Hotel Annunciator

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Hotel Annunciator; calls have been placed from rooms 9, 29, and 50

Early Annunciators

Zeilinski notes that techniques for the initiation of “microevents in distant places with the aid of electrocircuits,” had been devised and demonstrated between 1787 and the early 19th century by Hungarian, French, Austrian, and English researchers (182). Though the telegraph would eventually be the most widely dispersed outgrowth of these advances, the technology and concept were first put to use in a variety of small-scale communicational situations. Later components of the hotel system are exhibited in these early devices, such as the ringing of a bell to signal the form of the message, rather than the content; referring to Soemmering’s 1805 telegraph: “A further wire, connected to the clapper of a bell, existed to signal the beginning and end of a message” (182).

Henry Murray, an Englishman traveling through the United States in the 1850s, suggests that the hotel annunciator may have begun as a U.S. phenomenon, calling the device “that invaluable specimen of American mechanical ingenuity…Why this admirable contrivance has not been introduced into this country [England], I cannot conceive.” The earliest officially documented form discovered is for J. Russel's "Annunciator," patented October 10, 1829 by the U.S. Patent office. The device pictured seems as if it may operate with applied pressure to a pull wire in the back of the cabinet, rather than through electrical agitation. This pressure forces a numbered circle to protrude from the front, rendering it visible from the side only; a bell hanging from the box by an internal spring would also presumably jangle. Unfortunately the U.S. Patent office’s Data Conversion Operation reports that all other text or images of the patent are missing at this time.

Tremont House

Massachusetts, 1829. Located on Tremont Street in Boston, the Tremont House is known as the first modern hotel, offering upper class luxuries such as private rooms and á la cart dining (Morgenroth 137). At four stories and 170 guest rooms, and with opulent parlor, dining, drawing, and reading areas, technologically aided communication among staff and guests would have been necessary. Charles Dickens notes, "more galleries, colonnades, piazzas and passages than I can remember, or a reader would believe" (Kaplan). Technological advancements built into the hotel's design included indoor plumbing, heating, elevators, and an annunciator. This early hotel annunciator aided seclusion by allowing communication to the office through walls and over the vertical and horizontal space of the building. The specific annunciator, patented by Seth Fuller, was a "bell system [which] enabled guests to call “rotunda men” to their rooms" (Berger). Essentially a system of hanging bells connected to individual rooms with wire, the main office could be alerted to a guest's needs through an electronically trigged signal. The interesting lack of intra-guest communications through the system seems to remain a steady component of the annunciating system.

Primary Features

A basic annunciator in lC19 consists of a bell fixed to an often ornate wooden box that stores the receiver’s mechanization and frames its visual interface. The face is divided into discrete units, each comprised of a linguistic or numeral signifier representing the location of a calling device and an armature capable of rest in two positions, one indicating a call. When a call button is depressed, two types of data are transmitted simultaneously by the annunciator through two binary codes, one visual and one aural. Dormancy and silence indicate that no external message is being conveyed to the annunciating board. A call closes the electrical circuit; the struck or vibrating bell audibly announces a change in the visible structure’s information, which has shifted an individual annunciating unit’s lever from one position to a second. Mechanically, "an annunciator consists of electromagnets which allow shutters to drop or needles to move on the circuits being closed...The number of the circuit is marked on the shutter, or near the needle, either shutter or needle being replaced by a reset device, which may be mechanical or electrical" (Schneider 55).

The intended receiver of the annunciating board's message would be a hotel clerk or attendant, but the location of the board may have made the communications visible and audible to all visitors. One account of a hotel annunciator in the 1850s describes it as standing "in full sight of all" (Murray).

Wiring or return call section?
File:Annunciator wire.JPG
Basic annunciator circuits

"To wire for a return call annunciator, the best plan to follow is to use three colors of insulated wire. One wire, a red one, can be run from one side of the battery to all places where push-buttons are to be. A second wire from the battery (a blue wire), to one side of all the bell connections. ...Now a third color wire (either black or white--these are the two best colors), should be run, one wire from each place to where the two wires are, to where the annunciator is to be located; remember, one separate wire from each place to the annunciator. Should you wire for a fifty number annunciator you would have one red wire, one blue wire, and fifty black or white wires at the place the annunciator was to be" (Weber 48).


Electric Annunciators were utilized in a variety of different locations. Most often found in hotels, offices or houses, they were essentially installed wherever a number of "signaling stations" were needed to signal one centric location; "[the] Annunciator can be made for as many indications as desired, and is so constructed that when a push-button is pressed, the bell on the annunciator rings, and an indicating needle, drop, or some other device will show from where the call, or signal came. There is but one bell to the annunciator, but the number of indications is never limited" (Weber 41-42).

If an attendant was not near enough to hear the bell, the armature would be held into place by its own weight and convey the message that a call had been placed from the room indicated. Aside from the annunciator types of "gravity drop, in which a target is released by the action of the current, and its weight causes it to drop into view, thus indicating that a call has been made; needle drop (as seen in the image to the right); and target type," (Pattison 14) a slightly different type is the lamp annunciator. A lamp annunciator's main difference lies in how its "signaling system is indicated by the lighting of a small incandescent lamp" (Pattison 15). The visual aspect serves as a necessary reminder since in some instances "the annunciator bell stops ringing as soon as the caller releases his push button, but the lamp burns until the call is answered" (Pattison 15). This feature of the device is mentioned by a number of sources as being especially useful in dealing with a “forgetful” wait staff. On a ship’s annunciator: “One great advantage to this contrivance is that should the servant fail to hear the bell he can always tell by looking at the “indicator,” whether his services are needed.”

A three-point style push button is "used for special bell and annunciator work" (Schneider 20).

"When it is desired to receive signals from a number of push buttons located at different points throughout a building, the wires from the buttons are terminated in a device that gives the signal and indicates the origin of the call. This device is called an annunciator. An annunciator consists of a number of drops that are operated through magnets. The current from the calling push buttons passes through the magnet, causing it to move an indicating device to show the call. The indication is shown by a drop, shutter, needle, or lamp. There is also a bell or buzzer connected to the circuit" (Pattison 14).

Reset Function

After having revealed the location of a caller, the annunciator's armatures had to be replaced into their non-indicating position. Variations of the annunciator handle the situation differently; "Some of the annunciators are arranged so that the indications are placed in their natural position by a mechanical device. Some are reset by pressing a push-button on the annunciator, and the resetting is done by electricity. Others are so made that the last place called or signaled from resets any indicating device that may be out of its natural position and leaves only the indication which was used or called last" (Weber 42).

An automatic reset seems to be preferred in some cases, again referencing the difficult task of servicing a large number of guests: "a good, substantially made pendulum indicator is so much to be preferred to any kind that requires a shutter or vane to be replaced by the attendant before it can be used again, as with the almost incessant ringing of bells in a large hotel the most careful of servants will repeatedly forget to replace the shutters" (Allsop 113). "Pendulum, or swinging, signals are used in annunciator work, where there is a liability that the ordinary drop shutter would not be reset. They, however, only give a visible signal for a few seconds, and are therefore liable to be overlooked" (Schneider 57). Boston's 1829 Tremont House (or Hotel) had 170 rooms, as well as a 200-person dining hall while New York's 1836 Astor House had over 300 rooms.

reset diagram pictures will go here

Possible Effects of Remediation


Annunciators are an electro-mechanized remediation of the general or domestic hand bell. Essential changes in the structures of these two means of communication are dynamic and should be highlighted. Most notably, the struck bell which is the acoustic message has been removed from the perceivable field of the caller. This silence, or really lack of bell, removes the caller from his or her usual awareness of the communication. The receiver of the message not only retains perception of audible ringing, but has moved closer to the source—-though the bell is now in the servant’s office, the caller’s ghostly hand still controls its movement. Immobility of the bell also fragments the dual position it may have once held. Sound waves produced may not only announce a particular, preconceived message (lunch time, one is needed, etc.), but also indicate the location of the caller by direction and distance. The hotel annunciator’s bell, because it is held in common with other guests and locations, can only convey that a message has been sent; communication is handled by the ‘screen’ of the device through the coded locations of all possible callers.

Further Remediations

burglar alarm photo will go here

"New forms of annunciators are made for recording degrees of temperature, for time signaling service, on street and steam railways, etc. Another comparatively new commercial use of the annunciator is for keeping and recording engagements, especially designed for hotel and livery stable service" (459).

Another variation of the annunciator is found in Knights American Mechanical Dictionary: “The chamber of the guest and the hotel office are each provided with an indexed gauge, consisting of a hollow tube containing a colored liquid. At the back of each tube is a graduated index marked at intervals, “fire,” “light,” “water,” “brandy,” “towels,” etc., as may suit the average of customers. The respective tubes are connected by an air pipe, into which air is injected by the guest, to raise the liquid in the respective tubes to the point which indicates his wants.” (117)

The annunciator was remediated into the form of a burglar alarm. There were two types of electric burglar alarms: the open circuit alarm, typically utilized in private homes, and the closed circuit alarm, which was more useful in a location where the alarm would sound some distance away (Weber 51).


Luxury and Service

"The annunciators were all framed in wooden cases of desirable style and finish" (459).

switch panel photo goes here




In the case of the burglar alarm, the privacy of in-home servants virtually disappeared. With the installation of the burglar alarm, not only were house owners informed of intruders, but "the hours can be known when [servants] come in or go out, when the alarm is on" (Weber 52). Furthermore, family convenience was taken into account as it is described that "[the] proper place for a burglar alarm annunciator is in the family bed-room, and so located that a good view of the annunciator is had from a lying position on the bed" (Weber 54).

gambling picture in this section


What It Is
  • E.D. Weber, Practical wiring of buildings: for incandescent electric lighting, electric gas lighting, electric burglar alarms, electric house and hotel annunciators, bells, etc., etc., (New York : The Comenius Press, 1895). Call number 621.345 W382

2*Headline: Arrival of the America. 7 Days Later from Europe; Article Type: News/Opinion Paper: Southern Patriot, published as The Southern Patriot; Date: 10-02-1848; Volume: LX; Issue: 9653; Page: [2];

Berger, Molly W. "The Old High-Tech Hotel." American Heritage of Invention and Technology Magazine. 11 (1995) [I didn't the info from "The Modern Hotel in America" though we can cite it if it's in that article, too. Berger's dissertation, The Modern Hotel in America, 1829-1929, won the 1998 Outstanding Dissertation Award from the Ohio Academy of History. ]

When the Astors Owned New York Blue Bloods and Grand Hotels in a Gilded Age by Justin Kaplan Publisher: Penguin , Date published: 05/19/2007