TNB Night Owl – Telephone Trip

Front of a rotary telephone dial of ca. 1940. Photo by Kbrose.

For those of you who were not born yesterday, buckle up for a nostalgic trip down memory lane. For you youngsters this may seem like an esoteric look at an archaic technology, but it’s not pointless! History is always important, even if it’s the history of outdated and obsolete technology. If nothing else, hopefully you’ll gain an appreciation for the advanced technology you enjoy today.

Just for fun, let’s start with a video (4:00) of two post-millenium teenagers who are trying to figure out how to work a typical device commonly found everywhere in the 1950s through the 1970s. Oldsters will find this to be a hoot. I laughed out loud every single time they lift and set the handset down on the cradle.

The gadget the boys on the video struggled with is a rotary phone, model WE-500, made by Western Electric (W.E.), from about 1952 until the 1980s. Later versions of this model had push buttons instead of a rotary dial.

Push button phones were called ‘touch-tone’. Rotary phone systems used an analog technology called ‘pulse’ dialing, while touch-tone phones use Dual-Tone Multi-Frequency signaling (DTMF). Pulse dialing is not compatible with DTMF (tone dialing). Is this getting too technical? Yes, I think so as well, so we will go no further down this rabbit hole. The only reason I mention it is, if you have a rotary phone and want to prank those special kids in your life (like in the video) you will need a ‘Pulse to Tone Converter’ to make your antique rotary phone work on today’s DTMF telephone landlines. These “little black boxes” are readily available online.

Western Electric was the manufacturing unit of the Bell Telephone System, better known back in the day as Ma Bell. Back then no one owned their phone, they rented them from the phone company – the cost of which was included in the customer’s monthly phone bill. In fact, underneath every phone you would find something like “Property of Bell Telephone System” (or whoever the local phone company was). When you moved, you turned your rented phone(s) in to the telco, and got your replacement phone(s) (which might have been new or used) from the telephone company that served your new address. Plain or fancy models were available (we’re still talking phones here, guys) and if you wanted a more deluxe model you paid more for it per month.

There were other telephone makers and telephone companies, but Ma Bell was the largest telco utility in the United States until it was broken up into the ‘baby bells’ in 1984. Because Ma Bell used Western Electric phones exclusively (as far as I know) there were more W.E. phones manufactured prior to 1984 than any other make.

There were no dials on phones at all until the 1920s. Each telephone was connected by wire back to a central office ‘exchange’, where a human sat at a switchboard and manually connected the caller to the callee with a patch cord. This was known as the ‘operator system’. Large telephone companies with thousands of subscribers employed many operators.

To make a call to another party one had to pick up the handset – and maybe tap the switchhook a few times to get the operator’s attention – and then tell the operator the local number you wanted to speak with, such as “Lakewood 2697” or “Fordham 4141”. Lakewood and Fordham are examples of central office names (aka, exchange names) and were usually named for the neighborhood, town, or city they were in. If one wanted to call long-distance to another city, you had to first tell the operator you wanted to make a ‘toll’ or ‘trunk’ call. You would then be transferred to a trunk operator who connected you with yet another operator in the distant city.

By the 1920s, telephones with dials began to appear, with letters associated with each number on the dial. Exchanges like Lakewood and Fordham could now be dialed directly without the assistance of an operator. One could dial ‘O’ to get an operator if needed, such as when placing a trunk call. These rotary phones used the ‘dial tone system’ because you would lift the receiver and check for a dial tone before commencing to dial, rather than waiting for an operator.

Telephones without dials would not be fully replaced nationwide with rotary phones until the 1950s, at which time area codes came into use and customers could finally make long-distance calls without operator assistance.

Exchanges were designed based on letter-number plans. In a ‘two letter plan’ such as Lakewood 2697 (a real number, but in which state?) the first two letters, ‘LA’ would be dialed as ’52’ using the letters around the dial, so the entire number would be 52-2697.

Larger cities used a three letter plan. Fordham 4141 was the real number of Dr. John Arena in New York City, which would be dialed as 367-4141. As the nation grew, all telephone exchanges eventually became three letters or two letters and a number.

Names helped make it easy to remember a phone number. For example HO9-3020 (my grandmother’s number, the second phone number I ever memorized and the only one from that era that I still remember) was dialed as 469-3020. The family continued to use HO9-3020 for years after the telephone company did away with exchange names and went to an ‘all number’ plan, because that’s the way we learned it. I don’t recall what the HO stood for (other than for model trains). In my mind, I always pronounced it as eight-cho! Hey, I was a kid once you know.

Do you like quaint, old documentaries? Our boys in the first video would have benefited from watching “Now You Can Dial” (1954) (11:27 minutes).

What year or decade would you guess mobile phones were first made available for commercial use? The nineties? The eighties? Nope, you’re ice cold. Try 1946!
Watch “Mobile Telephones” (1946) by Bell Telephone System (10:22 minutes). This original mobile phone system continued in service until the 1980s when it was replaced by early cellular service.

Here’s a slice of trivia where telephones and movies intersect. The prefix ‘555’ was reserved for telco use only. The only number beginning with 555 that the public was allowed to use was 555-1212, which was for information. Any other number with the 555 prefix was non-functional to the public. Hollywood took advantage of this fact by using 555-xxxx in movies, to avoid using anyone’s real-life phone number. For example, KLondike 5-5555, or QUincy 5–5555 or similar were often used in pictures to avoid violating anyone’s privacy.

If you’re interested in antique phones, there are plenty of resources out there to learn more. Here’s one good website with good pictures and great information.

Question of the night: When did you get your first phone, and what kind was it?

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About Richard Doud 90 Articles
No one is right all the time. No one is wrong all the time. No exceptions to these rules.