How to use your fancy new rotary dial telephone.

There was a time when using the telephone meant picking up the receiver and talking to an operator who would make the connection for you. There was no dial or buttons to push and there was a good chance the operator would listen in if it sounded like anything interesting was being discussed.

The technology, as it always does, continued to advance and the day eventually arrived when telephones had rotary dials that allowed you to make the connection yourself. Apparently there were some folks who had trouble mastering this new system so helpful film clips were created and shown in local theaters to explain the process:

It’s interesting to note the relative brevity of the number used in the clip above. Initially you were limited to dialing within your local area and still had to utilize an operator to place calls further away. Direct distance dialing, what we refer to as long distance today, wasn’t introduced until 1951. Once again the phone company had a poorly-acted film to introduce the concept:

Touch Tone dialing was introduced in 1963, just four years before I was born, but we still had a few rotary phones in the house when I was a kid and it’s hard to imagine that using one was anything but intuitive. I imagine my parents must have taught me how to use it at some point, but the thought that it was complicated enough to make a film over is quite amusing.

Today it’s been so long since I’ve had a land-line that I sometimes forget what a dial tone or a busy signal sounds like. With voice mail and cellular service I can’t recall that last time I have heard either sound until I watched these clips. It’s amazing to stop for a moment and look back at how far we’ve come over the years.

18 thoughts on “How to use your fancy new rotary dial telephone.

  1. Wow, 80 whole area codes. That takes me back.

    Being of a similar vintage to you, I have similar memories. I also have a nephew who was flummoxed by his Grandmothers rotary dial phone when he was around 10 years old (which was about 10 years ago). He had no cluse how to dial it, so I sent him a link to this page.

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  3. Yeah, I’m the same vintage as you and rememember rotary dial phones. Our local phone prefix was 998, rotary was a pain in the ass. I even remember my parents having to wait for an international line when they wanted to call long distance to the U.K. on busy days. Usually you could dial through, but on big days like Christmas you had to request and the operator would call you back.

    Years later (around 2000) my nephew was about 10 and went to call for pizza from his Grandma’s house and was flummoxed by the rotary dial phone.

  4. Actually, the 5 digit phone number was still around at least when I was 10 or so–at least in rural Illinois. I was visiting my grandparents, and the rule was that when calling the two local towns and areas, you dialed a 5 digit number, but for any other nearby cities, you had to dial the first two digits as well.

    Around the same age, I also remember knowing that my home was part of the LOgan exchange (56-xxxxx) in downtown Dearborn–even if there wasn’t any way to dial 5-digit numbers anymore. I have to assume that 5 digit numbers were not so far in the past, since they were still in local memory.

  5. Wow, that takes me back. My dad used to bring home broken machines for me to take apart. Worn-out film projector, damaged tape recorder, a bent telescope (which I fixed) – very common items. But phones were almost indestructible. One day he brought one that I could dismantle. It was just really, really old, perfectly functional but somebody he knew had replaced it with a new one.

    I saw how the dial mechanism worked and figured out that the series of pulses were recorded as numbers. Everything about it was wonderful. I hung the bells on a string; when struck they made a beautiful, clear tone. I tried the speaker on my crystal radio set but though it wasn’t damaged, it was a low-impedance device and the set wouldn’t drive it. (You don’t get a lot of current out of an unamplified radio signal).

    Even the dial itself was awesome; finely machined brass painted in black enamel.

  6. As an old telephone employee from 1959 I remember much of the changes. I retired in 1988 so many improvements have been invented since then. But hanging on the wall in my kitchen is a 1882 replica with a rotary dial. Thanks for the memories!

  7. When I made a phone call from my grandmother’s home in rural New York, we cranked the dial to get the operator and announced the number we wanted to reach (ours was GLenwood 5-493R). Don’t ask how I remembered that number and am unable to remember where I left the car keys. šŸ™‚

    Many of the neighbors would listen in, because that crank would sound their phones, also.


  8. Our laboratory had a summer program for local public school students one year. I attended the orientation, and after it was over, some of the students wanted to borrow a phone to make calls. The conference room, for some reason, still had a working rotary dial wall phone. Somebody pointed it out to them…

    They just stared at it… you can see that they were thinking, “How the !@#$% do I dial this thing?!” Even after being shown how to use it, they needed a little practice keeping their fingers in the hole while turning the dial.

  9. Those how-to clips are priceless. My wife and I get a kick out of those sorts of things and look forward to the new batch each month on Something Weird (via On Demand).

    When I was a kid we had the rotary phone, and when they went modular we upgraded to the touch-tone. By the time I was a teenager we had a cordless (though it was huge by today’s standards, and had the giant antenna to boot).

  10. I remember these things.. What I remember most about them is how incredibly *durable* they were.. They were indestructible.. Also, when I was a teenager, one could make free phone calls with a homemade tone-generator (DTMF) on the early touch tones.. Heh..

    Those were the days…

    Reminds me too of early network technology: I remember logging into the mainframe at Texas Medical Center with my Hayes Micromodem (my Dad worked there).

    Yes, before the internet, we used to manually dial PEOPLES HOUSES where their modem would answer and hook you up to their BBS, one login at a time. Heh.

    The text came across so slow it was slower then human reading speed.

    Those were the days when people used handles like “Microchip” and “FloppyDisc”

    LMAO.. My handle was DoubleDensity, then ChipPuller, then Llewellyn..

    300 baud per second.. Yep, that was slow friends.. That was slow..

    Nowadays of course if bittorrent works under 100KBs I’m disappointed..

    LMAO!! Ah memories..

  11. I am only 34 and I remember a rotary phone in my grandmother’s house and my first step mother’s house. I also remember having a switch on the touch tone phones you had to set to touch tone or rotary since not everyone had touch tone yet.

    Amazingly enough one of the toys Podling got for her birthday last year was the old fashioned rotary phone pull toy! I am amazed they still sell it and am waiting for the questions to start from my 5yr old about it.

  12. I have a land line, touch tone, telephone that’s made up to resemble a rotary phone, with the numbers laid out in a circle, rather than a 3×4 grid. I’m amazed at how many people any younger than I have to stare at it and puzzle the thing out in order to be able to use it.

    I have considered, just for fun, wiring a modern cell phone into one of those giant, sling over the shoulder, still had a receiver and cord, kind of old cell phones.

  13. There was this kid in third grade with me who was sick, so the teacher sent him to the front office to call him so his parents could pick him up. He came back to class in tears a little while later, and the teacher was all, “Did you call your parents?” And he was all, “No, I couldn’t call because I couldn’t find the dash on the phone.” So… they taught him his phone number, but not how to actually dial a phone. You can’t leave that stuff to chance apparently.

    Incidentally, we had a rotary phone till I was probably 8 or 9. I’m 40 now.

  14. One other comment…my parents used rotary dial until just a couple years ago. They had a tone-capable phone, but set it to rotary mode, because the phone company still charged a monthly fee for touch-tone.

    It was their own blow to companies who choose to be petty with stupid charges.

  15. I was born in 1973 and raised in small-town San Joaquin Valley areas. My grandma had a black rotary phone that weighed at least a 2-3 pounds, maybe more, with barely-shiny enamel so that it looked almost flat black in color. It had to have lasted decades. She also shared a party line with the neighbors until the very late 1970’s or early 80’s (I can remember accidentally picking up the phone to make a call when her crotchety old neighbor was already on the line.) When they got rid of the party line, she got a new white rotary phone that she used until the mid 1990’s. I would trade all of the new functions I get for just the durability of those old models…of course, they only made them so well because many people didn’t buy them, but rented them on a monthly basisn from the phone company!
    I kind of miss the slight vibration and zipping sound that it would make if you were a fast dialer. My parents got AT&T touchtone phones around the same time, before they were cordless, with the clear plastic, narrow but tall buttons that had a green, almost chartreuse light that would shine through them. I preferred rotary at the time, because it was several years before our little town got touch-tone service, and we had to keep them on “pulse mode”, which dialed slower than I could operate a dial myself.

    I’ve worked at a theater box office (live, not movie) for the last few years now, and we have one customer, an extremely sweet and extremely shriveled old lady in her early 90’s who still has only a rotary phone. She places her season orders by mail for the most part, but when she wants to get tickets other than her season order, she has to get a friend to drive her about 30 miles to the theater, because she can’t get through the automated phone system with a rotary phone, and she refuses to replace her old rotary with a “push-button.”

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