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A Partial History of Alarms

The history of property and theft is a large subject, more or less the history of humankind. Fully considered, it extends to the bulk of our achievements in government, culture, and commerce, along with the greater share of our technical advances, from the earliest architecture and mightiest engines of war to the humbler topic at hand: electric and electronic security alarms—the various buzzing, shrieking, whooping, clanging, yeeping anti-theft devices so familiar to anyone who lives and sleeps in a modern city.

Though mechanical alarms are fairly recent, the idea is as old as property itself. Undoubtedly, mankind’s earliest alarm system consisted of a few strategically tethered dogs. With their jittery, blusterous temperaments and zeal for authority, dogs fully prefigured the basic operating principles of the modern security alarm. Like mechanical alarms—which do not themselves directly attack, roust, or mangle thieves (though such spectacular accessories are now available)—dogs repel intruders with a kind of sonic illusion. Riled, they emit a warning cry in the lowest tone they can muster—a plangent growl whose deep, resonant pitch implies a larger chest, and thus vocal cords attached to a mightier beast. Likewise, security alarms—not in their pitch, but in their broad, systemic reach—imply the attachment of private property to a larger, more brutal entity: the state.

This ventriloquial strategy first took mechanical form in humble alarms for private homes. Before electricity, such devices were relatively feckless, as in the case of an eighteenth-century apparatus of pull-strings and jingle-bells rigged to emit, in the words of its English inventor, “a plaintive air that inspires such sentiments in the mind of the housebreaker that will doubtless prompt him to take precipitous flight.”[*] With electricity, however, plaintiveness became an octave of the alarm’s past. According to patent records, the first voltaic “burglar annunciator” was registered in Boston in 1853, making security alarms arguably the earliest form of electrified mass communication. Versions of this novel, window-sprung buzzer were used primarily to protect the homes of affluent city dwellers. Their jurisdiction was domestic, their advantage surprise. Yet with the technology in place, electric security alarms would soon spread beyond this limited purview in a steady, raucous encroachment of private distress on public domain.

Commercial alarms marked the next major epoch of alarm development. By the turn of the century, on-premise commercial alarms formed part of the emerging urban network of telegraphs, telephones, pneumatic tubes, fire bells, traffic signals, and other conveyers of modern urgency. Proliferating along the new overhead wireways, a growing alarm industry affixed its clamorous wares to banks, furriers, jewelers, and, above all, to department store windows, where newly fashionable dioramas of mannequins reveling in convenience formed the stroll-by television of the day. Able to reinforce glass without obstructing the view, electric window alarms thus advanced to new heights the technical fusion of display and restriction so essential to the formation of a well-stoked consumer economy. Soon store windows everywhere sported that quaint iconography still visible to any appreciative urban stroller today: badge-shaped decals bearing the Kiwanian-era trademarks of the early alarm manufacturers—a goddess in helmet (Holmes Electric Protection), an eagle volant (Merchant Central), a pony expressman (Wells Fargo Security), a winged griffin (DGA Alarm Systems), a grenadier in a halo of electric bolts (National Guardsman, Inc.)—depictions of the alarms as a constabulary of stern little genies inhabiting the glass.

With this widening protectorate came a fundamental change in the security alarm’s mode of operation. While household alarms were designed primarily to consternate burglars and jangle awake the slumbering homeowner, alarms in the commercial setting required third-party intervention. After business hours, that is, the property owner may be nowhere about, and the alarm must act not merely as a warning signal but as an instrument of makeshift recruitment and random public address. In this evolved capacity, then, the security alarm assumes an implicitly civic function. It appeals, like the clarions or church bells of old, to the sense of duty that undergirds all social order, to those nobler instincts of citizenship, reciprocity, and the commonweal by which we band ourselves into stable, productive nations. Naturally, coercion is involved. Amplified with colossal buzzers, pneumatic sirens, and rapid-fire, wall-bolted gongs, the din of a detonated store alarm blaring, ringing, clanging away in the night forcibly conscripts everyone within earshot into the defense of property that isn’t theirs and from which they themselves, let us pause to remember, derive neither profit nor reciprocal protection. All the logic of patriotism is there.

Yet while these peace-rending machines spread rapidly through the commercial realm, their placement remained limited to more or less clear physical bounds. Soon, however, alarm technology would take a decidedly metaphysical turn. By the 1940s, the outsized break-ins of world warfare had inspired the development of a new array of infrared and ultrasonic detectors. Incorporating these advances and hewing to the century’s emerging spirit of global surveillance and aerial attack, the simple burglar alarm began to evolve into the more intricate and ethereal “security system.” Augmented with electromagnetic sensors, the alarm’s trip-circuits could now be beamed through the air rather than puttied or taped to breachable surfaces. This refinement proved especially useful for settings of conditional public access. In banks, museums, and other secular institutions, concealed alarms served to reinforce a sense of gloom-based authority, while half reviving, through a sort of technological animism, the modern public’s waning dread of unseen powers.

The hidden security system thus established a new courtliness of interior space. In these hushed, tingly atmospheres of withheld outburst, the visitor feels vaguely incriminated, while any object under the alarm’s scan acquires an aura of baleful superlegitimacy. Consider, for example, an encounter with an institutional treasure like the Mona Lisa, one of the first artworks accoutered with alarms. You arrive through guarded corridors amid a restrained, pensive crowd. You take your turn and stand beneath the masterpiece, pondering deeply, awaiting its aesthetical effects. As you wait, you notice how old it looks, how remote and small. The longer you stare, the more its value seems manifest not in the dim little rectangle of crackulating paint, but in the assault-proof glass, the surveillance cameras, the softly militarized setting. Peering closer now, as if through freshly criminalized eyes, you imagine the alarm behind the portrait itself, the alarm surely underlying that famous, bemused face like a suppressed scream that twitches delicately at the corners of her mouth: One touch and she shrieks, one bump and her role in the history of art is instantly superseded by her role in the history of property and punishment.

Whether guarding a store window, then, or a priceless work of art, alarms illustrate the appeal to force implicit in the very concept of property. Yet if the interior security system advanced this coercive function to new heights, the alarms themselves remained as stationary and wire-fixtured as the earliest burglar-buzzers. It was only with the development of the transistor in the late fifties and the advent of smaller, wireless parts that alarms assumed a policing power as dispersed and flexible as property itself in a commodity-flooded world. With electronic components and plastic housings, no longer were alarms bound to place. Even the sounds, the twitters and whines, of this new “remote control” technology suggested a boundless penetration of external authority into internal conscience. By the end of the decade these qualities had been brought to ingenious perfection in the anti-shoplifting systems of the Sensormatic and Knogo corporations, whereby even the meagerest store merchandise could be tagged electronically with its own powers of adjudication and self-avenging squeals.

First installed in department stores in the sixties, such systems have become so common now that it is difficult for us to truly appreciate the horror they must have inspired in their first unwitting victims—that special, revelatory horror reserved for lab animals, infantry, and other prey of new machines. Imagine yourself as an innocent young shopper in that dawn of the electronic age deliberating over some extravagant vendible—say, a costly pair of gloves. On an impulse you slip the gloves under your coat, cough, and glance around: so far, so good. Now with casual aplomb and excruciating restraint you saunter down the aisle, past the distracted clerks toward the store exit, your heart tugging and panting on its leash, trembling in the anticipation of life’s most incomparable triumph: successful theft. The exit is just four, three, two steps away…. Then suddenly, a scream! A high-pitched, oscillating whine, as if some dentalish instrument were extracting the pulp of your very conscience. A guard steps forward and seizes you by the arm. And whatever your immediate fate, you will surely experience for years to come the after-twitches of this utter betrayal by the inanimate universe: like the fairy tale in which the broom or bucket—or in this case, the pricey gloves—suddenly springs to life, crying Thief! Thief! Thief!

As such high-tech ambushes proliferated through the sixties, they seemed at first to herald the push-button totalitarianism grimly prognosticated in those days. Yet just as the path of human logic is so often unpredictable, so the technologies it dreams into existence rarely progress along clear trajectories. While hidden alarm networks continue to enclose more and more of our public space, the idea of a totally ordered, big-brotherly society now stands in our growing collection of antique futurisms. Where we once feared the perfection of social order, we now sense order fragmenting all around us. Suitably enough, then, the most recent phase of alarm development has a clearly discordant, regressive ring to it, as the sporadic howls of car alarms fill our city nights with echoes of the device’s distant zoological origins.


Technically speaking, this latest “postmodern” genre of security alarm cannot be considered much of an advance. Yet more forcefully than any of its predecessors, the car alarm intones a central irony in the history of alarm technology. The automobile itself, as we know, represented the mechanical triumph of individual over collective. Enthroned in his roaming, honking intransigence, the motorist becomes a creature against all others. With alarms, this territorial self-acclaim can be sustained even when the motorist has called it a day. The early horn-triggering alarms of the seventies clearly evinced this surrogate function, emitting an autistically methodical honk like an enraged driver pounding his forehead on the horn. As later car alarms grew more ubiquitous and expressive, filling neighborhoods with their now-familiar idiom of whoooops, dweeeeps, and whirligig wails, they clearly demonstrated a paradox evident in so many areas of human progress: that our achievements tend to expand to the point of their own self-diminishment. Here the very line of technology first designed to protect the sanctity of the home has evolved into that sanctum’s most persistent disrupter.

The history of security alarms, then, chronicles yet another case of social failures amplified by mechanical successes. On the purely technical side, the successes will undoubtedly proceed. In the line of detached alarms we already have accessory shriekers for luggage, pets, children, home-incarcerated felons, and habitually wandering victims of senility. In the field of security networks, we can envision future advances linking breakthroughs in digital encoding, bioengineering, and satellite surveillance. Whatever our minds can imagine owning we will surely find noisier ways to secure. Yet it is here that the limitations arise. For we have come far and acquired much since our earliest, dog-guarded days. Indeed, the world is now so thoroughly and irreversibly owned that each new generation arrives into a state of increasingly aggravated mutual trespass. And in such a state the laws configuring social relations appear to us more and more like a shrill, misfiring system of coercion into which we are all unwillingly deputized. In the end, we grow inured. For who today actually responds to these mechanical invokers of civic duty? When a car alarm shrieks under our window at night, don’t we all simply curse, pack the pillows over our ears, and burrow back to sleep? … sleeping until startled awake by yet another alarm: the peep, jingle, or buzz of our bedside alarm clock, that most intimate of all security devices, the alarm by which property itself secures our daily labor, guarding its ever-expanding claims against the trespass of our dreams.


[*] From “A History of Alarm Systems,” by The National Burglar and Fire Alarm Association.