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"No one noticed, they found, until the cords had lost an entire foot."
February 11, 2013 9:30 AM   Subscribe

John E. Karlin, Bell Labs' first behavioral psychologist and the father of human factors engineering, has died at the age of 94.

"It is not so much that Mr. Karlin trained midcentury Americans how to use the telephone. It is, rather, that by studying the psychological capabilities and limitations of ordinary people, he trained the telephone, then a rapidly proliferating but still fairly novel technology, to assume optimal form for use by midcentury Americans."

And because it's too good of a pull quote to resist:
“One day I was at a cocktail party and I saw some people over in the corner,” Mr. Karlin recalled in a 2003 lecture. “They were obviously looking at me and talking about me. Finally a lady from this group came over and said, ‘Are you the John Karlin who is responsible for all-number dialing?’ ”

Mr. Karlin drew himself up with quiet pride.

“Yes, I am,” he replied.

“How does it feel,” his inquisitor asked, “to be the most hated man in America?”


An exhibit at the 1963 World's Fair introducing touch-tone dialing.

Another post with photos of competing designs for the touch-tone keypad.
posted by spitefulcrow (32 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

 
beep-beep-beep-beep-beep-beep ("If you'd like to make a call, please hang up and dial again...")

.
posted by spitefulcrow at 9:39 AM on February 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


I saw his obit over the weekend.

It must have been a crazy, fun time to be involved in human factors engineering in the 1950s-60s.
posted by ardgedee at 9:49 AM on February 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


That was delightful. It feels like we're losing all these guys now, the hidden hands that shaped the technicolor world. Pringles guy died a few years back; I think he's buried in a can.
posted by Diablevert at 9:52 AM on February 11, 2013


I think he's buried in a can.

Yeah. They left room to stack his wife on top of him, later.
posted by yoink at 9:55 AM on February 11, 2013 [5 favorites]


Oh, man, all-number dialing. If only that had been the high-water mark of telephone suckage; now you need to dial ten numbers just to call within the local exchange. Anyone want to be the public face of that change? Didn't think so.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:55 AM on February 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


I thought it was Chapanis, Lutz, and Deiniger that designed the numpad?
posted by anthill at 10:04 AM on February 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


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posted by JoeXIII007 at 10:04 AM on February 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


The phone cord length study had become almost anonymous folklore by the 1970s:
Even practical jokes at Bell Laboratories have technical overtones. These two, for example, depend on careful measurement:

Years ago a scientist who proudly wore a new bowler to and from his laboratory was puzzled to distraction when, on successive days, his hat seemed first too small, then too large, then comfortable again, but unaccountably tight a day later. It took him weeks, it is said, to realize that someone had purchased two more hats identical except for size and was making arrhythmic substitutions in his wardrobe.

Another story widely told concerned a member of a group that studies the tastes and habits of telephone users -- what people like or dislike in the shape and heft of telephone instruments, how they remember numbers, preferences as to the arrangement of pushbuttons, and a hundred other things. In this instance the man's friends merely snipped a half-inch a day from the cord connecting the handset of his telephone to the base. Eventually he could be seen phoning with his chin almost down on his desk -- absorbed in his work and quite unaware that he was serving, so to speak, as his own guinea pig.

But levity has limits at Bell Laboratories. Most of the time this is an extremely serious place, heavily populated by problem-solvers with little time for japery.
Mabon, Prescott C. Mission Communications: The Story of Bell Laboratories. Murray Hill, NJ: Bell Telephone Laboratories, Inc. 1975. p. 151.
posted by nonane at 10:06 AM on February 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


..

One for Karlin and another for Bell Labs.
posted by entropicamericana at 10:21 AM on February 11, 2013 [4 favorites]


"Alright, Mr. Wiseguy," she said, "if you're so clever, you tell us what colour it should be."
posted by rebent at 10:30 AM on February 11, 2013 [5 favorites]


If only that had been the high-water mark of telephone suckage; now you need to dial ten numbers just to call within the local exchange.

Phone numbers are practically obsolete anyway. People will still have them, but for most of my friends, I've only "dialed" their number once -- to put it into my Contacts. I never call "213-867-5309"; I call "Jenny."
posted by Etrigan at 10:30 AM on February 11, 2013 [3 favorites]


...and another for Bell Labs.

Sad to see that spitefulcrow thought, probably correctly, that he needed to provide a wikipedia link explaining what Bell Labs was. I grew up not too far from Murray Hill and back then Bell Labs was like this cross between Wonka's Factory and NASA. They just kept pumping out these amazing inventions and discoveries. Transistors, lasers, Unix, C, CCDs, etc. Heck, in their spare time, they proved the big bang theory.

Corporations still do research but no one does the kind of well funded wide ranging blue sky stuff that Bell Labs did back then.
posted by octothorpe at 10:40 AM on February 11, 2013 [5 favorites]


Oh, stick it up your nose, rebent!
posted by Greg_Ace at 10:41 AM on February 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Wow, Etrigan, you just... well, it seems obvious now that I think of it. Why don't we have a DNS-like automatic name-to-phone number lookup service by now? I think us.wa.tacoma.ctmf would be easier for people to remember, if not dial, at least when not on their primary phones with stored contacts.
posted by ctmf at 10:44 AM on February 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


AskMetafilter: An extremely serious place, heavily populated by problem-solvers with little time for japery.
posted by Rangeboy at 10:49 AM on February 11, 2013 [4 favorites]


Why don't we have a DNS-like automatic name-to-phone number lookup service by now?

One of the good ideas that got lost in the fight between TCP/IP and the OSI Model was the latter's concept of distributed directory services. (Probably because the OSI model was developed, in significant part, by "telephone people" rather than "computer people.") Today we have LDAP, but that's really a shadow of what X.500 Directory Services were intended to be.

The implementation side of X.500 was shitty, but the concept was sound. Rather than DNS, which really only provides IP address / hostname translation, the X.500 Distinguished Name concept lets you identify and describe all sorts of arbitrary stuff. People, buildings, computer systems, whatever. And in theory, it all fits together as part of a unified "directory information tree" (much like DNS).

It's far from perfect — if you use given names as part of users' Distinguished Names in the directory, dealing with name changes is really, really messy; this leads to many modern LDAP implementations just throwing away the whole hierarchial concept and going with a flat structure that's basically no better than Unix's NIS/yp — and the global, DNS-like unified directory never developed due to the unpopularity of the OSI model protocol stack.

But when you set aside the implementations and how poorly they fit into the modern (which is to say pragmatic, mostly Unix-derived, TCP/IP) network ecosystem, there were some really good ideas there, and it's too bad that some of them didn't get incorporated into DNS. The big one is any way of querying at a sub-host level: DNS lets you query various pieces of information (A records, AAAA records, MX, etc.) about a particular host, but doesn't let you drill down any further and ask about information or user accounts or people that the host knows about. If you could query DNS for user@host, that would open up a lot of interesting possibilities.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:30 AM on February 11, 2013 [5 favorites]



The one thing that I'm still miffed about is that Telephone Numbers for land-lines aren't 100% portable yet. Technically, they should be, but we're still constrained by our central offices.

.


Because I worked in the industry from 1983 to 2008 and frankly, I don't think anyone will have as an amazing technological ride than divestiture and merger than occured in that time period.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:55 AM on February 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


MetaTalk: japery.
posted by maryr at 12:07 PM on February 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


.

For more Bell Labs nostalgia, check out the Bell Labs Archives video channel.
posted by Tesseractive at 12:36 PM on February 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Phone numbers are practically obsolete anyway. People will still have them, but for most of my friends, I've only "dialed" their number once -- to put it into my Contacts. I never call "213-867-5309"; I call "Jenny."

Cell contacts have made me stupid. Lord help me if I don't have my phone and need to call my husband from anywhere--I haven't a clue what his number is. Loose the phone? I'm doomed. There went the outside world. Used to be I had a hard copy address book somewhere with current numbers. It's probably got an inch of dust on it--where ever it is, and certainly not up to date with cell numbers.

Our local phone book used to be a half inch thick. It's less than a quarter inch now, and a 50lb weakling can rip three of them at a time. Used to be you could look up someone you hadn't necessarily met, but wanted to contact, and you had a pretty good chance of finding their number in the white pages. Now you haven't a chance. Don't call me, I'll call you.
posted by BlueHorse at 12:42 PM on February 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


.
posted by Skorgu at 12:56 PM on February 11, 2013


Cell contacts have made me stupid. Lord help me if I don't have my phone and need to call my husband from anywhere--I haven't a clue what his number is. Loose the phone? I'm doomed. There went the outside world. Used to be I had a hard copy address book somewhere with current numbers. It's probably got an inch of dust on it--where ever it is, and certainly not up to date with cell numbers.

Our local phone book used to be a half inch thick. It's less than a quarter inch now, and a 50lb weakling can rip three of them at a time. Used to be you could look up someone you hadn't necessarily met, but wanted to contact, and you had a pretty good chance of finding their number in the white pages. Now you haven't a chance. Don't call me, I'll call you.


For the first: back your phone up to your computer or, better, the cloud.

For the second: One day the waste of carbon that is the paper phone book will die. And it will not be mourned.
posted by spitefulcrow at 1:04 PM on February 11, 2013 [3 favorites]


Spitefulcrow:
The phone is backed up.
But what if I don't have my computer with me? And what if it crashes? And what if I forget my password for the site, and it's on my cell phone?
*she wailed*

I'm all in favor of saving the trees, but it seems a bit harsh on folks that don't have computers or dependable access. There are folks that still need to have access to (the vanishing) pay phones.

(love yer usename BTW)
posted by BlueHorse at 1:12 PM on February 11, 2013


"The phone book" is already dead, at least in my area. I get a bunch of purported "phone books" deposited on my doorstep periodically, but none of them are published by the phone company, and most of them have only a titular white pages section, if they even have one at all. They are 90% yellow pages, and those are really just a special case of advertising circular. They charge businesses for listings and somehow make enough money to print copies of the book which they then leave, unwanted, on everyone's front porches.

I think they stay in business only because they resemble something that older folks are familiar with. In the next few years you're going to see the whole business model implode, because younger people by and large wouldn't think of using the yellow pages to find a new plumber / painter / electrician / whatever, but would instead use some internet search engine or maybe social network.

But I do think that the loss of the white pages is unfortunate. The ability to look up a phone number given a name and approximate location was fairly neat, and is a capability that we've completely lost in the transition to cellphones. Unfortunately, the location-independence of cellphones and number portability completely broke the white pages. (Oblig. XKCD.) I can't think of a really obvious replacement that would work very well today, which is probably a big part of why one doesn't exist.
posted by Kadin2048 at 1:17 PM on February 11, 2013


Kadin2048: Oh, man, all-number dialing. If only that had been the high-water mark of telephone suckage; now you need to dial ten numbers just to call within the local exchange. Anyone want to be the public face of that change? Didn't think so.
Wait... Are you saying people still actually dial numbers these days? Instead of just jabbing a finger in the general vicinity of the google-search store number or address book entry?

Are you a Mennonite or something? ;)
posted by IAmBroom at 1:25 PM on February 11, 2013


...
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posted by a halcyon day at 2:02 PM on February 11, 2013


I lovehate human factors engineering because just about everyone thinks they're an expert and they're all wrong. "Well," they say to themselves, "I am a user of this device, therefore I must know how to design it properly."

I am not a human factors expert by any stretch of the imagination, but I do have to dabble occasionally for my job. It's my glimpse in to the world of creative people who post on Clients From Hell, except I'm dealing with people who insist they want the on/off switch moved a centimeter to the right and I don't care that you've already built your prototypes and it'll cost ten million dollars to change this. And then they spend money for me to travel out to where the users actually use this stuff and they tell me they don't give a damn where the switch is, can we have our hardware yet?

What I am trying to say is that it's basically impossible, from a human factors standpoint, to just ask people what they want, because they are wrong. And then they will complain about it later.

More fun is when two paradigms collide, such as a spectacular run I had on an advisory committee involving the display of weather information in aircraft cockpits. Everyone has seen the weather radar on the local news and knows that red on the radar means there is some Nasty Shit. But red in a cockpit environment means that there is Bad Shit Happening Now and You Need To Deal With This. So, for a radar display in a cockpit, what color do you use for the Nasty Shit? Can it be red, even though it doesn't necessarily have to be dealt with immediately? But if you change the color to something else, then you have suddenly introduced confusion into a cultural norm as far as what Red Weather means.

We spent, I shit you not, months arguing over the color red. Fun times.
posted by backseatpilot at 2:51 PM on February 11, 2013 [5 favorites]


Are you a Mennonite or something? ;)

I'm going to found a religion that eschews all technology developed after 1990.

We'll live lives close to God, supporting ourselves by selling lovingly handcrafted NES consoles and fax machines.
posted by Kadin2048 at 3:52 PM on February 11, 2013 [7 favorites]


@Bluehorse (lost your phone):

Two ideas: a little pocket notebook (moleskine or a 39-cent one from school supplies) is great for essential backup ... not to mention notes. (Also great, for example, for keeping a list of public bathrooms in different parts of town.)

Will never happen, but: The telco could let you dial your number (as a password) followed by a '#' and PIN, then respond with a contact-list robot menu ( they love those so much), giving you a list of single digits to punch in for your most-used contacts.
posted by Twang at 4:17 PM on February 11, 2013


now you need to dial ten numbers just to call within the local exchange

The solution here is to move to where there aren't many people.
posted by 922257033c4a0f3cecdbd819a46d626999d1af4a at 6:37 PM on February 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Wow, Etrigan, you just... well, it seems obvious now that I think of it. Why don't we have a DNS-like automatic name-to-phone number lookup service by now?

There've been a number of proposals and implementations of this over the years. There are at least two ways I know of in the DNS standards— there's RFC1183's ISDN RR (the failed local-loop interface is only a small part of ISDN; one part that stuck is the universal numbering plan); there's a text-record schema used with the RP records (which would map, say, username@dom.a.in to a phone number); in a more recent decade there's a use of SRV to allow SIP initiators to route VOIP calls. Outside of DNS, there was the finger protocol— once nearly-universally implemented— which as a standard information item would return a telephone number, mailing address, etc.; more modern contact-discovery schemata like FOAF do have places to put RFC2806 tel: URLs; and so on.

On the other hand, until fairly recently, the general public found even 10-digit phone numbers to be less intimidating and more comprehensible than email-style identifiers.

I think the big problem is that the network effect (this isn't useful unless Aunt Mabel and your plumber are in it) means that this requires buy-in from the telephone companies themselves. Basically they'd need to commit to publishing whitepages-like data in some format that didn't require you to go through some abysmal Flash-and-Silverlight-based advertising portal. And they won't do that unless they think they'll lose significant revenue by not doing it.
posted by hattifattener at 12:24 AM on February 12, 2013


I was reading the NYT obits every day for a time, exactly because I would often learn there about interesting people who were notable for their work on now-ubiquitous, almost invisible inventions, such as touch tone dialing.

One guy, for example, had pioneered the individually wrapped cheese slice. This is not a thing that I had put much thought into, but, it seems, it was far from easy to get it right. I was born in 1967, into a society where food often came in sealed, individual portions, which I therefore took for granted. But that way of serving food was a recent novelty! That cheese slice is a window into a huge societal change in the whole structure of food and its production and consumption.

So the world is full of these fascinating people, whom I probably never would have heard of, except that they just died. If there were a bar where obit writers drink, and if I still drank, I'd want to hang out there.
posted by thelonius at 5:29 PM on February 12, 2013


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