You could then easily hear the modem talking to the other modem – otherwise known as hand-shaking. * something you shouldn’t do during a pandemic *

For a while there, connecting to the internet was a very manual process and included things like AT commands which needed to be setup and I won’t go into them here (OK?)… and don’t even get me started on the proxy software you needed – have you ever even heard of “WinGate”? Getting on the Internet in the early 90s was like a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. 

Many people would recognise the little dialup connection box on Windows 95 and 98. But once you had it all setup, it wasn’t too bad.

My favourite modem was my Banksia Wave SP336. God I loved that modem. You could even set it up as an answering machine with keypad options. Ha, people loved calling me.

Then things like DSL and fibre came along, and modems changed to being permanently online. There was no longer a need to hear anything. And suddenly, there was silence.

Ironically, I actually wish my VDSL modem would beep when the internet was out, rather than me having to use the enigma machine to crack the mystery code of the LED indicators.

Do you remember using a noisy modem? Did you have a favourite modem? Let me know in the comments.

By Bill Baud

Living the Retro life in 8-bit.

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