Bells and whistles
Attractive additional features or fittings
'Bells and whistles' appeared many times in 18th and 19th century texts in literal references to warnings or promotional events. These contexts included citations about fire engines, the Salvation Army, circuses; anyone in fact that was trying to draw attention to themselves might do so using a bell or a whistle. The current meaning of 'bells and whistles' is different. It refers to items that have a full array of additional features and extras. Cars and computers are just the right type of products to sport these additional features and it comes as no surprise to learn that it is in those technological fields that the phrase originated. The earliest printed reference that I've found to the current meaning of the phrase 'bells and whistles' is in a classified advert for a 1969 Buick Riviera, in the Wisconsin newspaper The Capital Times, June 1971:
69 Riviera: One owner and driven very few miles, with all the bells and whistles, $3695.
It wasn't long before computer salesmen got in on the act and started to offer computers with 'all the bells and whistles'. An example from that context from later in the 1970s comes from the US computer magazine Computerworld, August 1976:
Before even considering bells and whistles, a user should look at the plain vanilla system and see just how operationally sound it is.
So why was 'bells and whistles' chosen as synonymous with 'the full complement of accessories'? After all, the expression bears little relation to the earlier 'making a lot of noise' meaning. The coiners of the present meaning of the term weren't thinking about fire engines etc. when they adopted the new meaning, but fairground organs. These were somewhat like what a one-man band would resemble if he formed an army. It hardly does them justice to call them musical instruments; they were orchestral automatons on an industrial scale and bristled with every form of instrument that could be banged, shaken or blown.