15 Old Computer Sounds That Will Take You Right Back

YouTube / SataiDelenn
YouTube / SataiDelenn

Those of us who were really hip in the '90s got online, usually via a dialup modem (or your college's awesome network...if you could afford a network card). There were distinct sounds associated with computers of that time that we don't think about today, but they're lodged deep in our memories. Let's go back to some computer sounds you probably haven't heard in decades.

1. 56K MODEM CONNECTING

Modem connection sounds varied based on speed, modem brand, the quality of the connection, and so on. But today, the 56k modem (the pinnacle of modem technology in the '90s) is the best-remembered "modem screech." My friend's mom called this sound "wirescream," which sounds accurate to me. So here's a 56k modem dialing and connecting (illustrated with a little guy acting as the modem):

2. 3.5" FLOPPY DRIVE SOUND

If you ever installed software or copied a lot of files, you heard this.

3. "YOU'VE GOT MAIL" (AOL)

Sound courtesy of: AOL SoundBoard.

Aside from being a romantic comedy (ancient, Flash-using, 1998 website here), the "You've got mail" sound was familiar to all AOL users. It was voiced by Elwood Edwards, recorded on a cassette deck in his living room. (These days, Edwards drives for Uber in Ohio.)

4. WINDOWS 3.1 STARTUP SOUND

Sound courtesy of WinHistory.

Tada! Just one second long. Because back in my day, we couldn't afford the disk space for fancier sounds.

5. WINDOWS 95 STARTUP SOUND

Microsoft commissioned musician/producer Brian Eno to create the Windows 95 startup sound. The result is a masterpiece.

6. MAC STARTUP/CRASH SOUNDS

If you had a Mac in the '90s, you'd hear a startup chime, and hopefully you didn't hear the crash sound too often (we used to call it "MacDeath" at my high school). It's surprising how different the startup sounds were, especially the AV model Macs (which had special audio/video hardware, hence the fancy sound):

7. ICQ MESSAGE SOUND

Sound courtesy of WavThis.

ICQ was a chat application that I used a lot in college in the late 90s. You'd hear this "Uh-oh!" for new messages.

8. WINDOWS 98 (SE) STARTUP SOUND

Sound courtesy of WinHistory.

This is smooth, but I still prefer the Windows 95 startup sound. It's just a classic.

9. QSOUND DEMO

QSound was a 3D-like effect that was used in games and sound production in tons of '90s stuff (for instance, Madonna's Immaculate Collection was "mixed in QSound"). Here's a demo video showing various places QSound showed up—it sounds best with headphones.

10. THE HAMPSTER DANCE [SIC]

This is best experienced on an archive of the original Hampster Dance website. But if your browser doesn't like that site, the video below is a loose approximation of the late-'90s phenomenon known as Hampster Dance. Let the gates of memory open.

(And yes, the spelling "Hampster" is intentionally incorrect.)

11. DOT MATRIX PRINTER

If you had a hand-me-down printer in the 90s (or you needed a receipt printed on carbon paper), this is what it sounded like...if you were lucky! My family's original dot matrix printer sounded like a malfunctioning robot on a murder spree.

12. A 1993 PC AND INKJET PRINTER STARTING UP

I've reported on this before. Listen for the POST (Power On Self Test) beep, the chittering of the hard drive, then the horrific clunking noises of the Epson Stylus 440. If you're wondering how a 1993 computer is running Windows 95, it's because this computer is still running today!

13. AOL INSTANT MESSENGER (AIM) BUDDY SOUNDS

When your AIM buddies signed on, a door opened:

When they signed off, the door closed (so sad):

Sounds courtesy of: AOL SoundBoard.

14. FLYING TOASTERS SCREENSAVER

After Dark offered some of the best screensavers around. "Flying Toasters" was my favorite, and it had an optional score, complete with lyrics at the bottom.

For more, see 10 Screensavers of Yore.

15. GOODBYE (AOL)

Sound courtesy of: AOL SoundBoard.

As it was and ever shall be. Goodbye, AOL.

22 Weird Jobs From 100 Years Ago

Metal Floss via YouTube
Metal Floss via YouTube

Before everyone started working in tech, people actually had their choice of eclectic and strange vocations that put food on their old-timey tables. Discover what lamplighters, lectores, and knocker-uppers did back in the day as Mental Floss editor-in-chief Erin McCarthy runs down 22 Weird Old Jobs from 100 Years Ago.

For more episodes like this one, be sure to subscribe here.

11 Fun Facts About Them!

Joan Weldon and James Arness star in Them! (1954).
Joan Weldon and James Arness star in Them! (1954).
Warner Home Video

In the 1950s, Elvis was king, hula hooping was all the rage, and movie screens across America were overrun with giant arthropods. Back then, Tarantula (1955), The Deadly Mantis (1957), and other “big bug” films starring colossal insects or arachnids enjoyed a surprising amount of popularity. What kicked off this creepy-crawly craze? An eerie blockbuster whose impossible premise reflected widespread anxieties about the emerging atomic age. Grab a Geiger counter and let’s explore 1954's Them!.

1. Them!'s primary scriptwriter once worked for General Douglas MacArthur.

When World War II broke out, the knowledge Ted Sherdeman had gained from his career as a radio producer was put to good use by Uncle Sam, landing him a position as a radio communications advisor to General MacArthur. However, the fiery conclusion of the war left Sherdeman with a lifelong disdain for nuclear weapons. In an interview he revealed that upon hearing about the 1945 bombing of Hiroshima, he “just went over to the curb and started to throw up."

Shifting his focus from radio to motion pictures, Sherdeman later joined Warned Bros. as a staff producer. One day he was given a screenplay that really made his eyes bug out. George Worthing Yates, best known for his work on the Lone Ranger serials, had decided to take a stab at science fiction and penned an original script about giant, irradiated ants attacking New York City. "The idea appealed to me very much,” Sherdeman told Cinefantastique, "because, aside from man, ants are the only creatures in the world that plan to wage war, and nobody trusted the atomic bomb at that time.” (His statement about animal combat is debatable: chimpanzee gangs will also take organized, warlike measures in order to annex their rivals’ territories.)

Although he loved the basic concept, Sherdeman felt that the script needed something more. Screenwriter Russell S. Hughes was asked to punch up the script, but died of a heart attack after completing the first 50 pages. With some help from director Gordon Douglas, Sherdeman took it upon himself to finish the screenplay. Thus, Them! was born.

2. Two main ants were built for the movie.

Them! brought its spineless villains to life using a combination of animatronics and puppetry, courtesy of an effects artist by the name of Dick Smith. He constructed two fully functional mechanical ants for the production, with the first of these being a 12-foot monster filled with gears, levers, motors, and pulleys. Operating the big bug was a job that required a small army of technicians who’d pull sophisticated cables to control the ant’s limbs off-camera. These guys worked in close proximity and often crashed into each other as a result, prompting Douglas to call them “a comedy team.”

The big insect mainly appears in long shots, and for close-ups, Smith built the front three quarters of a second large-scale ant and mounted it onto a camera crane. During scenes that required swarms of ants, smaller, non-motorized models were used. Blowing wind machines moved the little units’ heads around in a lifelike manner.

3. Them! features the Wilhelm Scream.

Fifty-nine minutes in, the ants board a ship and one of them grabs a sailor, who unleashes the so-called "Wilhelm Scream." You can also hear it when James Whitmore’s character is killed, and the sound bite rings out once again during the movie’s climax. Them! was among the first movies to reuse this distinctive holler, which was originally recorded three years earlier for the 1951 western Distant Drums. Since then, it’s become something of an inside joke for sound recording specialists. The scream has appeared in Titanic (1997), Toy Story (1995), Reservoir Dogs (1992), Batman Returns (1992), the Star Wars saga (1977-present), all three The Lord of the Rings movies (2001-2003), and countless other films.

4. Leonard Nimoy makes an appearance.

In one brief scene, future Star Trek star Leonard Nimoy plays an Army man who receives a message about an alleged “ant-shaped UFO” sighting over Texas. He then proceeds to poke fun at the Lone Star State, because, as everybody knows, insectile space vessels are highly illogical.

5. Many different sounds were combined to produce the screeching ant cries.

Throughout the movie, the monsters announce their presence with a haunting wail. Douglas’s team created this unforgettable shriek by mixing assorted noises, including bird whistles, which were artificially pitched up by sound technicians.

6. Sandy Descher had to sniff a mystery liquid during her signature scene.

Like Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, Them! has a deliberate pace and the massive insects don’t make an onscreen appearance until the half hour mark. Douglas took credit for this restrained approach, saying, “I told Ted, let’s tease [the audience] a little bit before you see the ant. Let’s build up to it."

So instead of showing off the big bugs, the opening scene follows a little girl as she wanders through the New Mexican desert, listlessly clutching her favorite doll. That stunning performance was delivered by child actress Sandy Descher. Later, in one of the most effective title drop scenes ever orchestrated, a vial of formic acid is held under her character’s nose. Suddenly recognizing the aroma, the traumatized youngster screams “Them! Them!” Descher never found out what sort of liquid was really sloshing around in that container.

“They used something that did smell quite strange. It wasn’t ammonia, it was something else,” she told an interviewer. Still, the mysterious brew had a beneficial effect on her performance. “They tried to create something different and it helped me a lot with that particular scene,” Descher said.

7. Them! was originally going to be filmed in 3D and in color.

To hear Douglas tell it, the insect models looked a lot scarier in person. “I put green and red soap bubbles in the eyes,” he once stated. “The ants were purple, slimy things. Their bodies were wet down with Vaseline. They scared the bejeezus out of you.” For better or for worse, though, audiences never got the chance to savor the bugs’ color scheme.

At first, Warner Bros. had planned on shooting the movie in color. Furthermore, to help Them! compete with Universal’s brand-new, three-dimensional monster movie, Creature From the Black Lagoon, the studio strongly considered using 3D cameras. But in the end, the higher-ups at Warner Bros. didn’t supply Douglas with the money he’d need to shoot it in this manner. Shortly before production started on Them!, the budget was greatly reduced, forcing the use of two-dimensional, black and white film.

8. The setting of the climactic scene was changes—twice.

Yates envisioned the final battle playing out in New York City’s world-famous subway tunnels. Hughes moved the action westward, conjuring up an epic showdown between human soldiers and the last surviving ants at a Santa Monica amusement park. Finally, for both artistic and budgetary reasons, Sherdeman set the big finale in the sewers of Los Angeles.

9. Warner Bros. encouraged theaters to use Them! as a military recruitment tool.

The film’s official pressbook advised theater managers who were screening Them!& to contact their nearest Armed Forces recruitment offices. “Since civil defense in the face of an emergency figures in the picture, make the most of it by inviting [a] local agency to set up a recruiting booth in the lobby,” the filmmakers advised. Also, the document suggested that movie houses post signs reading: “What would you do if (name of city) were attacked by THEM?! Prepare for any danger by enlisting in Civil Defense today!”

10. The movie was a surprise hit.

Studio head Jack L. Warner predicted that Them!, with its far-fetched plot, wouldn’t fare well at the box office. So imagine his surprise when it raked in more than $2.2 million—enough to make the picture one of the studio's highest-grossing films of 1954.

11. Them! landed Fess Parker the role of TV's Davy Crockett.

When Walt Disney went to see Them!, he had a specific objective in mind: Scout a potential Davy Crockett. At the time, Disney was developing a new television series that would chronicle the life and times of the iconic frontiersman, and James Arness, who plays an FBI agent in Them!, was on the short list of candidates for the role. Yet as the sci-fi thriller unfolded, it was actor Fess Parker who grabbed Disney’s attention. Director Gordon Douglas had hired Parker to portray the pilot who ends up in a psych ward after an aerial encounter with a gargantuan flying ant. And while his character only appears in one scene, the performance impressed Disney so much that the struggling actor was soon cast as Crockett.

By the Texan’s own admission, his good fortune may’ve been the product of bargain hunting. “Walt probably asked, ‘How much would Arness cost?’ and then ‘This fellow [Parker], we ought to be able to get him real economical,” Parker once said.

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