1800, "animal that howls," originally in reference to the South American monkey, agent noun from howl (v.). Meaning "glaring blunder, ridiculous mistake" is first recorded 1890. In early telephony (1886 - c. 1920) the name of a device used by the exchange to produce a loud howl in the receiver to attract a subscriber who has not hung up his end of the connection.
Telephone companies are oftentimes annoyed by subscribers leaving the receivers off the hook--time is lost and the service is more or less impaired. The Kellogg Switchboard & Supply Company has recently issued a four-page folder descriptive of their "howler" equipment which is effectively used in remedying this evil. ["Journal of Electricity, Power & Gas," vol. xxix, no. 6, Aug. 10, 1912]