Sciency Words: (proper noun) a special series here on Planet Pailly focusing on the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms.  Today’s Sciency Word is:


Some of you may be too young to know what a dial tone is, so here’s an instructional video explaining the concept.

According to this article from Teletech Services, it was German engineer August Kruckow who invented the dial tone back in 1908.  A dial tone is a buzzing or humming sound that landline telephones make to let you know they’re connected and working.

It’s hard to say when “dial tone” became a SETI term, but the earliest usage I was able to find is this 1995 paper by Steven Dick entitled “Consequences of Success in SETI: Lessons from the History of Science.”

In that paper, Dick draws a distinction between extraterrestrial signals that communicate information vs. extraterrestrial signals that serve essentially the same function as a dial tone.  The general public, Dick argues, would react quite differently if we picked up some sort of intergalactic dial tone instead of a “Greetings, Earthlings, would you like to learn more about calculus?” type of message.

Later papers (like this one or this one) continue to use this dial tone metaphor, and in 2018 a special committee on SETI nomenclature adopted the following as the official definition for the term: “A content-free beacon, i.e. one that communicates only the existence of technological life.”

That same committee goes on to note some concern that the conventional meaning of “dial tone” may soon become obsolete; if so, the committee worries, then the continued use of “dial tone” as a SETI term might become problematic.  I’m not sure I agree with that concern, though.  Lots of terms and phrases have stuck around even after their original meanings have faded into history.

In the near future, maybe it won’t be obvious to everyone that “dial tone” originally had something to do with telephones, but if SETI scientists keep using the term, I don’t think it’s that hard for people to understand what the term means… is it?

10 responses »

  1. Steve Morris says:

    Language is super flexible. I think we’re perfectly capable of understanding words that have lost their original meaning. That would be most words in fact.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. It never occurred to me that younger people might not have heard a dial tone. It’s sort of like them never seeing signal snow on the old analog TVs. This is me feeling old.

    Along the lines of Steve’s point, it’s interesting to read the etymology of modern words (when it’s known). Many of them have roots that are meaningless to us today, often referring to something to do with farming.

    Liked by 3 people

    • J.S. Pailly says:

      It hadn’t occurred to me either until I started researching this post, but I honestly can’t remember the last time I’ve heard a dial tone. I kind of feel like the guy at the beginning of that instructional video complaining about how you get used to technology working one way, and then they go and change it on you.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. dtkrippene says:

    I believe “dial-tone” is still relevant, especially the messages left by robo-callers when I don’t pick up.

    Your graphic reminds me of SNL’s classic skit where aliens replied to Voyager’s time capsule record of sounds and images depicting life on earth. “Send more Chuck Berry.”

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Kate Rauner says:

    The term maybe be even better as it loses its original meaning- now Dial Tone will only be a SETI term 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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