From The Dawn Of Beeps

Up to about a century ago nobody had ever heard a beep. That’s not a staggering thought. It’s more the sort of thing that catches you while you’re getting to bed and keeps you from avoiding the wall. But it’s the kind of sound the universe got along fine without for billions of years, and then suddenly it didn’t anymore.

Consider a great historical figure, like Queen Elizabeth I. She went her entire life, prison and everything, without hearing a beep. What sound did anyone make when they touched her nose? A perfect silence would be terrible. She’d certainly make a noise, probably something like “quit that”. But there’d be no beep. The whole act of nose-beeping was wasted for all of human history. Did they realize something was missing?

People dreamed of having flying machines before they existed, so they understood there was something that could exist but didn’t. But who thought of “beep” as a sound we could have but didn’t have as late as, oh, 1900? Royal nose-beeping would seem to encourage people to notice the awkwardness of not having a sound. But what sort of genius would work out it was a “beep” they needed?

Could there have been some early genius who realized that even though the technology to make a “beep” didn’t yet exist, it someday would? Google’s Ngram Viewer seems to tease the idea it might, by showing off books from before 1900 that have “beep” or “beeping” in them. But those could be mistakes. Take for example Volume 26 of the Proceedings of the Iowa State Horticultural Society. It looks momentarily like they’re talking about beeping, with text like this:

In the South District the Duchess shall be the standard as to hardiness and productiveness of tree, and size of fruit, while the quality must equal Grimes’s Golden and its beeping capacity the Willow.

You could argue that the Willow has no beeping capacity. This would imply the Iowa State Horticultural Society worried about trees that have beeping capacity of less than zero. But if anyone would know about the beeping capacity of the Willow or other trees it’s them. I don’t know what a negative beeping capacity would be; maybe it would quiet authorized beeps in the area? Certainly the Iowa State Horticultural Society would seem to know what it’s talking about. Look at how neatly on that very same page they divide Iowa into two districts:

1. The North District shall include the counties north of the north line of Linn county, or the county lines nearest thereto across the state.

2. The South District shall include the counties south of the above line.

That’s top-notch organization. These are clearly horticulturists with a strong understanding of north and south. But looking carefully at the page I feel pretty sure it says “its keeping capacity the Willow”. The character recognition software at Google just got mixed up. That’s at least as possible, but it leaves unanswered the question: capacity at keeping what? If Willows have a lot of keeping capacity then this could revolutionize the self-storage industry. At the least it’ll make them look prettier.

A lot of the Google Books results for “beeping” in early 19th century texts are that sort of character error. This can be fun, like the bit in the 1866 Bradshaw’s Handbook For Tourists In Great Britain and Ireland where it looks like it says “Market Beeping (the church is ancient)”. I’m tempted to make up fake subway signs that point the way to Market Beeping. There are also a lot of old medical gazettes that Google Books summarizes as making references to “beeping cough”. That’s a jolly amusing one until you smack into the wall feeling guilty over that. Then you write it down as an ailment robots get in a cloyingly comic science fiction adventure.

So we have to conclude that “beep” caught everyone by surprise. This implies there are other sounds that nobody’s ever thought of that the universe is about to find, after fourteen billion years doing without, that it needs. What are they? No one can say, because logic works that way. If you don’t get why that is, don’t worry, it’ll catch you while you’re going to bed sometime.

(Oh, yes, I forget to invite people to follow my page here. In the current theme it’s a green box on the left side of the panel. Or you can watch what I write on Twitter, which is mostly shorter than this and is sometimes just outrage at the movie that’s on. Thanks for the attention.)

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