Yes, children, we old people struggled with complex technology too

There was a time when we had to have those new-fangled communications devices explained to us. Here’s a silent film with instructions on those new ‘rotary dial phones’. You may not be familiar with them anymore.

Maybe you’re too modern to want to sit through a slow old silent black and white movie that takes 7 minutes to explain how a dial works. If so, here’s a 10 minute talkie about explaining to grandpa how to use a phone. It’s even more agonizing. Check out the Mid-Atlantic accent used by the woman doing the explaining.


  1. Athywren - not the moon you're looking for says

    on those new ‘rotary dial phones’.

    Erm, hello, yes. I think you’ll find it’s pronounced “new-fangled”?

  2. komarov says

    Re: Athywren (#1)

    Erm, hello, yes. I think you’ll find it’s pronounced “new-fangled”?

    It is indeed, and it will never catch on. What’s wrong with sending a nice formal letter or, if you must, a telegram? Why, you could probably drop by and conduct your business in person using your automobile, as any proper gentleman would.

    ‘Rotary dial phone.’ Where those mad engineers get their ideas from I will never now. Soon we’ll be typing text messages on a tiny keyboard on a tiny screen while a tinier still ‘computer’ keeps guessing what it is we want to say. Before long people will forget the use of (fountain) pen and paper and that, I fear, shall be the end of civilisation.

  3. says

    See also, The Reassembler—A Call From The Past.

    I continue to find it amazing that in my youth it was still commonplace to ask, not what a person’s phone number was, but whether they had a telephone; and here we are a “mere” forty years later, and the ability to contact people anywhere, at any time is so normal that some folks get annoyed if we decide to take a little private time and turn off our personal pocket-phone.

  4. Snarki, child of Loki says

    I, for one, look forward to a voice-activated smartphone where you can tell it who to call with the phrase:

    “Hello, Central? Connect me to …”

    PROGRESS! feel it.

  5. Silver Fox says

    Brain-to-brain communication. Wait for it, it’s coming. Verizon, or maybe Google, will place a chip in your brain and a transmitter behind your ear and all you will need to do is think a name and presto you’ll be talking to your spouse.

  6. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    amused that what is now 411 used to be simply 8. (don’t you just H8 that? ;-)

    I’m sure this film (theater shown I guess) to explain how to use the funny mechanism when previously one could just pick up the phone and ask to be connected to {name}. It’s taken tons of tech to get back to that point where people can just touch the name in their [Contact] list. and !voila!. And people who call you don’t even have to tell you their number for you to scribble down, the phone itself automatically stores the number without asking and keeps it in a subcategory of your contact list.[Recent Calls]
    getting all technophilic and pedantic, I’ll see myself out

  7. Larry says

    Who remembers:

    1) Party lines (so I says to Mabel, Mabel… who’s there? damn kids listening in on the party line… Anyways…)
    2) Telephone numbers with alphabetic prefixes, e.g. RE21922, RE -> Redwood
    3) Ma Bell was your only choice of providers and your choice of phone colors was black. Plus, you didn’t own your phone, Ma Bell did.
    4) Long distance calls would take minutes, some times, to set up and you could hear the various switches routing your call as you waited.
    5) Information calls were free

  8. whheydt says

    When I was a student at Berkeley in the late 1960s, one of the women in the dorm lived in Crockett, a small town (pop. about 3000 these days) on the shores of Suisun Bay/Sacramento River where it flows into San Francisco Bay. The dominant industry in town was a huge C&H Sugar factory. At that time, Crockett didn’t have direct dial, the town was on a central switchboard. In order to call home from Berkeley (about 10-15 miles away in a straight line) she had to get a PacBell operator and ask to be connected to the Crockett operator. The PacBell operator always wanted to know what number she was calling to and usually refused ot believe that “Crockett and a 3-digit number” was a real phone number. Once she got to the Crockett operator, there were no problems, but getting that part of the connection was always a hassle. FYI…the number of the C&H facility was “Crockett 1”.

  9. says

    My college roomie had a rotary dial mounted where the clock was supposed to go on his ’53 Ford (top center of the dash). Curious passengers couldn’t resist trying it, and were usually embarrassed when they discovered that dialing a number resulted in that number of short beeps from the car’s horn. We loved 3-4-2 followed by one long press of the horn (Look it up if you don’t remember your Morse code).

  10. What a Maroon, living up to the 'nym says

    You realize that that’s the second of two parts. If you skip the first part you’ll miss the plot setup and all the subtle characterization.

    “Pshaw!” Indeed.

  11. pipefighter says

    Shouldn’t a person with a mid atlantic accent just be drowning? I suppose they could be on a boat.

  12. says

    Larry @ 9:

    Who remembers:

    :raises hand: I don’t remember how old I was when the switch was made to all numbers, but I remember I didn’t like it. I preferred the alpha numbers.

  13. Matrim says

    Information calls were free

    Yeah, it’s crazy just how much those cost these days. Most people don’t realize it because they just use the Internet to look up whatever they need. One of the guys I give services to made 8 directory assistance calls, and they changed him over $7 a call. His phone bill for that month was basically doubled because of it.

  14. says

    My phone # in high school: UL2-6652.

    My girlfriend’s #: UL2-1177.

    I still remember! Although the area code has changed from 206 to 253 now.

    Don’t call those numbers. We don’t live there anymore.

  15. blf says

    I was vastly amused when I moved to London many many yonks again from USAlienstan, and discovered that the pushbutton telephone in my (temporary) flat was actually a disguised rotary. You’d push the buttons and then hear the distinct clack-clack-clack of a rotary mechanism.

    As I understand it, after pushbutton phones first appeared in the USA, the then British PTT (not sure what it would have been called at that time) decided not to invest in the touchtone technology. In order to meet the demand for pushbutton phones, they came up with that kludge.

    At the time, BT or whatever they were called by then, had finally(and still was?) installing the touchtone technology, so that fakepush rotary instrument was (or would soon be) outdated. For some years afterwards, when you bought your phone (another new-fangled idea), they usually had a switch to choose between touchtone and rotary. I have no idea if that is still the case.

  16. rabbitbrush says

    Larry @9 – Yes, I remember all of those. We had two lines in town—the 9 line and the 4 line, 10 parties on each line. We were on the 9 line. If you heard a cuckoo clock cuck-cuck-ing in the background while talking to someone, you knew Elsie was listening in. She was the only one on the 9-line who had one of those.

  17. whheydt says

    Re: blf @ #19…
    In the US for a long time, the tone dialing feature was an extra charge add-on for a land line, so after you could buy (and connect) third party phones instead of being forced to rent them from AT&T, there was a mode switch to either send tones or pulses…checking…yup, the push-button phone I have right here has a “tone/pulse” switch on it.

  18. Lofty says

    In the 70’s enthusiasts could buy aftermarket key pads to modify our government issued dial phones to push button operation. How daring was that!

  19. Rich Woods says

    @blf #19:

    In order to meet the demand for pushbutton phones, they came up with that kludge.

    Yes, I remember there was an interim fix which managed the differences between pulse and tone dialling. I’m not sure if it still holds, but it wouldn’t surprise me.

    It used to be the case that you could wire up a Morse key on your phone line and use that to send a number. It was faster than waiting for a rotary dial to reset, but electrically did the same job. That was back in the days when it was illegal to install any non-GPO equipment on your phone line, so of course I don’t know anyone who might actually have done that, Urban legend, that’s all.

  20. blf says

    I’m now reminded that, for a time (but slightly after the incident above) I used to carry with me a tone-generating pad, a very simple device about the size of a credit card with a keypad that would generate the correct tones. The speaker was on the back, so it was relatively easy to hold the thing over the mouthpiece and tap in the secret code. I have no recollection if you could use that to dial, but if you got connected (from a rotary (or more actually, pulse)) to a tone-based answering system, you could key in the swearwordsanswers. It came in handy a few times.

  21. chainborne says

    I’ve just remembered, you could dial a number by clicking the hooks that many times, with a brief pause between digits. I remember wowing people at parties (not really) by dialling the speaking clock (123 in the UK) with that trick.

  22. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    Amusing to hear the first frames saying “on May 28, new phones will be introduced” as though suddenly everyone’s current phone will magically transform into these new rotary thingies. And how the book required, the Blue Book, is not to be used until after the new phones appear. oooooh. The book holds all the magic number codes you’ll need to talk to “get connected”.
    I (not knowing anything about the older phone system) heard it as “You can’t pick up the handle and ask to be connected by name, using our new phones, you got to dial in the code number that’s in the Blue Book we sent you last week.”
    Geee, nostalgia can be fun, even though it has the name of a malady.

  23. Larry Kearney says

    Did you know:

    The original operators were teenage boys. They were quickly replaced by women operators as customers complained of foul language and poor service. Who’d of ever guessed?

    The limit of 10000 numbers in a local exchange office was based upon how far an operator could reach from her chair to a port on the plug board in front of her.

    Some exchanges were so large, supervisors would move around the floor on roller skates to check on their operators.

    As the network grew in its early days, the phone company was starting to consume almost the total production of wire manufactured in the US. New technologies, such as frequency division multiplexing (many phone calls carried on a single pair of wires), reduced the wire requirements by orders of magnitude.

    Andrew Stowger, inventor of perhaps the most key component that revolutionized the phone system, the Strowger switch, was an undertaker. He came up with the switch, which automated the connection between caller and receiver because a competitor’s wife worked as an operator and was forwarding calls for undertakers to her husband’s business.

  24. Mrdead Inmypocket says

    Slamming that sturdy bakelite plastic receiver down at the end of a call when you were pissed off. Aah, nothing like it, that gave a call real finality. Kids these days don’t know what they’re missing tapping icons.

    When you answered the phone you never knew who it was going to be. Could be anyone, your aunt, a salesman, the President? Who knows. Random prank calls from people and you had little to no chance of finding out who they were. Frankly, I don’t know how we survived.

  25. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    re 29:

    [to not really answer] The octothorp (#) was originally omitted from the first touch-tone keypads. leaving them 3×3 on top of a solitary [0].
    eventually they made it 3×4 with [*][0][#] being the bottom row. Yet, still leaving ‘Q’ and ‘Z’ out of the trio-of-letters on each number, leaving [0] unadorned.
    uhhh, The whole alphatrios on each number is still weerd. An attempt to make 7-number codes a little more mnemonic by allowing them to be alternatively written as a slightly pronounceable acronym or abbreviation.

    to answer:

    The symbol is described as the “number” character in an 1853 treatise on book-keeping.[6] Examples of it being used to indicate pounds exist at least as far back as 1850,[…]


  26. fledanow says

    Larry @ 9

    I remember all of them AND the crank phone we had when we lived in Central America. I can’t remember our ring, but a friend’s was “short, long, short” and of course, it was a party line.

    When the city where I was living in Canada got emergency service, the number to dial was 999. I still have nightmares in which I am carefully dialling this on the rotary phone and mess it up and have to start over, again and again.

  27. says

    There was a time when we had to have those new-fangled communications devices explained to us.

    It’s like explaining an Apple II to my old man in 1981. Painful.

    I remember rotary phones all too well – party lines, permanent wiring (no jacks and replaceable cables), the agony of dialing numbers, and worst of all, the lousy sound quality.

    International calls to extended family meant waiting an hour for the operator for a line on that narrow bottleneck phone cable across the ocean. And the price per minute was staggering, even in today’s money, never mind accounting for inflation.

  28. Nemo says

    The dial tone in the second video is one of the most unpleasant sounds I’ve ever heard, and the ring and busy tones are just variants with different pauses. I didn’t realize that these used to be different from the “modern” versions that have been pretty much unchanged for my whole life.

  29. John Morales says

    FWIW, here in Oz the various providers still charge according to historical concepts of STD (“subscriber trunk dialling”) — a hangover from the old electromechanical switching which replaced operator switching.

    As if a call from Adelaide to Sydney cost the provider more than a call from Campbelltown to Christies Beach! So amusing!

    (Pointless arguing it during unsolicited sales calls, but it entertains me when I’m in the mood. Perverse, too, since sales callers are remarkably uninformed, and don’t get my objections)