Smilin’ and Dialin’

If you’re anywhere near my age the first telephones you used had a dial that looked much like the one below, with number and letters visible in the finger holes on the dial.
The next evolution of Telephone dials happened around the same time that the US switched to all numeric direct dialing, abandoning the alphabetical prefix.  The numbers and letters were moved outside the dial, which not only made them easier to see, but people were able to dial “more efficiency” according to experiments conducted by research psychologist Dr. John Karlin, the director of the Human Factors Engineering Group of Bell laboratories in New Jersey.

Not only were the number easier to see, but experiments proved that people made fewer dialing mistakes if they had a little dot in the middle of each finger hole to aim for.   But Dr. Karlin wasn’t done yet.  Bell labs were working on a device that would cut the time one would need to “dial” a number virtually in half.  This would save the average person who (making an average of ten calls per day) nearly 3 hours a year in time spent dialing.  I figure Dr. Karlin has already saved me nearly a week over the course of my life.   In addition it was determined that it was easier for those with short term memory spans to actually remember a phone number for the time span it takes to dial it, so all you stoners out there also owe a debt to Dr. Karlin.
The first time I saw one of these keypads was at the Bell Telephone exhibit at the Seattle Century 21 World’s Fair in 1962.     They had a display set up where you would be timed dialing a telephone number.    Myself, I was more than twice as fast with the push buttons and I also enjoyed the musical soundtrack that came with each button press.   I could hardly wait for the future to begin.

As you’ve probably come to expect by this time, Dr. Karlin was his usual thorough self and  didn’t just place the buttons in some random fashion dictated by tradition: he came up the an arrangement that was the most efficient.
The size, color, shape, and even resistance to pressure and how far you had to push the button to make it work were all decided by a series of experiments.  They studied speed, number of errors and user preferences.
The final decision was between the traditional “calculator” (also like the one on a computer keyboard) layout, shown to the left, above, and the layout you see on the right in the above photo, which is still in use today.

I do find it interesting that the layout on my I-phone is the same, although it uses a touch screen.  It’s also amazing to me that the relationship between the numbers and the alphabet is the same as it was on the first dial phones that appeared in the 1920’s, although instead of dialing an alphanumeric prefix, people are dialing 1-800-GET-RICH.
Myself, I’m happy Dr Karlin got to see all this play out.  He passed on in 2013, in his early 90’s and knew his hard work had paid off.


Author: fauxsuper

Guitarist since 1964, motorized vehicle enthusist all my life, Married with two step children. Born and rasied in Lebanon, Ore.

2 thoughts on “Smilin’ and Dialin’”

  1. I always thought it odd that the 10-key calculator & the phone keypad do not match…1-2-3 on a phone is on top, & the 1-2-3 on a calculator are on the bottom…Steve

  2. I think the inclusion of the alphabet might have been the deciding factor, as it would have been disconcerting to start out with “prs” on the “7” button. I also find it interesting that the letters “Q” and “X” appeared on cell-phone keypads and screens………

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