Why did the first modems sound and what did the sounds mean?

Why did the first modems sound and what did the sounds mean?

If you were in the early ’90s, you’ll probably remember the special sound modems made when they connected to the Internet. But why did they sound at all?

Just the term “connect to InternetIs probably (or is) very foreign to the majority of today’s young and middle-aged. 20 years ago, on the other hand, it was a fairly everyday expression that, in short, came from the fact that one actually needed to create a connection to Internet to access something there. When this connection was created, the strange sound came from a (black, white or gray) small box that stood next to the computer. The box was called a modem.

Theoretically, you could always be connected to Internet if one wanted. The problem was both that at first it cost a lot of money while you could not use the phones at home while you were connected to Internet (yes, we felt so bad in the early 90’s). But before we go into why the modem actually made audible sounds, we start with some background information for those who are new to life.

What exactly was a modem for the telephone network?

A long time ago (type in 1985), in principle, all homes were connected to something called the copper network (also called the telephone network). In short, a cord came out of the wall. To this you could connect a telephone (with another cord) and then make telephone calls in other homes. So kind of like today, but with the difference that you could not take the phone everywhere. Without it stuck to a cord in the wall (I know, pain).

Modem - Telephone - Connected
A pretty classic modem. One cord for the telephone socket, one for the computer.

When Internet began to take shape and become interesting (around the year 1993) a way was needed for ordinary people to access it. The solution was the modem. A small plastic box that was connected between a free telephone socket in the home and a computer. Via the modem, you called (with the help of the computer) a certain number at your Internet-supplier. Thereby, they were then locked out and connected with Internet.

At first, modems were used only to connect two computers remotely, where one called the other over the regular telephone network. But as technology advanced, both the modems and the suppliers’ switches and routers, which redirected the calls, became more and more advanced.

How did a modem work and why did it sound?

Okay. A modem was used to connect a computer to Internet via the telephone network. But why did it sound then? Yes! Since the telephone network was originally designed to send sound electrically and only sound, this was exactly what the first modems used to communicate. So sound.

The sounds that were heard when a modem connected to Internet was basically a form of computerized speech that was sent and received over the regular telephone network. All communication sent from and to a modem sounded one way or another. Instead of light (as in today’s fiber network) or radio waves (as 4G / 5G and Wi-Fi) so it was sound that was the transmission technique. Later, the telephone network was also able to send data in other ways. But from the beginning, it was sound via electricity that mattered.

Why did the modems only sound when they connected and not all the time?

Good question! In fact, as I said, the modem constantly sent, received and analyzed audio over the telephone network. Why not all sounds were heard, but only those that arose when the connection itself was made, came from the fact that precisely those sounds were considered most important when they were used to make the connection possible.

The process was called (and is still called) a handshake (from English handshake) and briefly stated that a modem, via the telephone network, dialed a number to another modem. The dial-up modem answered and sent a sound to indicate that it was responding (much like a “hello”). The modem that called explained (with sound) that it wanted to connect to a certain network with certain login details, etc. Then the other modem either approved or denied this. The modems also discussed things such as the speed at which they would speak and the computer language they would use to communicate.

The reason why it was only the connection process, and not the whole call, that was heard was simply so that one could easily hear if something went wrong in the connection process. The actual sounds that came from the modem were played by a small, built-in speaker.

One fun thing surely many people remember from this time is that it was also possible to hear oneself through the modem’s speakers. This by picking up a handset and saying something while even the modem was trying to connect to Internet. Likewise, surely many very specific memories from the times someone has even interrupted Internetconnection by trying to make a regular phone call (but mom I’m on Internet!).

What did the different sounds from a modem mean?

As I said, the different sounds represented different parts of a type of call between the calling modem and the answering machine. Exactly what the different sounds actually meant is thoroughly described in a brief, but very readable article, from Finnish Oona Räisänen. The image below is from the article in question and goes through all parts of a modem’s connection process. Click on the image to see it full size.

Why did the modem sound?
Picture by Oona Räisänen of what the different sounds from a modem actually mean. Image source:

Do you have any fun memories when it comes to the modem’s heyday? Feel free to share in the comments!

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