History of Basketball: The Lost Story of Ralph Williams

Without the work of Ralph Williams the game of basketball would be very different. Williams acted as a groundbreaking force in basketball after its formal creation 1891. During the 1900s Williams was the catalyst that propelled the game to new heights and kept the sport alive during the darkest of times. Williams was not a player, nor was he a promoter. Williams was the original public address system, more specifically he was the original buzzer.

Equipped with only a simple wristwatch, Williams took his position along the sidelines of the basketball, keeping track of time. At those times there was not shot clock so Williams’ job was to keep track of each quarter. As the quarter expired Williams would give his trademark wail (a sound that has been adopted into the modern game as the buzzer).

Today Williams’ efforts go relatively unappreciated by the basketball community. The self-entitled ballers of today take the horn for granted, believing that since the beginning of time the “WAAAAAAAAAAH” has existed to signal the end of quarters. Few know of Ralph Williams’ story, which is why News4Mass has chosen to team with RWAS (the Ralph Williams Awareness Society) in order to bring the history of Ralph Williams, and his contributions to basketball, to the forefront.


Ralph Williams was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1883. William’s parents were immigrants from Ireland, his mother working as a dishwasher and his father a construction worker. For most of Ralph Williams’ life he lived in poverty, his parents both struggling to be financial stable throughout Williams’ childhood.

Troubles continued for Ralph Williams during school, where he was constantly in trouble, accumulating over 150 referrals. On many of the referral slips the reasoning behind his trouble was that he was “so freakin’ loud.”

It’s true that Williams’ volume was a reason for his struggles. He was constantly bullied at schools and called “siren-breath” by almost every one of his neighbors.  Such harassment sent Williams into a dark state of depression, during which time he wrote several dark and monotonous poems. Which of course were never published, only furthering Williams’ depression.

Ralph Williams stayed in that state for several years until he got a job at  the YMCA Gymnasium in Albany, New York in 1902. There he was first introduced to the game of basketball and Dr. James Naismith, the game’s inventor. Williams became obsessed with the game from then on, thinking only of ways to improve it and ways in which he could get involved (Williams was never asked to play because he was terrible). He eventually came up with his big idea, to regulate the amount of time in the game using the wristwatch he had been given the previous Christmas. Ecstatic when his idea was approved, Williams soon volunteered for the position and got it.

The next twenty-plus years of Williams’ life was spent standing on the sideline and yelling. He was eventually phased out by the digital horn, but his legend still lives on. He might not be in the Basketball Hall of Fame, but his voice rang in the players’ ears until the day they died. So next time you’re at a basketball game take a moment and appreciate all that Ralph Williams has given you.

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2 thoughts on “History of Basketball: The Lost Story of Ralph Williams

  1. Pingback: MASS Skepticism – Rolling Stones Song « News4Mass

  2. Perhaps Ralph should be considered for the basketball hall of fame. I feel he contributed to the game as much as Chuck Taylor.

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