Old Phones

(insert audio file here)

Can you imagine life without a cell phone on your body? That’s impossible, Teacher Lee!!

No, quite the contrary, when I grew up, if you were driving and wanted to make a phone call, you had to pull into a convenience store, park your car, get out, find a public pay phone,and put a quarter into it to call someone. Sounds like the caveman days, doesn’t it?

There is some controversy over who invented the telephone in the late 1800s, but the USA generally credits the invention of the first commercially practical telephone to a man named Alexander Graham Bell. Consequently, all of the early phone companies had “Bell” in their name, for example, Southern Bell Telephone Company. Americans sometimes collectively refer to all phone companies as Ma Belle (French for my beauty) in honor of Mr. Bell. Mr. Bell’s assistant was a Mr. Watson.

The very first phones were very crude.


The first telephone that I remember as a kid was all black and it was made of a material called bakelite. It was heavy and could easily have been used to club someone to death; it was that hard and heavy. This phone has several parts: the handset that is held up to your ear and mouth, the cord, the base unit that the handset rests on, and the rotary dialer. Rotary means “rotating around in a circle”.


The first telephones were very primitive in design. Notice that these early phones had a rotary dialer, a rotatable metal disc with 10 holes in it.The holes were numbered 1 through 9 with the last hole being numbered 0 (zero). Note in the above two phone pictures that there is a silver metal”arm” over the rotary dialer above the 0 hole. This is a “finger stop”.

Making a call (or placing a call)

American phone numbers inside the country are all 10 digits long. Here’s how we dialed a phone number such as 205-123-4567:

  1. I would place my right index finger into the 2 hole and use my finger to rotate the rotary dialer clockwise (to the right) until my finger hit the finger stop. When I removed my finger, the rotary dialer would rotate counterclockwise under spring pressure to its “rest” position, causing two “click” sounds as it did so.
  2. Then I would place my finger in the 0 hole and repeat this process. As the rotary dialer returned to its “rest” position, the phone would produce ten (10) click sounds.
  3. After I had done this ten times(!), once for each digit (or number), the phone system had dutifully counted all my clicks in sequence and stored the number sequence I had dialed, 205-123-4567 in this case. It then knew what destination telephone number I was trying to call.

Receiving a call

In the good old days, there were not very many telephone lines in residential areas, so we had what we called “party” lines. In this context, a “party” was simply a group of people in a neighborhood. We all shared the same phone number and the same phone lines, though we all had separate phones in our homes. So if someone called my neighbor, Mr. Hulvey, all of my neighborhood’s phones would ring simultaneously and we would all answer the phone at slightly different times. The caller would say “I’m calling Mr. Hulvey. If I were to answer and hear this, then I would hang up because the call was not for me. When Mr. Hulvey picked up the phone, then he and the caller could talk until both of them hung up their phones.

Later we got private phone lines where each person had their own phone line, one telephone number per house. No more shared party lines! Yay!

Calling the Operator

If you didn’t know someone’s telephone number, you could dial 0 (zero but we call it “O” for Operator) to reach a telephone switchboard operator who could assist you. The early operators were all women for some reason. Maybe because they had thin delicate fingers.A switchboard at that time was a type of control panel where an operator would plug cables (sometimes called patch cables) between two different holes to switch you from one phone exchange (phone number service region) to another. Sometimes the operator would say, “I’ll patch you through. Please stand by.”

Below are some more large switchboards, the first of which is for connecting callers to overseas phone service areas.

A Bell System switchboard where overseas calls are handled. Not all of the services shown are available during wartime conditions. December 22,1943

Switchboards today are largely automated but we still have the old trusty operator to call.

Before we began using the 9-1-1 telephone number for emergencies, we would just dial ‘0’ to get an operator.

Close shot of old fashioned rotary phone dialer. Dial 0 for operator.

Tone Dialing

Eventually, telephone design changed from rotary dialing to tone dialing, where each digit had its own unique audible tone. The phone system could then recognize ten different tone sounds rather than counting rotary clicks. Yay! Our fingers could finally rest! Note that tone dialing (future) allowed putting the “rotary dialing” function into the handset, which allowed phones to start getting smaller. Also note that letters were assigned to the numbers, which allowed phone numbers to start getting creative:

Call 1-800-CANDLES (1-800-226-3537) for a company that sells candles.

The Early Mobile Phones

The first “mobile” phones weren’t very mobile. They were mostly used in cars early on (in the beginning). An antenna was needed for the phone. It was mobile but who would want to lug this thing around outside of a car? This particular mobile phone plugged into the cigarette lighter of a car (plug has a red tip).

Pay Phones

Before mobile phones, you had two choices to make a phone call. Call from your home or call from a pay phone at a convenience store. The cost was a quarter for a local phone call. For a long-distance phone call, you’d better have a pocketful of quarters to feed into the phone periodically to continue your call. Otherwise, you’d be disconnected.

The original pay phone was a full-body phone booth with a folding door. You could talk in the rain and stay perfectly dry. This is the phone booth I saw when I was a kid.

Later the “phone booths” got smaller:

Early comic books always showed Superman changing into his costume in a phone booth (as if people can’t see into a phone booth; its sides are glass after all).

The Evolution of the Phone Design

Phones have changed a lot since I was a kid. Some are cute, some are silly, and some are just stupid.

Today, telephone signals travel by telephone lines strung between telephone poles, via satellite, and even over under-ocean fiber-optic (carrying pulses of light instead of electricity) cables.  Now large automated phone exchanges serve different areas of a city or country.

Self-Assessment (What Did You Learn?)

  1. The telephone was invented in the late _____. (1600s, 1700s, 1800s, 1900s)
  2. The expression Ma Belle, as used in America, refers to _____. (Mom, Operator, phone company)
  3. The first mobile phones were small and light. (True/False)
  4. What was meant by the term “party line” in my good old days?
    (shared phone number, combined wedding parties,car pool phone number)
  5. Which of the following could be considered a valid and complete American phone number?
    ( 312-222-4587, 31-222-24587, 222-4587, 1-888-USATAXI )
    (note that smart software often recognizes and hyperlinks what it considers to be valid phone numbers)
  6. Which of the following tools did an operator use? (Switchboard, patch cables, head phone)
  7. How many men were in the first group of operators?
  8. How do you call the operator in America if you need help?
  9. If I dial 1-111-111-1112 on an old rotary dial phone, how many clicks would you expect to hear in total?
  10. If I dial 1-111-111-1112 on a tone-dialing phone, how many tones would you expect to hear in total?
  11. What is the difference between “lug” and “carry”?


Students, do you have any stories about old phones from your childhood? Hopefully, you are not still using rotary dialing.

Here is a video tutorial produced by the phone company around 1950 showing people how to use a rotary dial telephone so they don’t dial a wrong number. It’s about 5 minutes long but it’s entertaining. Please watch it to the end. Listen for these phrases:

  • Finger stop
  • Dial tone
  • Busy signal
  • Ringing signal
  • Party line
  • Directory (aka the phone book; lists names and phone numbers for your area)

She’s dialing this number: WO4-8870 (WO, 96, is short for Worth, a city perhaps).
She speaks it as “WOrth 4, 8870.

In addition, here is a link to a 30-minute phone company educational movie (1950s). You may want to watch at least the first 8 minutes or so to see some of the things we’ve talked about. The narrator speaks slowly.

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