How To Dial a Rotary Telephone

February 5, 2009 at 3:23 pm | Posted in Phone and Calculator Numbers | 6 Comments
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In response to a few notes I got in from younger readers of yesterday’s “Why Do the Numbers Go Up on Phones But Down on Calculators?, I offer this:




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  1. Hoo boy, one of my worst childhood memories was the utter confusion I felt while trying to figure out how to dial one of those suckers. I wrote this about it a year or two ago:

    I was in second grade, I believe. Mrs. Hurst’s class. For some reason I was in the Vice-Principals office and was supposed to be calling home to my mother. I honestly don’t remember what was going on — maybe I was in trouble, or maybe I was sick. Beats me.

    Anyway, the VP asked me to call my mom, and let me sit at her desk as she left the room for a few minutes. I looked at the phone but didn’t have any idea what to do next. You see, it was a rotary phone, and this was the first time in my life I’d ever seen one.

    I pushed the numbers, right inside the metal holes… nothing happened. Hung up, picked up the phone again… got a dial tone, that’s good. Pushed the numbers. Nothing happened.

    Soon the VP came back and asked about my mom. I said she wasn’t home. The VP said I could try again in a few minutes, and she left the room again. This cycle continued three or four times, with me insisting my mom wasn’t home, even though I hadn’t yet figured out how to dial a single digit on the ancient contraption.

    Finally, it dawned on me how to work the thing. Call it delayed intuition, angelic assistance, or a “duh” moment. All I know is that it was so sweet to finally figure it out. And nobody ever found out about 7-year-old Michael’s dilemma of ignorance. Until now, I guess.

    Three other similar stories are on my blog under the title “4 stories of my ignorance”.

    I needed that instructional video!

  2. What a great story! (I’ve greatly enjoyed the pictures of your recent trip to San Diego, by the way. Fun! You guys looked like you were really enjoying the Midway ship tour. Awesomeness.)

  3. What a joy it would be to find a genuine old-fashioned telephone booth with a genuine old-fashioned rotary-dial telephone inside, and a pay slot that says “10¢”. I’d think I was in the Twilight Zone, and in a good way. I can’t even begin to think how many years it’s been since I used a rotary dial on a phone. I think I’m going to have find one of those old phones on Ebay.

  4. Many are not aware that the major metropolitan areas (i.e., New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles) were given area codes with small digits because dialing the large digits was slower and more error prone. Those aforementioned cities got the area codes of 212, 312, and 213 respectively.

  5. I think I’m going to have find one of those old phones on Ebay.

    I got one of those old phenolic dial phones for our old house. Looks great. Huge pain in the butt.

  6. I’m nearly 36 now, so to think there’s now a whole generation who grew up without ever learning to use these things kinda makes me feel ancient. Anyhow, in New Zealand where I come from, these were banned from the Telecom network about 20 years ago, when all telephones had to have a ‘Telepermit’ so they could use the network. Pulse dialling using these Morse-code-producing artifacts hasn’t been allowed here for some time. I believe Morse code dropped out of use entirely just a few years ago. You can’t do telephone banking or interact with automated devices using them either!

    Just a side note: telephones used here (which were designed in Europe and produced under licence from Siemens in Germany) had the numbers starting at the bottom, whereas those in North America had the numbers starting at the top.

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