Three notes. N-B-C. The godfather of sonic logos. It has stood the test of time. In 1950,1 we know that the NBC chimes (“G-E-C”) became the first “purely audible” service mark2 (any word, name, symbol, or device, or any combination thereof) granted by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.3 It became the first sound mark. “A sound mark identifies and distinguishes a product or service through audio rather than visual means. Examples of sound marks include: (1) a series of tones or musical notes, with or without words, and (2) wording accompanied by music.”4
The back story for the chimes’ “G-E-C” sequence is that it comes from the initials of the General Electric Company (GE). In 1987, Robert C. Wright, the president and CEO of NBC, testified before the U.S. Congress that “Not everyone knows that GE was one of the original founders of RCA, NBC’s former parent, and that the notes of the famous NBC chimes are G-E-C, standing for the General Electric Company.”5 The sound mark was originally issued to General Electric Broadcasting.6 The official description, as recorded by its registration at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, is:
The mark comprises a sequence of chime-like musical notes which are in the key of C and sound the notes G, E, C, the “G” being the one just below middle C, the “E” the one just above middle C, and the “C” being middle C, thereby to identify applicant’s broadcasting service.7
A sound mark depends upon aural perception of the listener which may be as fleeting as the sound itself unless, of course, the sound is so inherently different or distinctive that it attaches to the subliminal mind of the listener to be awakened when heard and to be associated with the source or event with which it is struck. With “unique, different, or distinctive sounds.” That “consumers “recognize and associate the sound with the offered services . . . exclusively with a single, albeit anonymous, source.8
We know that on November 29, 1929, the NBC Chimes sounded for the first time (at 59 minutes 30 seconds, and 29 minutes 30 seconds past the hour). But the inspiration and creation of the notes depends on who you are asking.
The earliest known sound recording of a musical dinner chime being used to identify a local radio station is that of WSB Atlanta. The radio voice of The Atlanta Journal, WSB signed on the air on March 15, 1922. Two of the station’s earliest stars were the twin sisters Kate and Nell Pendley; according to Cox Broadcasting’s history of WSB Welcome South, Brother, published in 1974, WSB manager Lambdin Kay was looking for a distinctive identification to close each program, and Nell Pendley offered him her Deagan Dinner Chimes. Kay created an identifier by ringing the notes E–C–G, the first three notes of the popular WWI song “Over There” and WSB in Atlanta in addition to being the first station to adopt a three-chime signature, it was directly responsible for NBC’s chimes. This explanation states that, as an NBC affiliate, WSB was hosting a network broadcast of a Georgia Tech college football game, and NBC staff at the network’s New York City headquarters heard the WSB chimes, which prompted them to ask permission to adopt it for use by the national networks.9
An alternative birthplace involves WJZ.
In July of 1921, RCA bought WJZ from Westinghouse, and five years later, in July of 1926, they bought WEAF from AT&T. The National Broadcasting Company was incorporated by RCA on September 8, 1926, and two months later, on November 15, the NBC Radio Network debuted. In those early days, at the end of a programs, the NBC announcer would read the call letters of all the NBC stations carrying the program. As the network added more stations this became impractical and would cause some confusion among the affiliates as to the conclusion of network programming and when the station break should occur on the hour and half-hour. Some sort of coordinating signal was needed to signal the affiliates for these breaks and allow each affiliate to identify. Three men at NBC were given the task of finding a solution to the problem and coming up with such a coordinating signal. These men were; Oscar (O.B.) Hanson, from NBC engineering, Earnest LaPrada, an NBC orchestra leader, and Phillips Carlin, an NBC announcer. During the years 1927 and 1928 these men experimented with a seven note sequence of chimes, G-C-G-E-G-C-E, which proved too complicated for the announcers to consistently strike in the correct order. Sometime later they came up with the three note G-E-C combination.10
Now you know that the only thing that is clear about the origination of the NBC Chimes are the notes G-E-C and its longevity. The takeaway from this sonic logo is that sometimes the simple things in life and logos are the most memorable.