Two teens game out how to dial a rotary phone.
May 11, 2019 7:18 AM   Subscribe

 
To be fair, rotary phones have a terrible user interface.

In my job, I talk a lot to Olds (I am medium-old myself) about how Youngs use computers. I will often show a picture of a toddler using an iPad and ask what that picture makes them think about. There's a lot of "kids these days are digital natives, they just know how to use computers instinctively, even babies." But then I point out that actually it's just that user interface design has just gotten way way better. A baby can use an iPad because it doesn't take any great intelligence to touch an image and see what happens, not because babies in 2019 are born computer geniuses. I might bookmark this video to make a similar point.
posted by soren_lorensen at 7:27 AM on May 11, 2019 [72 favorites]


Ok, that was way more entertaining and gripping than I thought it would be. Especially the dial tone mimic. Do kids these days really never hear a dial tone? Ever? We still have them even on our VOIP phones at work.

My grandma still has a rotary phone as her main house phone, and that thing is slowwwww. Even for a rotary. The running joke is that the house would burn down before she would be able to dial 911.
posted by Fig at 7:42 AM on May 11, 2019 [17 favorites]


Also an interesting detail that they seem to think it still dials with the handset in the cradle. Like, they keep picking it up and hanging up to start over.

Also after typing that out, no way would they ever use the words "handset" and "cradle."
posted by RobotHero at 7:49 AM on May 11, 2019 [35 favorites]


Insert joke about how you really needed to be committed if you wanted to call someone whose number had a lot of nines.

My grandparents had one of these on their kitchen wall and it still blows my kids minds that the phone was a) dial faced b) STUCK TO A WALL, not even on the end of a wire, and c) a party line. I think they still think i am making the party line part up.
posted by hearthpig at 7:56 AM on May 11, 2019 [14 favorites]


Classic phones were/are amazing in their relatively elegant simplicity. When you called someone it established a physical channel of copper all the way between the two endpoints!
posted by glonous keming at 7:59 AM on May 11, 2019 [63 favorites]


The first part where they're sort of poking at it to see if it does something reminds me strongly of chimps playing with something. We are truly all primates.
posted by signal at 8:00 AM on May 11, 2019 [31 favorites]


Dialing 911... I think 911 must be post touch tone introduction. Why? Area codes. Why is New York 212 and Los Angeles 213? Because when area codes were introduced, these were the biggest cities and these numbers were the quickest to dial on a rotary phone. They didn’t want to overburden the customers dialing these cities.

It was an interesting video. I couldn’t see their thinking about how to dial. They just seemed to fixate on the hole for zero...
posted by njohnson23 at 8:00 AM on May 11, 2019 [9 favorites]


Those kids might be interested in the origin of the phrase "off the hook."

A neat thing about rotary phones is that the dial works by using different numbers of pulses to interrupt the same circuit involved when you pick up/hang up the handset (Wikipedia has a little video of it here with LEDs hooked up to illustrate). Some old "phone phreak" hackers could dial the phone just by tapping the switch hook. Kevin Mitnick wrote about a time when he was incarcerated for hacking and the authorities let him use the phone but wouldn't let him use the dial - he was able to use this trick to dial another number.
posted by exogenous at 8:04 AM on May 11, 2019 [17 favorites]


Dialing a rotary phone uninstructed is obviously challenging for the uninitiated. So is driving a stickshift. So is starting an older car, with the choke, or, still older, a crank.

Stacking boxes to reach a banana is a chimp's challenge, but anything involving a mechanical device necessitates instruction for us humans. Hell, ask a rich grown-up to wax a floor without instruction and it's not going to end well.
posted by kozad at 8:05 AM on May 11, 2019 [11 favorites]


In first grade (which would have been, um... (does math) 1976, we had an entire day-long unit on telephone usage, including How To Use and Proper Etiquette. It was hosted by Telly The Telephone. I still have the card I earned that day that designated me as now qualified to use a telephone in the proper way.

Many years later (early 90s), I was working as an aide in an elementary school and watched a first grader come into the front office to use the phone and he very carefully pushed a finger into every hole of the dial for the number he wanted. He didn't know he needed to spin the dial to make putting his finger in the hole work.

Dial phones weren't a bad user interface -- they were the result of the physical mechanics needed to make old phone switches work. Before dial telephones were telephone operators where you spoke out the number you wanted to reach. After them were touch-tone phones which was a giant advance in telephone switch technology (still mostly mechanical, really). What we have today is basically unrelated to how telephones worked when they were first developed and evolving.

I used to be able to dial numbers on our old pulse-dialing phone by being able to flip the hangup switch in the cradle the right number of times at the rate the switching system expected to indicate a number was being dialed. I had one friend who could somehow hum/whistle touchtones. And don't get me started on phone phreaking, which was its own special universe. At its most basic level, special little electronic devices which would fool a payphone into thinking different coins were inserted into the machine because that was all done by tone combinations. It got way more complex from there, all based on how phones used to communicate to the switching system that certain events had taken place.
posted by hippybear at 8:06 AM on May 11, 2019 [39 favorites]


Wikipedia says the UK started experimenting with 999 as the emergency number in the late 1930s, and that AT&T decided on 911 for the US in 1968. Looks like touch-tone started in the mid-1960s, but I remember many rotary phones well into the 1980s.
posted by Ampersand692 at 8:07 AM on May 11, 2019 [5 favorites]


That's because under Ma Bell, touch tone cost extra on your already pretty large monthly bill.
posted by hippybear at 8:09 AM on May 11, 2019 [20 favorites]


We still have a black rotary phone bolted to the wall in our kitchen that was there when we bought the house. We don't have service but I can't bring myself to take it down.
posted by octothorpe at 8:16 AM on May 11, 2019 [17 favorites]


Yeah, my mom refused to pay for touch tone until the late eighties. Her phones were set to "pulse" which simulated dialing when you punched the buttons.
posted by octothorpe at 8:18 AM on May 11, 2019 [14 favorites]


911 and 999 were chosen because of dial technology. As exogenous says, the numbers were transmitted a series of pulses. But pulses could arise accidentally through all sorts of magnetic or mechanical events on the wires. Obviously nine successive accidental pulses was pretty unlikely, and nobody wanted the emergency number dialled accidentally. The Brits used three nines to make it as unlikely as possible; in America one nine was thought enough to reduce that risk, then the ones minimised the delay in getting through (nine takes an appreciable time).
What I don’t understand is why zeros weren’t used. Obviously you can’t use zero pulses as a signal, so zero was represented by ten pulses, even less likely than nine.
posted by Segundus at 8:20 AM on May 11, 2019 [14 favorites]


My 24-year-old cousin recently became interested in vinyl records for some unknown reason. He bought a cheap blue tooth turntable, and a single LP (something by Fleetwood Mac, I think), but then realized he didn't actually know how to operate the thing.

He called to confirm that he was supposed to lift the tone arm and physically place the the needle on the record.
posted by JeffL at 8:21 AM on May 11, 2019 [49 favorites]


I'm pretty sure we had one rotary phone for a family of four until we moved in 1988. The new house had touchtone phones, though I think we still had only one until we moved a year later and had phones put in the bedrooms.

A college friend posted a "connect the dots" drawing her young son had just completed; it was of a rotary phone and he apparently had no idea what he had just created.

And I agree the video was more gripping than I had anticipated! It was nice to see them thinking things through, rather than just a montage of errors.
posted by lazuli at 8:23 AM on May 11, 2019 [3 favorites]


I loved watching them work it out!
posted by greermahoney at 8:24 AM on May 11, 2019 [5 favorites]


A few years back we set up a rotary phone as part of a Maker Faire project, and the number of grown-ass adults to whom I had to explain how to dial a number was staggering. My favorite was the dad with the four year old in a stroller who insisted he knew how to use a rotary phone, and then seemed genuinely puzzled that he couldn't slide the finger stop around the edge of the dial to point to different numbers. "I think it's stuck!"
posted by phooky at 8:25 AM on May 11, 2019 [6 favorites]


A lot of phones had a switch that would go from pulse to touch tone, so you could dial the number quickly and the phone would catch up with the clicking and pulsing. As a kid in the 80s we had several phones in the house, from rotary to cordless. Blessed are those who grew up with digital transformation.
posted by Burhanistan at 8:33 AM on May 11, 2019 [8 favorites]


Putting the handset up to my face, hearing the dialtone. Finger in the 9 hole, pulling the dial around, stopping somewhere between 4 and 3, feeling the pressure where my finger and the plastic connect. Looking around, wondering whether or not I should even be calling an emergency service.
Deciding yes. Bring my finger all the way to the metal stop, then letting go. Watching the dial spin back to original position, hearing 9 clicks.
Quickly now. 1. 1.
listening...ring....ring....
posted by otherchaz at 8:36 AM on May 11, 2019 [11 favorites]


I loved this video not because it made me feel smart as someone who knows how to use a rotary phone, but because I was surprised at how quickly they grasped the basic concept and only really got stuck on implementation details. And everyone seemed to be in the right spirit of "here's a weird thing, have fun figuring it out!"
posted by chrominance at 8:38 AM on May 11, 2019 [9 favorites]


hearthpig: I think they still think i am making the party line part up.

In the early (19)90s, I was using a party line to pay long distance fees to sign in to AOL before the world wide web was implemented. I doubt your kids will ever believe that, but it's true.

That was rural Colorado. My grandfather was born in Chicago in a house that had gaslighting and died in the same house about 15 years ago. Gas lights were replaced with electric, but last time I visited ~20 years ago, the trusty rotary phone was still sitting there.
posted by a non mouse, a cow herd at 8:39 AM on May 11, 2019 [6 favorites]


Some old "phone phreak" hackers could dial the phone just by tapping the switch hook.

We used to do that, back in the 1980s, at the college radio station. The DJ booth had a phone with no dial plate, so the DJ could take requests, but couldn't run up the station's phone bill by calling people. But if you knew how, you could tap out a number on the switch hook, and that way we could call the local pizza place to order pizza.
posted by fings at 8:40 AM on May 11, 2019 [29 favorites]


Ok it used to be that no 7 digit phone number had a 0 or 1 in the second digit, small area codes had a 1 or 0 in the second digit, so the exchange could figure out if you were dialling a 10 digit number (long distance) or a 7 digit number (local) easily.

Then when faxes and modems and cell phones came along they ran out of area codes and had to switch to 10 digit numbers. BTW that 1 on your 11 digit number is really your international country code.

In New Zealand when they brought in dial telephones they bought a cheap lot with the numbers backwards on the dial, our emergency number is 111 rather than 999 ... The exchanges worked the same, it was just the the number of pulses produced were different, from the 30s right up until they started to install electronic exchanges and international dialing, then they were in a world of hurt, no one made phone chips that made the pulses backwards, we got rid of traditional dial phones and switched to tone dialing really quickly (Unlike the US who charged a premium for tone dialing for years)
posted by mbo at 8:41 AM on May 11, 2019 [11 favorites]


Classic phones were/are amazing in their relatively elegant simplicity. When you called someone it established a physical channel of copper all the way between the two endpoints!

I will note that years ago, when we still had POTS Verizon lines in the house, after a small fire, oh, 15 years ago, when the electricity had been pulled, I still got dialtone and service on the panasonic 2 line phone I had at the time.

Which came in useful at 3am calling my insurance company/disaster recovery/etc...
posted by mikelieman at 8:44 AM on May 11, 2019 [6 favorites]


Also, it turns out THERE ARE A BUNCH OF THESE VIDEOS
posted by chrominance at 8:44 AM on May 11, 2019 [3 favorites]


We recently took my 13 year old nephew to the Avoncroft Museum of Buildings, which holds the national collection of phone boxes (who knew there were so many forms of the outdoor communication device, including the original version of the TARDIS). The boxes in some cases were working and you could dial other phones in the immediate area.
Bright 13 year old had not a clue how to use the rotary dial system, resorting at one point to trying to turn the whole dial at once . I looked at him fondly and felt ever so old.
We then had to explain the concept of the reverse charge phone call using the operator, and then what an operator was and that there was an entire employment stream made up of people who would direct your call to other people.
posted by Martha My Dear Prudence at 8:45 AM on May 11, 2019 [4 favorites]


What I don’t understand is why zeros weren’t used.

Zero gets you the operator!
posted by exogenous at 8:47 AM on May 11, 2019 [21 favorites]


My grandparents had a rotary phone well into the mid-90s. I remember playing with it as a kid because it was so fun to physically turn the dial and watch it ratchet back (I dialed a lot of 0s). I also remember when my parents upgraded the household phones to cordless -- and if you left the phone off its base for too long, it would die.

One of the things that irritated me about Bohemian Rhapsody was the phones, actually. At one point when Queen is on tour in the US in the 70s, they show Freddie Mercury calling Mary Austin, back in London, on a payphone. I bet they patted themselves on the back for remembering payphones, but they totally forgot that international calls required you to book in advance at the post office or Western Union or whatever. And later, they show someone (I think Freddie again) dialing a rotary phone by punching the numbers like a touch-tone phone. For a movie that was so exact about costumes and mannerisms, it was a glaring oversight.
posted by basalganglia at 8:47 AM on May 11, 2019 [8 favorites]


oh geez AND this went viral four months ago AND everyone in question got interviewed on FOX 32 Chicago.
posted by chrominance at 8:48 AM on May 11, 2019 [3 favorites]


I thought these toy rotary dial phones were ubiquitous enough that most people would not be surprised or flummoxed by the novelty...
posted by Rumple at 8:49 AM on May 11, 2019 [3 favorites]


On my travels to New Zealand I was confused by their rotary phones... the "0" is at the other end. Years later I met guy that used to worked on the N.Z. phone equipment to convert "0123456789" pulses to "1234567890" pulses for international calls.
posted by tinker at 8:50 AM on May 11, 2019 [3 favorites]


I think that in the old telephone days, there wasn't a zero. It was O, for operator.
posted by hippybear at 8:54 AM on May 11, 2019 [2 favorites]


Those kids might be interested in the origin of the phrase "off the hook."

I don't think they would be, because nobody uses that phrase any more. GOD MOM YOU'RE SO EMBARRASSING.
posted by DarlingBri at 8:54 AM on May 11, 2019 [21 favorites]


Gah! I am so fucking old. Gee thanks for that, worst of the web.
posted by JackFlash at 9:02 AM on May 11, 2019 [4 favorites]


exogenous: "Those kids might be interested in the origin of the phrase "off the hook.""

What's fishing got to do with this?
posted by chavenet at 9:06 AM on May 11, 2019 [4 favorites]


Several years back, I bought an old rotary phone, mostly for novelty sake. My two kids, about junior high age, got a kick out of it. The seemed to have a sense of how to operate it, I'm guessing through old movies and TV shows. What they really disliked was how loud the ring was. And what an authoritative ring it is, which makes more sense when you think a household might only have one phone, and it must be heard from anywhere in the house.

Sadly, the ooma box we have doesn't seem to support pulse dialing, possibly even touch tone POTS phone, I'm guessing. So it's sitting in the garage in a box somewhere. Kind of a shame, as I admire the design and robustness of the old phone.
posted by 2N2222 at 9:14 AM on May 11, 2019 [6 favorites]


> And what an authoritative ring it is, which makes more sense when you think a household might only have one phone, and it must be heard from anywhere in the house.

British ringtone is allegedly in 5/4 time because it's irritating, and makes you want to pick it up.
posted by Leon at 9:21 AM on May 11, 2019 [7 favorites]


I thought these toy rotary dial phones were ubiquitous enough that most people would not be surprised or flummoxed by the novelty...

Rumple, I don't think anyone gives those to kids anymore. At least partially because they're objectively horrifying. Some of my earliest memories are of having one up on a shelf in the room I shared with my brother. When I would wake up before him in the morning, I learned to focus on the sound of his breathing rather than imagine that ghoul staring down at us with its bug eyes.

Kind of a shame, as I admire the design and robustness of the old phone.
Speaking of phones in old movies, I always loved it when someone used a phone as an improvised weapon. So bulky with a built in handle!
posted by es_de_bah at 9:23 AM on May 11, 2019 [5 favorites]


What's fishing got to do with this?

to answer sincerely: it's hyperbole for people have been calling you non-stop (so that the receiving keeps ringing so much that it threatens to fall off the cradle)

citation: cartoons because the 1980s rotary phone didn't seem that violent.
posted by cendawanita at 9:34 AM on May 11, 2019


Insert joke about how you really needed to be committed if you wanted to call someone whose number had a lot of nines.

You are not wrong. From 1988 through 1990 (when rotary phones were on the decline but far from gone), my phone number was 547-0099. If people called me from a dial phone, I knew they had put the effort in.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 9:36 AM on May 11, 2019 [7 favorites]


Kind of a shame, as I admire the design and robustness of the old phone.
Speaking of phones in old movies, I always loved it when someone used a phone as an improvised weapon. So bulky with a built in handle!


That is because in those days (at least round these parts) the phone company owned the phone and the customer rented it. They were built to last for obvious reasons.

In the basement of the house I have a vintage desk phone that serves as the emergency backup in case of a power failure or the like. It was built half a century ago and I am positive it will still be functional long after they shovel the dirt onto me.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 9:41 AM on May 11, 2019 [7 favorites]


How the dial clicks connected a call

An AT&T video from 1951. It's all done with mechanical relays and gears.
The dialing connection action starts at 2:05 in the video.

And see the metal can's internal relays and linkages at 6:00, and a bank of switches at the phone company at 1:00. No wonder there's big phone company buildings with no windows in cities. That equipment needed a lot of room.
posted by jjj606 at 9:49 AM on May 11, 2019 [24 favorites]


Rumple, I don't think anyone gives those to kids anymore. At least partially because they're objectively horrifying. Some of my earliest memories are of having one up on a shelf in the room I shared with my brother. When I would wake up before him in the morning, I learned to focus on the sound of his breathing rather than imagine that ghoul staring down at us with its bug eyes. es_de_bah

My three year old has one and there is one at her daycare. I just showed her a photo of a rotary phone (one that was dissimilar to the toy one) and she correctly identified it as a phone (after some hesitation that I might be asking her a trick question or something because OBVIOUSLY MOMMY).

They sell that classic phone toy at Target and I think most of the littles I know have one or have played with one.
posted by kellygrape at 9:51 AM on May 11, 2019 [4 favorites]


Telephone cradles came much later than phone hooks.

On original phones, the hook was a literal hook on the side of the phone that held the earpiece which was separate from the mouthpiece. On-hook and off-hook were technical terms in telephony for the two possible states of the telephone. When you hang the earpiece on the hook, the weight, actually pretty heavy, lowered the hook and toggled a switch that disconnected the phone from the circuit to the telephone company. When you lifted the earpiece off the hook, a spring raised the hook which closed a switch to connect your phone to the phone company.

On-hook and off-hook, to describe the two switch states, were used by telephone engineers long after the old hook disappeared.
posted by JackFlash at 9:54 AM on May 11, 2019 [10 favorites]


The look on the one kid's face right at the end when he says "there, we did it?" .. hopeful yet doubtful.

He knows his friend was right - you had to have the spring loaded posts of the reciever in the up position before your pulses dialed because it wasn't attached to the line until those contacts touched inside.

I actually own an old candlestick-style norther electric rotary phone, similar to this one. It looks like these folks figured out a way to do a pulse-to-dialtone conversion (it's an option) so I'll have to look into that.. would LOVE to get that old phone actually working again. Then there's the old box-style phones where the box is made of wood and it opens up like a little cabinet door, and it has an external metal bell and hammer mechanism for the ringer. Love these old phones.

We had a wall phone too with a coiled cord that was like 30ft or something if you got the tension right going thru doorways. I remember talking on the toilet at a young age with that phone cord stretched all the way into the bathroom, to make plans with the kid down the street to go ride bikes or something.. My parents, instead of finding this hilarious, instead banished me from the phone for a week or something. Actually I'm having a fuzzy flashback of my dad angrily attacking the taut phone cord with a big carving knife so maybe that's when that happened.
posted by some loser at 9:55 AM on May 11, 2019 [2 favorites]


A few years ago I went on a camping trip to Big Bend NP which is in a really rural part of Texas. I knew gas could be hard to find and expensive (and it is a really big park) so I pulled into an ancient gas station outside the park boundaries to fill up. There I was faced with a mechanical pump with rotary dials and no place to put your credit card. I had to think for a few seconds to remember how they work. First you take out the nozzle (the last thing you do now) then you turn down the lever into the space where the nozzle was. This makes the dials reset to zero so you can start pumping. I wonder how those kids would do.
posted by Bee'sWing at 10:10 AM on May 11, 2019 [3 favorites]


This is hilarious.
posted by TDGoddard at 10:11 AM on May 11, 2019


How many boomers could quickly and accurately operate a telegraph, a magic lantern projector, or a wax cylinder player? In short: technology changes over time, and whatever.
posted by ryanshepard at 10:15 AM on May 11, 2019 [3 favorites]



This is hilarious.

I laughed immediately but stopped watching after less than a minute because it was starting to feel cruel.

But it does occur to me that this sort of situation would work very well in some kind of thriller. The bad guys are getting closer and closer but no big deal, you just have to make a simple phone call. But wait a second -- what is this thing?
posted by philip-random at 10:28 AM on May 11, 2019 [8 favorites]


to answer sincerely: it's hyperbole for people have been calling you non-stop (so that the receiving keeps ringing so much that it threatens to fall off the cradle)

The original meaning of "off the hook" (freed from obligation) goes back to at least the 19th century, and originated with fishing. (If you were on the hook, like a caught fish, you couldn't escape obligations. If you were off the hook, you were free to do what you wanted.) The more recent (but now dated) "off the hook" to mean cool or super fun might have something to do with telephones, but I haven't seen good evidence of that.

/language pedantry
posted by Pater Aletheias at 10:31 AM on May 11, 2019 [5 favorites]


Getting off the hook is a fishing analogy. Ringing off the hook is a telephone analogy.
posted by JackFlash at 10:38 AM on May 11, 2019 [11 favorites]


When I saw the backwards hat, I knew FAIL would be the operand.
posted by CrowGoat at 10:41 AM on May 11, 2019 [3 favorites]


My dad had a party line well into the 1990s in a suburb of Houston. We were the only ones on the party line, of course, because who the hell has a party line? I didn't even know we had a party line until years later when he mentioned it, laughing about it. The phone company eventually wouldn't let him keep the party line and made him pay the extra for a private line.
posted by smcameron at 10:45 AM on May 11, 2019 [6 favorites]


I laughed immediately but stopped watching after less than a minute because it was starting to feel cruel.

Nothing about this was done in a cruel manner. The filmers gave hints and encouragement. There’s nothing inherently cruel about wanting to see how a human brain figures something out.

How many boomers could quickly and accurately operate a telegraph, a magic lantern projector, or a wax cylinder player? In short: technology changes over time, and whatever.

I would also love to see those videos. In fact, sign me up to be in them. I was given the opportunity to use a wax cylinder player last year, and you can bet your ass the three of us looked like these kids. “Why is there no sound?” Take it off, put it back on. Repeat. “Oh it’s on backwards!!”
posted by greermahoney at 10:48 AM on May 11, 2019 [11 favorites]


I found it interesting that they intuitively knew that a pickup/hangup would “reset” each attempt. Not surprising to me that it didn’t occur to them to pick up the receiver before dialing. Hearing the dial tone was a big clue for them.
posted by parm=serial at 10:50 AM on May 11, 2019 [4 favorites]


Obviously, you dial an old phone by picking up the receiver and shouting "Operator, get me Townsend 7 5309!" in your best 1930s voice.
posted by surlyben at 10:53 AM on May 11, 2019 [17 favorites]


I laughed immediately but stopped watching after less than a minute because it was starting to feel cruel.

Nothing about this was done in a cruel manner. The filmers gave hints and encouragement.


To be clear. I felt cruel for laughing. I agree that no cruelty was intended by the filmers ...
posted by philip-random at 10:57 AM on May 11, 2019 [1 favorite]


It's interesting that the word dial has persisted long beyond its original use. It comes from Latin dies for day and referred to sundials. It was used for any type of circular disk with markings or numbers on it, like a compass or radio tuner and eventually a rotary telephone.

But on your cellphone today under contacts is a button for "Dial" which has nothing to do with a dial. It makes a call or brings up a keypad which is nothing like a dial.
posted by JackFlash at 11:02 AM on May 11, 2019 [9 favorites]


For those in or visiting Seattle interested in the back end of old-style telephony, the Connections Telecommunications Museum is well worth a visit. It's located in an old central office south of downtown. It's run by volunteers, mostly old telco techs, which is why it's only open a few hours a week on Sunday afternoons. Stuffed full of older switches, relay racks, tools, etc., many in working order. Fascinating stuff.

Since that's not precisely on topic...kids these days, amirite?
posted by five toed sloth at 11:03 AM on May 11, 2019 [6 favorites]


My fondest memory of rotary phones is dialing radio stations to try to win on-air contests, always losing out to the listeners whose wealthy families paid for the luxury of touch-tone.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 11:10 AM on May 11, 2019 [8 favorites]


My fondest memory of rotary phones is dialing radio stations to try to win on-air contests,

My least fond memories of rotary phones was dialing ticket agencies for concert tickets starting a few minutes before they opened, getting a busy signal, and repeating the dial for hours. Sometimes never getting through.
posted by greermahoney at 11:18 AM on May 11, 2019 [4 favorites]


Those kids might be interested in the origin of the phrase "off the hook."

I was talking with someone in their early 20s about the X song "Your Phone's Off the Hook, But You're Not" and realized partway through the conversation that we had very different understandings of what the phrase meant and thus what the sentiment of the song is.
posted by Lexica at 12:03 PM on May 11, 2019 [10 favorites]


One thing that touch-tone phones wrought was the robocall.

Dial phones apparently are the one loophole for legal telemarketing.

By the way, you could get a shock if you touched the old-style (POTS) telephone wires when your phone rang. In order to ring the bell the phone company would send 90 volts AC over the wire. That gives you a nice little zap. Ask me how I know.

Others have commented here about the user interface of rotary phones. The guys in the linked video were definitely overthinking it. It would be interesting to see somebody teach a kid how to do it. I suspect it would take all of twenty seconds to show somebody how to successfully make a call.
posted by SteveInMaine at 12:14 PM on May 11, 2019 [2 favorites]


One thing that touch-tone phones wrought was the robocall.

Touch-tone in telephony is called Dual-Tone Multi-Frequency signalling or DTMF. Another generational clash of understandings.
posted by JackFlash at 12:23 PM on May 11, 2019 [3 favorites]


Obviously, you dial an old phone by picking up the receiver and shouting "Operator, get me Townsend 7 5309!" in your best 1930s voice.

I was asking the Ma Bell operator to connect me to "Plaza 3 8581" as late as 1980. (I was 8.) And my mother's business card listed her work number as PL3 8581 until 1986.
posted by DarlingBri at 12:25 PM on May 11, 2019 [11 favorites]


By the way, you could get a shock if you touched the old-style (POTS) telephone wires when your phone rang. In order to ring the bell the phone company would send 90 volts AC over the wire. That gives you a nice little zap. Ask me how I know.

Ooh yes. We're in the same club. That was my second really painful electric shock. The first one was from a disposable camera's flash capacitor.
posted by biogeo at 12:31 PM on May 11, 2019 [2 favorites]


There's a utube channel, "Kids react to" videos. The kids are preselected for good reactions, pretty much they are actors. But I think their reactions are mostly quite genuine.

On youtube: Kids react to rotary phones

They do know what the phone is, but never used one.

At 4:30 in the video, they are asked: "how you do text on this rotary phone?" Because, of course, it has to be able to text... (but it does seem the kids are kind of playing along.)

The narrator explains that you have to be at home to receive a call, and go into the room with the phone!

Also, "What's a pay phone?". And, Dial tones! Busy signals! Long distance calls!
posted by jjj606 at 12:32 PM on May 11, 2019 [1 favorite]


This is just a couple step removed from teenagers in the 2060s being asked why their pocket supercomputer is called a “phone”.
posted by Automocar at 12:33 PM on May 11, 2019 [8 favorites]


Bee's Wing, I was at a gas station in small town Michigan and saw this in action. A teen driver pulled up on the other side of the pump while I was getting my gas. After a few minutes they came trotting around to my side of the pump to ask me what to do.

But you know what really made me feel old? I grew up in that town, and this gas station hadn't been there when I was a kid. So to me, this was a NEW gas station!
posted by elizilla at 12:33 PM on May 11, 2019 [9 favorites]


The icon to save files in most programs is still a pictogram of a 3.5" floppy disk.
posted by hippybear at 12:34 PM on May 11, 2019 [10 favorites]


(Computers that used an old 5.25" floppy disk were pre-mouse computers, so there were no icons for save.)
posted by hippybear at 12:35 PM on May 11, 2019 [2 favorites]


My mom worked as a "number, please" cord-board telephone operator in the 1950s for New Jersey Bell but got laid-off when my hometown finally got direct-dial phones. She said that the women who worked there knew everything that happened in town.
posted by octothorpe at 12:38 PM on May 11, 2019 [5 favorites]


By the way, you could get a shock if you touched the old-style (POTS) telephone wires when your phone rang. In order to ring the bell the phone company would send 90 volts AC over the wire. That gives you a nice little zap. Ask me how I know.

I used to run an old timey telephone switchboard at the summer camp, you know, plug in a cord to an extension somewhere in camp, and PUSH THE RINGING BUTTON, sending that voltage down the line.

I was a dumb kid, and during the slow times, I'd grab both tip and ring and give myself a little wake-up shock.

I also did dumb things with my LP static gun...
posted by mikelieman at 12:43 PM on May 11, 2019 [3 favorites]


The rate of growth in the early telephone system was so great that projections showed that by year X every person in America would be a telephone operator. Then they introduced direct dialing and... they were right.
posted by sjswitzer at 12:48 PM on May 11, 2019 [14 favorites]


We still have a wall-mounted Western Electric rotary phone in our kitchen (and a 1930s New England Telephone & Telegraph inspection tag on the original phone wiring down in the basement). Our Gen Z daughter, who grew up with the thing and so always knew how to dial it, was pissed when we switched to digital phone service (to go with the Internet and cable) and the phone no longer worked to make outgoing calls. But when Verizon introduced Fios, we switched to that (just got tired of our otherwise decent cable company, no, not Comcast, constantly and randomly increasing our rates) and the technician who did the Fios installation had been with Verizon forever and did something so that we can once again dial out on that phone.
posted by adamg at 12:55 PM on May 11, 2019 [7 favorites]


No wonder there's big phone company buildings with no windows in cities. That equipment needed a lot of room.

Indeed. In my auld hometown, there is such a building (which looks curiously like a refugee from for Tim Burton's version of Gotham City). Apparently the machinery was built in the basement with a sizable amount of room for future expansion. Since in actuality the machinery miniaturized much faster than the needs of the customer based expanded, I am told, they now use the extra area for pickup games of soccer.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 12:56 PM on May 11, 2019 [2 favorites]


I was in a movie in the nineties (set in contemporary times) where the director wanted me to dial someone on a rotary phone because he believed those phones have more personality (they do). After a couple of takes with 30 seconds of dialing, he changed the number (long distance) to 1-212-221-2122. He still ended up cutting the scene out of the finished film.
Come to think of it, the Coen brothers ought to make a camera shot from the perspective of the phone dial looking out. Giant finger in the foreground, the dialer in the background and the camera rotating with each number dialed.
Maybe a killer approaching in the far background. Either an all time great shot or else complete garbage.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 1:00 PM on May 11, 2019 [9 favorites]


Hmm. I'm envisioning an escape room now that's just full of old ass phone equipment. Call a number and press 1 to unlock the door to the next room. Final lock is obviously about faxing someone.
posted by pwnguin at 1:03 PM on May 11, 2019 [11 favorites]


Come to think of it, the Coen brothers ought to make a camera shot from the perspective of the phone dial looking out. Giant finger in the foreground, the dialer in the background and the camera rotating with each number dialed.

I think it's been done, but I can't remember where. There's also the view from inside the mouth of the patient being dentisted by Steve Martin in Little Shop Of Horrors. I love creative shots like that.

If the phone dial shot hasn't been done, it needs to be.
posted by hippybear at 1:09 PM on May 11, 2019


I came across a charming Web 1.0 site, many years ago, that was done by a retired phone company technician, and had both all kinds of collected phone company technical lore, and a bulletin board type community for other retired linemen. It was really pretty fascinating.

Technical civilization seems to have a powerful need to look down on previous stages of its development, and to consider itself superior simply in virtue of coming later and being able to improve on earlier developments, but really, the phone system was an incredible accomplishment. Hell, even the 19th century development of telegraphy was one of the most revolutionary things ever - suddenly, a message could travel faster than a human messenger. Transatlantic communication used to be limited to the speed of a ship crossing the ocean, and to the bandwidth of a written letter. In some ways that was a bigger development than the cell phone.
posted by thelonius at 1:20 PM on May 11, 2019 [7 favorites]


I dunno... when cell phones were developed, they were pretty big. Like, mostly at first they were two hand units (one for handset, other for the device) or were mounted in cars.

Like, that's literally bigger than a telegraph receiver.
posted by hippybear at 1:25 PM on May 11, 2019


My fondest memory of rotary phones is dialing radio stations to try to win on-air contests, always losing out to the listeners whose wealthy families paid for the luxury of touch-tone.

As a young teen armed only w/ a rotary phone, I was banned from several local radio stations because I spent one idle summer winning all of their on-air contests. The trick was to dial the first 6 numbers as a song was ending and if the DJ said "first caller" in the break, then dial the 7th number. The phone system in my area at that time had a lot of tolerance for delay between each number.

I think I've told this story here on MF before but there was a 10 year overlap where my dad's house had rotary (bolted to the kitchen wall) and I didn't own a cell phone. When I visited my hometown, I struggled to ring up old friends because I hadn't memorized their numbers, I had memorized the sequence of button pushes and the songs their tones made, such as Camptown Races (5545381).

Finally, I miss the satisfaction of punctuating the end of a tense call with the solid slam of the handset into the cradle. Do that nowadays and you're out the cost of several $100s worth of smartphone.
posted by jamaro at 1:26 PM on May 11, 2019 [15 favorites]


A friend got to see the dialtone machines at British Telecom when he worked there a few years ago. Two beefy motors spun to generate the tone and you’d be connected to them when you first picked up the receiver.
posted by migurski at 1:27 PM on May 11, 2019 [1 favorite]


Indeed. In my auld hometown, there is such a building (which looks curiously like a refugee from for Tim Burton's version of Gotham City). Apparently the machinery was built in the basement with a sizable amount of room for future expansion. Since in actuality the machinery miniaturized much faster than the needs of the customer based expanded, I am told, they now use the extra area for pickup games of soccer.

In the early 80's, as they were replacing switches, NYT gave our high-school's Junior Achievement ( Hey, Hey, Throw it away, 'cause it was made in the USA! ) some square footage to meet and produce... I don't really recall, but it was something pointless. Gave us an excuse to get together and get stoned, though...
posted by mikelieman at 1:28 PM on May 11, 2019


@2N2222: My grandmother refused to give up her old rotary dial. My aunts kept buying her other phones with volume sliders and all that, but she hated touch-tone because it just felt weird to her and the rotary phone was so loud she could hear it without her hearing aids in (which was most of the time).

She also lived where there were few enough exchanges that people just told you to call "XXXX", and I had trouble getting anyone to give me a "full" 7-digit number to dial.

@hippybear: Reminds me of the C128 GEOS overlay, where the desktop had no computer icon for searching locally for files, because the icon was instead a 5.25" floppy disk.
posted by ptfe at 1:29 PM on May 11, 2019 [3 favorites]


I'd grab both tip and ring and give myself a little wake-up shock

And maybe it's obvious, but the two conductors were called that because tip went to the tip of the 1/4" jack used in manual telephone exchanges (like an electric guitar plug) and ring went to the isolated "ring" contact on the jack.
posted by Mei's lost sandal at 1:36 PM on May 11, 2019 [4 favorites]


Can't find it right now, but I recall from somewhen 2000ish that a guy hooked up a rotary phone to an RS232 port so he could dial an IP address, the corresponding website would then open in his browser.
posted by farlukar at 1:40 PM on May 11, 2019 [4 favorites]


We might have never had Apple without widespread use of touch-tone (DTMF) phones, and Steve Wozniak's early business venture.
posted by SteveInMaine at 1:43 PM on May 11, 2019 [3 favorites]


I'm middle-aged and just got rid of my landline a few years ago, but I'm like these kids if I have to make a call from an office or a hotel room. Do I dial nine to get an outside line? How do I turn off the speakerphone? Do I need the area code? Oook.
posted by The corpse in the library at 1:49 PM on May 11, 2019 [5 favorites]


^^
I’d fare worse than these kids if I had to fax something these days. Even in fax heyday, I was awful at it. Had like a 30% success rate.
posted by greermahoney at 2:14 PM on May 11, 2019 [2 favorites]


I will note that years ago, when we still had POTS Verizon lines in the house, after a small fire, oh, 15 years ago, when the electricity had been pulled, I still got dialtone and service on the panasonic 2 line phone I had at the time.

We still have a home phone and always will because no, you're not getting my mobile number, but many years ago when we switched to VOIP this was our major concern. It seems like a lot of people don't remember you can make calls on POTS lines when the power is out.
posted by bongo_x at 2:19 PM on May 11, 2019 [4 favorites]


We still have a POTS line and I hope we can keep it until I die. They work when everything else is gone, and often they can summon needed help.
posted by hippybear at 2:20 PM on May 11, 2019 [1 favorite]


I loved this video not because it made me feel smart as someone who knows how to use a rotary phone, but because I was surprised at how quickly they grasped the basic concept and only really got stuck on implementation details.

Who the F**K invented guitars I mean really people wtf even
posted by saysthis at 2:30 PM on May 11, 2019 [2 favorites]


How many boomers could quickly and accurately operate a telegraph, a magic lantern projector, or a wax cylinder player? In short: technology changes over time, and whatever.

Almost all of them. And the time lapse is more like between the phonograph and a modern turntable, or a 8mm and analog video projector.

What has changed, I think, is that the affordances of many of the new versions of these things don't suggest their principle of operation in the same way. So to the extent millennial recognize these things, and especially intuit how to use them, it's from preservation in cultural references or because some palimpsest of the older devices survives as a symbol (like the phone symbol being a handset).
posted by snuffleupagus at 2:46 PM on May 11, 2019 [2 favorites]


How many boomers could quickly and accurately operate a telegraph, a magic lantern projector, or a wax cylinder player? In short: technology changes over time, and whatever.

I mean, they had to provide instructional films for rotary phones when they switched from operators to rotary dial. So it's not surprising it remains counter-intuitive to people who've never used them.

Come to think of it, I guess you could say the first phones had a voice-driven interface.

Who the F**K invented guitars I mean really people wtf even

I have been given to wonder if it wouldn't be possible to improve guitars to make them easier to play for everybody.
posted by jzb at 2:48 PM on May 11, 2019 [4 favorites]


Operating a telegraph is basic. You push down, it completes a magnetic circuit with the other end. Knowing Morse Code requires a lot of training and practice.

Wax cylinder players are just record players on a toilet paper roll and are very intuitive to figure out how to use.

I've never seen a magic lantern projector, so I can't really speak to that example. But I suspect with some examination, it could be figured out.

What's fascinating is how non-intuitive a lot of other technologies are. Like saddling up a horse or harnessing it to a wagon. There's centuries of refinement that went into that knowledge, but if I were presented with two horses and a wagon and the accompanying hardware, I'd maybe figure out how to do it half-assed, but I wouldn't do it like someone who had learned how.

But I could operate a wax cylinder player as well as anyone else after maybe 10 minutes.
posted by hippybear at 2:59 PM on May 11, 2019 [4 favorites]


Even in fax heyday, I was awful at it. Had like a 30% success rate.

Every experience I ever had faxing, or waiting for a fax, was like Kafka flash fiction.
posted by condour75 at 3:17 PM on May 11, 2019 [6 favorites]


I have been given to wonder if it wouldn't be possible to improve guitars to make them easier to play for everybody.

Well, there's the Autoharp
posted by thelonius at 3:19 PM on May 11, 2019 [7 favorites]


One time I witnessed my 2 year old sister call a random number on the rotary phone and inform them she was Peter Pan. My dad only realized she wasn’t pretending when he heard a “that’s nice, dear!” come from the phone. After watching this, I think this says something about the power of observation in young kids!
posted by CMcG at 3:45 PM on May 11, 2019 [5 favorites]


I found it interesting that they intuitively knew that a pickup/hangup would “reset” each attempt. Not surprising to me that it didn’t occur to them to pick up the receiver before dialing. Hearing the dial tone was a big clue for them.

I’m sure they would have eventually gotten there given enough practice with the phone, but I was waiting for anyone from any test group to hold the handset between their shoulder and ear, and use their finger to hangup and pickup the line when resetting after a mistake. Seeing them physically put the handset back down and pick it back up again was so jarring. No one did that back then.

Me, while watching:
“You don’t have to....”
“Just use your...”
“It’s a video, they can’t hear me.”
posted by greermahoney at 4:21 PM on May 11, 2019 [3 favorites]


All this on the hook off the hook talk just reminds me of my favorite X song: Your Phones off the hook, but you're not!
posted by valkane at 4:39 PM on May 11, 2019


(Computers that used an old 5.25" floppy disk were pre-mouse computers, so there were no icons for save.)

Thats not true, although it is probably true that 3.5" disks and mice became popular in a similar era.

My C64 had a mouse and a GUI system (GEOS) and used 5.25" disks. The save/disk icon was a 5.25" disk :)
posted by thefoxgod at 5:15 PM on May 11, 2019 [5 favorites]


STUCK TO A WALL, not even on the end of a wire

Oh, but it was on the end of a wire -- a very short one, hidden behind the phone and plugged into the wall-mounting plate.


What they really disliked was how loud the ring was.

They didn't find the adjusting wheel on the bottom of the phone?


the phone company owned the phone and the customer rented it.

And thousands of those customers kept paying the rent for many years after they could have bought their own phone, identical to the one they were renting. Long after the breakup of Ma Bell, too. It was a real windfall for the Baby Bells. I think it took an Act of Congress to get them to stop charging the rent.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 5:39 PM on May 11, 2019 [3 favorites]


I’d fare worse than these kids if I had to fax something these days. Even in fax heyday, I was awful at it. Had like a 30% success rate.

So Hi I'm just here to let you know that there is such thing as an encrypted fax or "secure" fax machine and that yes indeed, it is as much of a nightmare as you imagne. It's like someone said "you know what, this here fax business is just way too simple and easy: lets add an entirely new process ontop of it, and do it badly, just for good measure."

I think I personally hand delivered a document to someone across town once because I just couldn't get the "secure" fax to work and no one in the office could either.

so I hear you on the fax thing.
posted by some loser at 5:47 PM on May 11, 2019 [4 favorites]


Can't find it right now, but I recall from somewhen 2000ish that a guy hooked up a rotary phone to an RS232 port so he could dial an IP address

I think I read about someone who took the guts out of the body of one of these old beasts and spliced in a cell phone so the keypad and handset worked roughly correctly. Show up at the bar and slam that bad boy down on the table, making everyone wonder wtf. A while later, it would ring or they would actually make a call. Or maybe I just imagined that.
posted by ctmf at 5:54 PM on May 11, 2019 [2 favorites]


The fun part is: you can call a number without using the dial. To dial 411: Using one of the buttons under the handset, 'click' it (press and release quickly) 4 times. Pause a second. Click once. Pause. Click once again.

If you're in North America, congratulations ... you've just called local directory assistance. Sadly, Ernestine is not in today, or you could give her a name and she'd give you the number. Instead, there may be a charge, so HANG UP QUICKLY!
posted by Twang at 6:18 PM on May 11, 2019 [2 favorites]


Whenever I see these hurf-durf pieces on how these kids today don’t know how to [insert subject of hardy-har], I smirk at the thought of the vast majority of people in either my generation or my parents’ generation who couldn’t change the engine oil in their car if their life actually depended on it, despite it being literally the easiest task in basic automobile maintenance beyond checking one’s tire pressure.

I have to wonder how many of the people using the internet to snicker at the young people of today would do if we handed them a Commodore with an autodial modem connected to a live line, but no instructions. Would they eventually suss out “ATDT?”
posted by sonascope at 7:12 PM on May 11, 2019


My fondest memory of rotary phones is dialing radio stations to try to win on-air contests

I won a belt buckle from '96 Kissin, KSSN in 1976 in Little Rock, Arkansas and was very proud.

When I look at ads for apartments or condos in older buildings there's usually a close-up photo of the old telephone in the hall that's been in the apartment since the early-to-mid 1900s because a non-working wall wart is totally an amenity I'd need in an apartment.
posted by bendy at 7:35 PM on May 11, 2019 [1 favorite]


The Bells were broken up when I was a young adult, and suddenly there were phones for sale in every corner store. POTS type phones, not cell phones. They were being given away as promo items everywhere. Pick up a free or cheap phone, run a wire to your room, and talk on the phone in private, at least assuming no one was listening in on some other extension. To those of us who grew up in a world where an extra phone extension used to mean a monthly rental fee, only the most spoiled teenagers in the wealthiest families got a phone in their own room. And suddenly there was this fabulous wealth of phones.

The problem was, those phones were complete shit. The audio was lousy, they'd stop working easily, they were basically disposable. It was enough to make you nostalgic for the bad old phone company.

When I was in my 20s, I went to the Bell Phone Center at the mall and bought a good phone, and escaped the Vimes Boot Theory of phones. A real Bell phone! With touchtone! I put it on the kitchen wall so my housemates could use it too, and we were all pleased to have a phone where we could hear the person on the other end and they could hear us, no one had to shout. So nice.

I still have my nice Bell phone. If I have to dial 911, I am ready. But for normal phone stuff I use my cell phone.
posted by elizilla at 7:48 PM on May 11, 2019 [1 favorite]


"What's with all the holes, though?"
posted by xigxag at 8:23 PM on May 11, 2019 [2 favorites]


Not knowing to pick up the receiver while dialing surprised me because I would have though they'd have at least seen it done in a movie.

I guess anxiety dreams around using these dials (where there are extra holes, you can’t read the numbers, you lose track of what digit you're on) will be dying out - which is a very good thing.
posted by bonobothegreat at 8:28 PM on May 11, 2019


"What does zero sound like?!" "What's with all the holes?"

Oh my goddess. *wipes tear* What a pair of cut ups. I can't stop giggling. Despite his frustration at the end, the one with the hat was actually trying pretty hard to solve the Rotary Phone Puzzle.

I was born in the mid 80s, but growing up my Dad had a vintage rotary payphone (yes, the big kind that you hang on a wall and insert coins) that he kept connected to one of our landlines. I'm not sure what year it was manufactured, but it was old enough that all you needed to make a call was a dime. (The last time I saw a public payphone, in the late 90s / early aughts, I believe the price was about $1.50?) Anyway, I was always playing around with this rotary phone. Then Dad would try to make a call from another phone in the house, only to realize I was already on the line and having a pretty lively conversation with myself.

I miss it. I was telling my husband earlier that one of my favorite "nostalgia aesthetics" from old movies is when you'd see an actor or actress use their finger to carry a rotary phone around by its cradle, wandering about the house while getting their entire body twisted and tangled in the earphone rope. And how I really, really want to buy one now so I can modify it to connect to my smartphone by bluetooth. It's one more thing that might convince me to reach out to people more often by phone than by text message.
posted by nightrecordings at 9:08 PM on May 11, 2019 [3 favorites]


My fondest memory of rotary phones is dialing radio stations to try to win on-air contests, always losing out to the listeners whose wealthy families paid for the luxury of touch-tone.

As a kid I wondered if this is partially why they switched to giving the prize to the 21st caller, is that the case?
posted by hexaflexagon at 9:14 PM on May 11, 2019


Not in my town, it was usually the caller who matched the FM frequency for that particular station, though fairly large market so maybe in smaller audiences it was driven by exchange limitations.
posted by Burhanistan at 9:35 PM on May 11, 2019


Not knowing to pick up the receiver while dialing surprised me because I would have though they'd have at least seen it done in a movie.

But that's what is so great about it. It shows that kids these days are so young that even movies showing rotary phones are too old for them. They have no concept of a "dial tone." Life moves on.
posted by JackFlash at 9:42 PM on May 11, 2019 [3 favorites]


The town I lived in as a kid was one of the last in the San Francisco Bay Area to give up rotary phones. Long distance monopolies were being broken up and AT&T was using the excuse of how long it takes to switch over a rotary based central office to hold on to their long distance monopolies in various cities.

So MCI built some special equipment to speed up the transfer, then went to a central office and switched it over entirely from rotary to touch tone in something like one week. Then they went to the government and said "See? Now there's no excuse. If they don't switch over, just give those cities to us." After this AT&T quickly switched over the remaining cities.
posted by eye of newt at 9:44 PM on May 11, 2019


My kids found a typewriter at a garage sale, and this video reminds me of how my kids approached this mysterious and legendary machine from ancient times.
posted by eye of newt at 9:49 PM on May 11, 2019 [3 favorites]


I liked this a lot, but I pretty much always like watching people figure out how to use tools.

Unless I designed or implemented said tools, in which case it is literally the most frustrating exercise I can imagine. Fun to picture the original engineers who designed the rotary dial watching this video in the afterlife, grinding their teeth and tearing out their hair. "Kid!! It's a telephone! You're trying to place a voice call! Why would you dial it with the handset still on the receiver???"
posted by potrzebie at 11:07 PM on May 11, 2019 [2 favorites]


the phone company owned the phone and the customer rented it.

And thousands of those customers kept paying the rent for many years after they could have bought their own phone, identical to the one they were renting.


They often still do, though the phone company is an ISP and the phone is a modem...
posted by trig at 12:06 AM on May 12, 2019 [6 favorites]


My take-away is that these young people should watch more old films. I've never heard anyone use a telephone exchange name, and I certainly wouldn't know which specific exchange names to use without looking them up. But, the concept wouldn't be surprising.

I was just old enough to use a rotary phone when visiting relatives as kid. The rural phone company still charged extra for a touch tone model. I don't expect anyone younger than me to have actually used one before. But, if you've never seen one used, you've clearly missed out on some amazing cinema.
posted by eotvos at 1:18 AM on May 12, 2019 [1 favorite]


What I don’t understand is why zeros weren’t used. Obviously you can’t use zero pulses as a signal, so zero was represented by ten pulses, even less likely than nine.

The emergency number in Australia is indeed triple-zero. I suspect the reason other countries didn't use zero is that it's at the end of the dial, which makes it more attractive to children playing with a phone. A baby turning the dial will necessarily stop at zero, and since the dial is spring-loaded the phone will register a "zero" upon the dial's release. It's much less likely that an infant will dial a nune.
posted by Joe in Australia at 1:24 AM on May 12, 2019 [3 favorites]


To be fair, rotary phones have a terrible user interface.

By the time touch-tone came along, the various Telcos of the world had been persuaded about the importance of doing Human Factors testing - and the user interface was prepared with great care. But rotary phones go back to the 1890s in their earliest designs. We can make fun of their clunky user interface - but take time to appreciate the ingenuity of what they are doing as clockwork devices. And their amazing robustness. If you find a 70 year old rotary phone then you will probably be unable to make or receive calls with it - but I'd pretty much guarantee its dial mechanism will be functioning perfectly. In fact - drop the phone on the ground a few times. Dialer still working? I thought so!

And what an authoritative ring it is, which makes more sense when you think a household might only have one phone, and it must be heard from anywhere in the house.

I think that these cultural aspects of rotary phones, even more than difficulties in working out how to use them, are something that might not be appreciated by younger people today. The telephone was not yours - or even your family's. it was "apparatus" belonging to the telephone company - who were basically the government in many countries. As a customer - sorry "subscriber" - then any messing about with the telephone system was something that would consume valuable - and expensive communication resources. Ignore an incoming call? Pick up the receiver and wait too long before dialling? Fail to state your number when you received a call (every country and company had its preferred etiquette here)? Pretend you were the person who a wrong number dialler wanted to talk to? HOW DARE YOU!

My Edinburgh-dwelling grandmother was active in two world wars. She was very generous in many respects but was also an expert in domestic frugality. Her telephone was kept in a small, unheated, dimly lit, backroom with only a stool in it. On the wall there was a sign "Wouldn't a postcard do?". How do you convey that to teenagers?
posted by rongorongo at 2:38 AM on May 12, 2019 [9 favorites]


I guess anxiety dreams around using these dials (where there are extra holes, you can’t read the numbers, you lose track of what digit you're on) will be dying out - which is a very good thing.

I am confident that the many more ways that cell phones routinely screw up will supply at least an equal supply of bad dreams. Besides, modern phones have potentially-unreadable and forgettable numbers, too.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:27 AM on May 12, 2019


>> My fondest memory of rotary phones is dialing radio stations to try to win on-air contests, always losing out to the listeners whose wealthy families paid for the luxury of touch-tone.

> As a kid I wondered if this is partially why they switched to giving the prize to the 21st caller, is that the case?

In the late 80's my parents had a button-phone that would still only emit pulses. Gah.
posted by farlukar at 5:11 AM on May 12, 2019


Those of you who still have plain old telephone service: how much are you paying for it? I canceled when it went to close to $30 a month. I wish I still had it for emergencies and calls where I need to actually hear what the person on the other end is saying, but it didn’t feel worth it. Especially because I got even more spam calls on my landline than I do on my cell, so I had to turn off the ringer.
posted by The corpse in the library at 6:23 AM on May 12, 2019


The best thing about is the second video where they get the kids to try and butt dial a rotary phone.
posted by srboisvert at 6:43 AM on May 12, 2019


We still have a POTS line and I hope we can keep it until I die. They work when everything else is gone, and often they can summon needed help.

My parents do as well and they use a wireless phone set with it to call me and it almost never works and has horrible lag when it does. I get crazy weird garbled phone messages from them and then have to call them to find out what is going on. This involves calling and shouting "I can't understand you. Change to your wall phone" and then calling them back.
posted by srboisvert at 6:47 AM on May 12, 2019


>I guess anxiety dreams around using these dials (where there are extra holes, you can’t read the numbers, you lose track of what digit you're on) will be dying out - which is a very good thing.

I am confident that the many more ways that cell phones routinely screw up will supply at least an equal supply of bad dreams. Besides, modern phones have potentially-unreadable and forgettable numbers, too.


Yeah, I can confirm that I have had many anxiety dream about cell phones dropping calls, or not being able to hear the person on the other end, or my fingers mashing into the wrong keys and dialing the wrong number. Anxious brains are pretty adept at finding ways for new technologies to go wrong, too.
posted by lazuli at 6:52 AM on May 12, 2019 [1 favorite]


If you find a 70 year old rotary phone then you will probably be unable to make or receive calls with it - but I'd pretty much guarantee its dial mechanism will be functioning perfectly. In fact - drop the phone on the ground a few times. Dialer still working? I thought so!

Those things were fucking indestructible. The average rotary desk phone probably fell on the floor 1000 times over it's life due to the really short handset cord and never showed a scratch.
posted by octothorpe at 7:47 AM on May 12, 2019 [4 favorites]


I had my first smartphone anxiety dream just last week. I’m so with it.
posted by The corpse in the library at 8:51 AM on May 12, 2019 [1 favorite]


I wish I still had it for emergencies--The corpse in the library

Note that as long as the telephone company hasn't disconnected the wire somewhere along the path to your house, you'll still get a dial tone and you can always dial 911 even if you've cancelled the phone service.
posted by eye of newt at 9:08 AM on May 12, 2019 [1 favorite]


My 2005 house never got a POTS hookup.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 9:19 AM on May 12, 2019 [1 favorite]


Honestly this makes me wonder how *I* learned how to dial one of these. I can't remember not knowing, but there's also never been a time in my life when it would have been useful information to me. Probably somebody taught me when I was playing with the one at my grandparent's home.
posted by vibratory manner of working at 10:34 AM on May 12, 2019


They aren't that un-intuitive, especially if you've ever seen a corded phone of any variety used -- like a deskphone in a business evironment. Which (these days, usually) can be dialed on-hook but often aren't.

The holes are numbered and once you think to put the receiver to your ear you can hear the pulses.
posted by snuffleupagus at 12:32 PM on May 12, 2019


My dad, being all for anything people considered fancy, saw to it that our house had only touch tone phones by the time I was born. Despite having never actually used one, I had no trouble figuring out how to make a dial phone work thanks to its appearance in countless old films and television shows that were all over early cable. These days, mass media doesn't include training on how to work a rotary dial.

Regarding party lines, we had a weekend house (actually a ramshackle early 70s mobile home, so more like a death trap built into a semi trailer than an actual house) when I was growing up. Being out in the sticks, you couldn't get a private line at any price. Four party or GTFO. That remained the case into the early 2000s at least. I was so shocked the first time I tried to use that phone that I slammed the handset back on hook with quite a clatter when I heard the operator come on and ask "what number are you calling from?". It hadn't even occurred to me as a thing that could happen with a touch tone phone in the mid 90s. We had a phone in the car and had since before I was born and yet this strange voice I didn't expect is asking me where I'm calling from? I could only assume I was in some kind of trouble.
posted by wierdo at 12:37 PM on May 12, 2019 [3 favorites]


Those of you who still have plain old telephone service: how much are you paying for it? I canceled when it went to close to $30 a month. I wish I still had it for emergencies and calls where I need to actually hear what the person on the other end is saying, but it didn’t feel worth it. Especially because I got even more spam calls on my landline than I do on my cell, so I had to turn off the ringer.

Ours is currently bundled with our internet service for like 40 bucks a month. I think it's a useful thing to have in earthquake country so there's a wired phone attached, but we don't use it otherwise. It's quite a shock when it rings suddenly after years of silence. I've never answered it.
posted by oneirodynia at 12:55 PM on May 12, 2019 [1 favorite]


Step up the game. Ask them to dial by the letters. My daughter asked if she need to spin the number twice to get the “B”.
posted by SLC Mom at 1:14 PM on May 12, 2019 [4 favorites]


And maybe it's obvious, but the two conductors were called that because tip went to the tip of the 1/4" jack used in manual telephone exchanges (like an electric guitar plug) and ring went to the isolated "ring" contact on the jack.

If I'm not mistaken, all of the 1/4 in/3.5 mm TRS type plugs that are still standard for audio descend from the ones invented for telephone switchboards?
posted by atoxyl at 2:26 PM on May 12, 2019 [3 favorites]


When we bought our current house in 2000, cell coverage here was not great, and the house (build in 1936) was wired for POTS. We went to a phone collectors event later that year and bought a black dial phone manufactured in 1937, it still had the original paper number plate on it. We plugged it in, and called it (from our cell phone, luckily coverage was good that day) - our cats sleeping on the couch - and I thought they would go through the ceiling on the RRRIIINNNGG!! Unlike phones I grew up with, there was no volume adjustment on this phone - it was just LOUD. Heavy too - the handset would have made a great murder weapon.
posted by dbmcd at 3:16 PM on May 12, 2019 [1 favorite]


The sad thing is that those old POTS lines still beat the best of today’s smart phones when it comes to audio quality, especially in that POTS is full-duplex. You can have a fluid, interactive conversation, and not a game of packet leap-frog.

That said, I’m not sure people use smart phones as actual phones much, so...
posted by Thorzdad at 6:14 PM on May 12, 2019 [5 favorites]


Eh, when HD voice works or on GSM networks using EFR or AMR full rate, cell phones can have quite good quality, though latency is still an issue. The carriers have been squeezing for so long that few remember that it is indeed possible for cell phones to sound equivalent to a landline, though. It makes me very sad sometimes, especially since HD Voice should be better than g711 on a landline. Only VoIP phones that support wideband codecs can do as well.

What we have really lost, however, is clarity and intelligibility by default. (Though there have always been exceptions. Landlines out in the sticks were often plagued by hum and static.)
posted by wierdo at 6:58 PM on May 12, 2019 [2 favorites]


2N2222: "Several years back, I bought an old rotary phone, mostly for novelty sake. My two kids, about junior high age, got a kick out of it. The seemed to have a sense of how to operate it, I'm guessing through old movies and TV shows. What they really disliked was how loud the ring was. And what an authoritative ring it is, which makes more sense when you think a household might only have one phone, and it must be heard from anywhere in the house. "

Exact same situation here. Rotary phone looks great, works fine, but I disconnected it because that ring is crazy loud.
posted by Chrysostom at 7:02 PM on May 12, 2019 [1 favorite]


I don't know much about the tech behind telephony beyond that landlines have physical connections while cell phones use tiny magic elves that fly through the air.

As someone who was born with hearing issues, though, I can't fucking stand talking on cell phones. Shitty quality, ergonomic disasters, half the time when I was calling people at work they would answer their phone when they were clearly on the damn train and insisted on screaming their way through the conversation...

It's nice to have a pocket internet but I wish the norms around voice calls could revert to the 90s landline-and-answering-machine setup.

In conclusion, get off my lawn.
posted by tivalasvegas at 7:21 PM on May 12, 2019 [2 favorites]


Honestly this makes me wonder how *I* learned how to dial one of these. I can't remember not knowing, but there's also never been a time in my life when it would have been useful information to me.

I'm going to take a stab at it and say you probably had some early help from this little guy. I know I did! He is still for sale to help the innocent infant (or teenager). In fact all telephones should come with wheels, eyes, a tow-along rope and a big grin.
posted by rongorongo at 10:23 PM on May 12, 2019


Sparkfun used to sell a rotary cell phone, and published instructions on how they built it.
posted by Sophont at 11:55 PM on May 12, 2019


There was also a period when you could record either the clicks or the tones and play them into a handset to get a number dialed. One of the bits of swag AT&T had was a mini recorder that would play a number into a pay phone that would charge a call to the user's number. The selling point was that nobody could look over your shoulder to find out the number and run up your bill.
posted by Karmakaze at 6:37 AM on May 13, 2019


I don't think you could ever play back the clicks and get anything sensible to happen - certainly the tones can be recorded and played back, but the 'clicks' are DC signaling and just don't work that way
posted by mbo at 1:28 PM on May 13, 2019 [4 favorites]


"...you can always dial 911 even if you've cancelled the phone service."

That's true in the US on everyone's cell phones, too. I wonder how many people know that?

This thread makes me feel old and weird. In the 70s, I found a bare phone line in my bedroom closet and with only that and stuff I had lying around I figured out how phones work and built my own.

Then, because teenage boy why not, I bought a long spool of two-conducter wire and with my bespoke phone, drove around late at night with a friend until we found a good house, clipped onto the phone line on the house's exterior wall, and called my cousin long-distance in California from a car parked twenty feet away.

Turned out the house belonged to an elderly woman whose bills were paid by her church and she'd never made a long-distance call before that one. The phone company checked to see who else in town had ever called that California number, and then Bell Security called my mom and asked her some questions. They were more concerned that I was a phreaker and had done something much more sophisticated, but even so, they and my parents weren't happy. This became a family anecdote about me, much exaggerated in the telling. I tell them about Captain Crunch and all the people that did way cooler things than me, but their version is better and it's the one that stuck.

I did meet a genuine phreaker/hacker a few years later. He'd been federally prosecuted and was on probation and wasn't allowed to use computing equipment. I did not tell him about my escapade.

In 1990 for a little while I was a payphone repairman. I worked on some phones at the expensive liberal arts college I ended up attending 18 months later. When I told my mostly-privileged classmates I'd repaired their dorms' payphones, it weirded them out. I'd already been accepted and done the visit and everything when I had that payphone job and it was interesting to come onto campus with my toolbox and be blue-collar Joe.

I'm a drummer, so the pulse-dialing thing was easy for me, and I could do it quickly. It was a bar bet I used for awhile.

Isn't the ring pulse 70v AC, not 90v? Even so, and as AC, that was genuinely hazardous. I was never shocked by a ring. But the off-hook voltage is maybe 20v DC, which isn't too bad, except that there's about a half-second delay before it's sent when the off-hook state is detected ... giving you just enough time to actually get a good grip on the wires. I actually mentally flinch more when I'm working with live phone lines than with live house current.

In 1983 when I was 19, mostly unemployed, and living in my first apartment in Dallas and couldn't afford a phone, I discovered that for each building, all the apartments phone lines were routed in a bundle through every outlet in the aparrments. Free phone! Well, until my neighbor was surprised to find someone using his phone line. I panicked and hung-up, leaving my confused uncle on the line with my neighbor. He wasn't that confused -- he'd heard the stories.

"The telephone was not yours - or even your family's. it was 'apparatus' belonging to the telephone company - who were basically the government in many countries."

That brings to mind the 1967 film, The President's Analyst, and this particular scene.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 8:57 PM on May 13, 2019 [9 favorites]


You want pain? Try finding an unlabeled "special service" (at that time, that meant a T1 trunk for voice service) line with 190VDC on it. In a confined space with lots of poky metal bits around.

I came into it (officially) just late enough that most such circuits were well labeled anywhere they appeared on a cross connect or terminal block and usually even sported plastic safety caps, so I wasn't well prepared despite my many childhood antics with 120V house current and having been hit by ring current on more than one occasion in the past.

Before I noticed the warmth of fresh blood, I was focused on the fact that my entire arm felt like it was on fire, the warmth literally shooting up toward my shoulder just slowly enough to be perceptibly short of instantaneous. I've had less painful shocks from CRT monitors.

One delightful thing about that party line I mentioned is that for the cost of a "local" long distance call, one could subsequently call anywhere in the world on the phone company's dime. It was a hell of a lot cheaper than calling Chicago at the time, before toll pricing inverted after Qwest got started and drove national rates way down.
posted by wierdo at 9:20 PM on May 13, 2019 [4 favorites]


I had a rotary phone probably until the early '90's because I thought paying extra for touch tone was silly. At some point they ended the up-charge for tone by just increasing everyone's bill that wasn't paying for it to the tone price. Don't get me started on long distance. I used to be able to call my grandma, 1,000 miles away, far cheaper than my friends who were 15 miles away. I mean, less than half. Supposedly because there was water in between. The way they figured "long distance" was a joke.

I, for one, do not miss the old phone system.
posted by lordrunningclam at 5:56 AM on May 14, 2019 [1 favorite]


Oh yes, the old "local long distance" thing. In the '90s it was cheaper to call my sister in Mass than it was to call a friend on the other side of the county.
posted by octothorpe at 7:13 AM on May 14, 2019


In the 70s we used to have a rate book which listed distance and time of day and had charts so you could figure out who should dial whom in which direction at whatever god-awful time of night in order to only pay a few cents a minute instead of dollars. I remember speaking with my grandfather in Ohio from my home in New Mexico at, like, 11pm (being awakened to "come talk to grandpa!"), because that was the best rate.
posted by hippybear at 7:35 AM on May 14, 2019 [4 favorites]


To be clear, this would have been 1am in Ohio. Ma Bell's long distance rates were heinous to keep older people up to make phone calls when the rates when down.
posted by hippybear at 7:38 AM on May 14, 2019


I looked up the Fisher Price toy phone, and apparently they tried updating to a touch-tone model in 2000 but then quickly reverted to the classic rotary form.

I suppose dials are more fun to play with than buttons, even if it's further and further from representing what an actual phone they're going to use looks like.
posted by RobotHero at 7:51 AM on May 14, 2019 [1 favorite]


At which point it retreats into some sort of mythical creature, perhaps with some bit of an echo watching a movie on TCM. But for all of childhood it is just the sort of horrifying face that begs you to stick your fingers into his face-holes and waggle them about. And so you do, and it's fun! Face hole waggling is fun!

I don't know where I'm going with this. It's both creepy as hell and kind of funny.
posted by hippybear at 8:08 AM on May 14, 2019 [2 favorites]


I suppose dials are more fun to play with than buttons

Put a crank on anything and you can keep a kid busy for hours. Probably works with dials too.
posted by sjswitzer at 8:08 AM on May 14, 2019 [1 favorite]


or even just a knob to rub

*SNEEZES LOUDLY AND COVERS MOUTH*
posted by hippybear at 8:11 AM on May 14, 2019


I have an old rotary phone. It makes and receives calls just fine. It is incredibly sturdy, I always know where it is, the handset is ergonomically designed for holding up to my ear while correctly aligning to my mouth and I can comfortably handlessly hold it with my shoulder without risk of calamitously dropping it or accidentally hanging it up. The sound is much clearer than either my iPhone or my cordless landline phones, and it does not require being plugged into an electrical outlet or charged to function. (When asked why I have it, I just say that it's my "earthquake phone.")

The thing about them being loud is true. Yes, it has a volume dial, but it only adjusts from loud to louder—after all, it is a physical metal bell. But I like this, as I often go around with headphones on all day and forget to turn my cellphone back on after concerts and events for long periods of time. (I can always unplug it from the wall to silence it, as it is not my only landline phone.) So the people I want to be able to reach me can often do so by calling the landline after failing to connect to my cellphone.

The service is provided by my ISP at no additional cost, and I can manage my voicemail settings through them as well, so it goes to voicemail after just a few rings, and VM text notifications are sent to my cellphone. But one of the best features is that I can use the same number I've had for almost 30 years on forms that require one and never give my cellphone # to anyone I don't know by name. And yeah, children are fascinated by it!
posted by obloquy at 11:56 AM on May 14, 2019 [1 favorite]


Instructional video from Rachel Ward in Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid (1982):

"You know how to dial, don't you? You just put your finger in the hole and make tiny circles."
posted by kirkaracha at 1:48 PM on May 14, 2019 [3 favorites]


That brings to mind the 1967 film, The President's Analyst, and this particular scene.
Thank you for sharing that - looks like a great film to discover.

On the subject of dystopian telephone companies - and particularly ones providing pay phones - I would recommend the brilliant Spanish film "La cabina" - IMDB and on YouTube. Just as, I suspect, The President's Analyst had in mind the Hoover regime - so I suspect, the makers of La Cabina were alluding to the Franco government.
posted by rongorongo at 12:45 AM on May 15, 2019 [1 favorite]


(La Cabina previously)
posted by rongorongo at 1:04 AM on May 15, 2019


I had one friend who could somehow hum/whistle touchtones.

It is humanly possible to whistle DTMF but it's vanishingly rare. You need both perfect pitch & the ability to whistle two tones simultaneously.
posted by scalefree at 10:40 PM on May 15, 2019 [1 favorite]


We used to hand pulse numbers - in NZ you could bypass the coin accepter by pulsing the hook switch (hangup switch) in 1 second pulses with appropriate inter digit spacings (in NZ you had to subtract the number you were dialing from 10, in the US it would have been easier)

Around the same time a friend claimed to have built a tone generator and hooked it to the mains, the local street lights were turned on/off using tones sent over the mains, at 3am he sent morse across town by turning on/off all the lights in his suburb ....
posted by mbo at 11:51 PM on May 15, 2019 [2 favorites]


In grade school we found a pattern on the touch pay-phones that gave us free calls, a specific order pick up, hang up, dial 2, etc.
The school found out and was not happy about it, we got a stern talking to.
posted by signal at 5:29 PM on May 16, 2019


Note that as long as the telephone company hasn't disconnected the wire somewhere along the path to your house, you'll still get a dial tone and you can always dial 911 even if you've cancelled the phone service.

Is this still so, now that the switches are digital and trunks are mostly VOIP? I haven't had a landline for a little while, but I feel like when I cancelled the service the dial tone went away much too quickly for the physical line to have been severed or repurposed. Similarly, and more recently, analog lines for fax at my previous office, after we went to e-fax (although I can imagine the pair being grabbed more quickly in an office building, at the demarc, to be connected to a different suite).
posted by snuffleupagus at 8:07 PM on May 16, 2019


Digital switches have been able to remove dial tone in minutes since the 80s.

FWIW, the ability to call 911 on a landline is contingent on the physical pair still being in place and connected all the way back to the serving equipment. Sometimes your cross connect will be removed in days, sometimes it will stay connected indefinitely, it just depends on demand in your area.

3G or better cell phones are a better option in the sense of long term usability for 911 since all carriers must allow any technologically compatible phone place 911 calls at any time. Your phone will probably say "no service" and not connect to whatever network it was made for or was last used with, so there will be a long delay after dialing 911 while it finds a network but it should always work in the end if there is a working compatible cell site in range.

On the gripping hand, lives are lost every year due to poor location data availability on cell phones. Landlines are a lot better in that respect. There's a reason you don't hear about long delays while searching for 911 callers using landlines. So really you need both.
posted by wierdo at 6:48 PM on May 17, 2019 [2 favorites]


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