The Dial Comes To Town

I recently came across a TikTok video of a mom showing her two young daughters a working rotary landline telephone. It looked like they were at an open house for a property on the market, or even in their grandparents basement on a visit, but either way — the shock was real, which was of course effective because it in turn shocked the viewer (me, in my mid-thirties) into feeling very old.

This got me thinking about rotary phones, both in general as well as when the last time was I actually used one (toys don’t count).

This led me to another type of video about dial rotary phones, which I found on YouTube via user PVid88. The video was originally released by Bell Telephone as a creative way to introduce new customers to their dial phone product. It’s a charming video for many reasons – in some ways even Capra-esque in his It’s a Wonderful Life era, especially the conversation between the two older men towards the beginning. This short was released in 1940, even though by then customers had been transitioning over to the rotary dial for twenty years already.

Interesting Engineering has a nice breakdown of the history of the rotary dial, providing both historical and engineering context. For example, I didn’t realize the pulse system, which rotary phones used to communicate, varied from country to country:

So, by way of example, if you’d dialed the number 2, depending on the dial configuration, the switch would send out two pulses to the switching office. If you’d dialed 9, 9 pulses would be sent and so on.

Interestingly this was not a universal standard. Different countries would use different pulse systems.

Sweden, for example, used a single pulse to represent the number zero and 10 for the number 9. New Zealand used a far more complicated method whereby the number would be represented by ten pulses minus the number desired – so if you dialed 7 it would send 3 electrical pulses.

If you come across an old rotary phone, it’s not guaranteed it will work, it varies on your telecom service provider and the phone itself — but there definitely is a chance. Eventually I was able to place the last time I dialed out using a rotary phone, which was, unsurprisingly in the early 90s at my Grandparents house, about 30 years ago. I can still conjure the feeling of my finger rotating the dial – pure satisfaction!

If you are rotary nostalgic like myself, I recommend checking out John Park’s excellent Rotary Phone Dial Keypad project tutorial.


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