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). Electric bells and annunciators are one of the first in home uses of electricity (Brackett 239).

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

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A current exterior photograph of The 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 future annunciating systems.

Primary Features

A basic hotel annunciator(pictured at top of page)in mC19 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). The clerk would then issue the proper service person to the guest's room, to either discover what their request is, or within more complex annunciator systems, to bring them the service requested.

Call Buttons

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A complex hotel call button with a variety of possible requests
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Simple and compound call buttons

Call buttons ranged from the simple to the complex but operated on similar principles; "pressure of the finger on a button brings two strips of metal into contact and completes a circuit...By means of an accumulation of wire as a coil round a horseshoe bar of iron the magnetism is locally intensified to an extent necessary for the attraction of the iron hammer bar and by a simple automatic device the blow on the bell is reduplicated (Brackett 241). Complicated call buttons, with their variety of services capable of being requested, would have required either additional indicators on the annunciating board or additional structural modification of the system. Paul Lindemeyer, on the The Dead Media Project message board, cites Charles Lockwood's "Manhattan Moves Uptown" as suggesting a device whereby "a metal disc dropped to the bottom of a case filled with discs for all the various rooms. Each disc had a room number and a service type stamped in it."

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).

A lack of memory may be understandable; 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. This "forgetfulness," on the part of a wait staff could also have had something to do with their lack of monetary and social reimbursement. A simultaneous disdain for poor hotel service and for the Irish or African servants employed is evident in many sources. Murray offers a period politico-cultural possibility for the lack of capable or willing laborers: "the moment a little money is realized by a servant, he sets up in some business, or migrates westward."

Basic Wiring Scheme

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Basic annunciator circuits

Annunciator circuits are run between push buttons, battery and the annunciating board. In the diagram, B indicates battery; 1, 2, 3 and 4 are push buttons; 5 is a floor button and 6 is a separate bell system, hooked to the same battery source. Floor buttons may have been placed under tables so that service could be called by the host or hostess with discretion. A return call annunciator could also be wired, so that a similar return communication could be sent. Fire alarms are often wired alongside annunciators because they also need to reach into each guest's room.

Hotel annunciator with fire alarm (bottom) and room call functions


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).

Ramifications of System on User

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

One remediated version of the hotel annunciator is the burglar alarm

"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" (Barrett 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 also 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

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ornamented display case concealing an annunciator

Though the annunciator was wired for a variety of technical uses, it also came along with a new ideology of convenience and luxury. The location of the annunciator created a new consciousness of appearance; in each venue they were located, they "were all framed in wooden cases of desirable style and finish" (Barrett 459). As they were placed within households and office buildings, the annunciators were constructed as a commodity that was to be displayed.

With the request for service, it is evident that only the more luxurious hotels had annunciators. For example, the Tremont House, as the first modern hotel, offered amenities not seen at other hotels of the time. This notion of room service was not feasible in the early days as being a part of the general public's typical stay at a hotel. At the very least, it would cost more to have one of the "rotunda men" go to the room to take an order. In addition to providing the product such as water or food, the hotel would also have to pay for the service of the attendants.

Immediacy/ Feedback

The function of an annunciator fueled the drive for immediacy. Once a button was pushed requesting service, the guest would expect speedy service from the hotel staff. In reality the amount of time it takes for a call to be answered varied. Despite the inconsistent system in the early days of the annunciator's introduction, the hotel annunciators served its purpose. Remediations of the system, including the burglar alarm addition and later development into its own system, helped to save time. The sound of the bell called for immediate attention, even if it was to turn off the ringing. The annunciators targeted a simple setup and implementation. The annunciator was a fairly easy tool to use; with the push of a button the call has been placed. Yet there is an underlying issue of whether the call has been effectively placed. The only way to verify that the message has been sent is by the presence of an attendant. So while there is ease of use in the immediate implementation of system, there is limited resources to confirm the receipt of a call. The communication process is obstructed by noise, including the attendants' "forgetfulness" and presence (or lack of) and even the possibility of a faulty system: "in the case of a large hotel where the insulation [of the wiring] has broken down, and owning to the place being full, it is not convenient to at once remove the faulty wires" (Allsop 113).

Later versions of annunicators developed a two-way communication method, such as a "three wire return call annunciator system" (64) in which the caller would receive instant confirmation by the front desk attendant. The invention of the telephone caused a critical change to the hotel hospitality industry. The telephone became the replacement of these hotel annunicators as the way to contact hotel staff for room service.


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"Crooked Gamblers" Privacy is shot in various markets with the help of an annunciator
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"Crooked Gamblers" (continued)

Privacy was sold through the annunciator system as well for interpersonal communication was no longer necessary. Instead, the guest could now relay their desires through the impersonal use of a push button rather than seeking out an attendant.

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).


Today, the concept of a hotel annunciator is no longer embraced as a technology of service. More currently used for alarms, the annunciator has become a safety automation. The fire alarm, for example, utilizes the annunciator from a central location to notify residents in multiple rooms of a need to evacuate. The sound of the bell is immediately recognizable as a call for attention, and serves as its own sign system.


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  • Badt, F. B. Bell Hangers' Handbook, 2nd edition. (Chicago : Electricians Publishing Company, 1889).
  • Barrett, John Patrick, Electricity at the Columbian Exposition,: Including an account of the exhibits in the Electricity Building, the power plant in Machinery Hall, the arc ... of the grounds and buildings ... etc, (Chicago : R.R. Donnelley, 1894). ASIN B00086MX3S
  • Berger, Molly W. "The Old High-Tech Hotel." American Heritage of Invention and Technology Magazine. 11 (1995)
  • Brackett, Cyrus Fogg Electricity in Daily Life: A Popular Account of the Applications of Electricity to Everyday Uses. (J.J. Little & Co. Astor Place, NY: 1891).
  • Morgenroth, Lynda, Boston Firsts: 40 Feats of Innovation and Invention that Happened First in Boston and Helped Make America Great, (Boston : Beacon Press, 2006). ISBN 978-0807071304
  • Pattison, F. A. Interior wiring. (International Textbook Company, 1929). ASIN B00086O264
  • Schneider, Norman Hugh How to install electric bells, annunciators, and alarms. (New York/London : Spon & Chamberlain, 1910).
  • Weber, E.D., 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];