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The history of the humble doorbell

It goes way further back than you might think.

This advertising content was produced in collaboration between Vox Creative and our sponsor, without involvement from Vox Media editorial staff.

What’s the first thing that welcomes guests into your home? A doorbell! It might seem like just a simple button upon first glance, but the doorbell actually has a long history that goes back to the Industrial Revolution.

Early doorbells

Early doorbells on record in the Victorian Era usually worked in one of two ways. Twist doorbells used a key-like mechanism on the outside of the door that strikes a bell on the inside when twisted – think of cranking a wind-up toy. Pull doorbells, on the other hand, could be rung by pulling a rope that rings a small bell on the inside of the house.

Doorbells: a product of the Industrial Revolution?

William Murdoch, inventor of the first mechanized doorbell

The Industrial Revolution modernized many aspects of everyday life through technological advancements in areas such as steam power, machine tools, textiles, and iron making, among others. William Murdoch, a Scottish steam engineer and inventor who was employed by British engineering and manufacturing firm Boulton and Watt, installed the first mechanized doorbell in his home. Perhaps taking a cue from the steam industry, Murdoch’s doorbell operated on a system of pipes and compressed air.

Doorbells go electric

The first electric doorbell was invented in 1831 by Joseph Henry, an American scientist who later went on to serve as first Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. But electric doorbells only became widespread after 1913, when the introduction of electric transformers eliminated the need for expensive batteries and instead relied on a household’s electrical current. In the 1930s, musical door chimes emerged as a tasteful alternative to relatively jarring, monotone buzzers. One of the most popular door chime tunes is the Westminster Quarters, which can also be heard ringing out from many churches’ bell towers.

Joseph Henry, inventor of the first electric doorbell

Video doorbells and beyond: the Nest Hello

Centuries later, we still rely on doorbells to see who’s at the door. Today, video doorbells like the Nest Hello can stream live HD footage from your front door to your phone, wherever you are. The Nest Hello comes with three pre-record messages for when you’re not home, and you can even teach it to recognize familiar faces and send a special alert. And unlike other motion-sensing video doorbells, Nest’s video doorbell streams and records video 24/7, even in the dark. Now that’s a good first impression.

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