The intricacies of using the dial telephone come easily to students at a western secretarial school, where a four-foot dial was recently rigged up to explain its mysteries.

Not a dummy, the big dial actually works. It is connected with two telephones, an amplifying apparatus, and a loudspeaker. When the instructor dials a number, the loudspeaker reproduces, so that all may hear them, the typical sounds that will be heard; and the instructor explains to the pupils what they mean.

  1. Casandro says: April 8, 200811:42 pm

    Wow, that’s bizarre. Why would you use a dial for that? Wouldn’t it be easier to just use push-buttons? I mean you need a microcontroller anyhow to insert your number into the D-channel, don’t you?

  2. tek says: April 9, 20085:26 am

    Cassandro —

    Any chance you looked at the date of the article?


  3. tek says: April 9, 20085:27 am

    Casandro, even. Sorry for typo’ing your name.


  4. Nik says: April 9, 20085:45 am

    If the dial itself is 4ft, then the woman’s rather tall.

    If the whole contraption is 4ft, then she’s a dwarf.

    Which is it?

  5. Neil Russell says: April 9, 20086:35 am

    I’d love to own all this giant stuff, I’d keep my giant phone dial next to my giant typewriter and put them both in the rumble seat of my giant Studebaker, and park that under my giant NCR cash register.

    I only wish the Egyptians had been into this sort of thing, imagine how much more entertaining archaeology would be when they uncovered something like this.
    All we can do now is hope that in 1000 years or so some of this stuff will have them scratching their heads.

  6. jayessell says: April 9, 20087:54 am

    Have you read ‘Motel of the Mysteries’ by David Macaulay?
    41st century archaeologists find a 20th century motel and
    try to infer the society that used it.
    There’s a novel with the same premise.
    ‘The Weans’ by Robert Nathan.
    I heard a SF radio adaption of that once.

  7. Firebrand38 says: April 9, 200811:39 am

    Nik got it right, using the diameter dial as a scale of 4 feet the woman works out to be six feet eleven and three quarters inches tall and she’s not even standing upright!

    Howver, note the “candlestick” phone on the table. These were typically 11.75 inches tall so using that scale, the telephone dial is an even 3 feet in diameter and the woman is a reasonable five foot two and a half (still not standing upright).

  8. Nomen Nescio says: April 9, 20082:29 pm

    people actually felt the need for classroom instruction in dialing a rotary phone?!

    as i recall, my mother taught me that in three sentences. when i was six.

  9. Blurgle says: April 9, 20085:01 pm

    Nomen, I’m guessing that if they got the size of the dial wrong, perhaps they got the purpose wrong as well.

  10. Benzene says: April 9, 20085:52 pm

    Much like every oversized display in science museums everywhere, I think the giant dial was more to show how the rotary phone worked rather than how to use it.

  11. Thundercat says: April 9, 20088:03 pm


    I love “Motel of the Mysteries”. Its very funny, but really gets across that much of archeology is guesswork.

    My favorite is the illustration with the man wearing a toilet seat as a necklace.

  12. Neil Russell says: April 9, 20088:39 pm

    jayessell, I’ll have to look those up, that concept has always been intriguing to me, I’ve always questioned whether the modern societies were the first to use advertising, and if not maybe we have completely missed the point on the Babylonians et al by misinterpreting “Eat Here Get Gas”

  13. Firebrand38 says: April 9, 20089:07 pm

    Nescio, you’re neglecting the fact that you had a phone in your home. In 1931 the chances of these young ladies growing up with a phone in the house much less being able to touch it were slimmer than you might realize today.

    In 1920 (when the young ladies were still growing up) the total population of the US was 106,021,537…

    divided up into 24,351,676 families…

    In that same year there 8.7 million phones in the Bell System…

    So yeah, it kinda made sense for them to learn how a phone works.

  14. jmyint says: April 10, 20082:58 pm

    Especially since the bulk of those 8.7 million phones would have been in businesses. When I was a young (and dinosaurs ruled the earth) you only needed to dial the last 4 digits of the phone number unless you were calling outside of your home exchange. The phone company would come around to the elementary schools with a telephone trainer and they would show a movie and then they would have the children try out what they learned on the trainer.

    I wish they still did this as many younger people out there really do need to learn how to answer and talk on the phone.

  15. jayessell says: April 10, 20083:55 pm

    Young people?
    This is how you operate a telephone:
    “Hello, this is (your name), may I speak with (name of person being called)?”

  16. Blurgle says: April 10, 20086:36 pm

    Okay, Jay: what do you do when you need to transfer the call? Not now, but in 1931? Do you know?

    If the caller is calling from your local exchange, you depress the latch quickly twice, then dial the extension number of the phone you’re transferring to, then click the latch once and hang up.

    If the caller is not calling from your local exchange, you depress the latch twice, dial the number, and click the latch twice.

    How do you tell whether a caller is calling from your local exchange? By the ring in some areas, by the number of clicks you hear when the call goes through in others, by the operator in still others.

    By local exchange I mean your neighbourhood, by the way.

    Would you like some more examples?

  17. Blurgle says: April 10, 20086:38 pm

    BTW, I found a book on this! My dad owned everything!

    (Although I can’t vouch for this actually working outside the L2 to M5 exchange areas of Calgary and Bowness, Alberta.)

  18. mouse says: April 10, 20088:16 pm

    The original dial phone could called <9000 others more then was needed for a big city, or the time. As the dial turned it operated relays in the office that moved a switch that would wait for the next turn of the dial. The last switch took the last two digits 10 up and 10 across. Latter the first three digits (prefix) were added, this made it possible to call <900000 outers. Each pair of wire (2 wires), from the office, had as many as 16 phones, each with a different distinctive ring. I was told in 1965 that at no tine would every family on a block have their owe phone, and only the ultra rich would have more than one phone in there house. I now have three. Sadly the skill to build and maintain that type of equipment has been lost. It was not better or worse just different.

  19. Har says: April 12, 20085:22 am

    Hmm… I have a 1994 Panasonic Fax missing Q and Z alphabets like that ancient dial.

  20. RecruiterGuy says: April 16, 20087:35 am

    And to think, just a week ago I watched my youngster train my wife to burn a DVD across our home network.  Go figure.

  21. Jon says: May 24, 20087:13 pm

    Wait. There isn’t a link to a youtube video? What? There wasn’t any student recording it with his mobile phone? Jeez. 1931 doesn’t look that far ago.

  22. Bakelite Gal says: August 24, 20084:04 am

    It would be a good idea for schools to explain the rotary dial (as a history lesson). I am amazed how quickly the use and understanding of these old telephone dials has faded in the general population. Ask young people what these are and you will get a lot of blank stares 🙂

  23. jayessell says: August 24, 20088:42 am

    Bakeite Girl… Is your nickname an indication of your former profession and interest in vintage telephones?

    I think the kids could figure it out, but I’d like to see a YouTube of it.

    A news report showed a kid explaining that LPs were used to play music in the ‘olden days’ !

    One of the Arthur C. Clarke novels set thousands of years in the future featured Star Trek style food replicators….
    that used telephone dials!!!

  24. whereubeat2715 says: May 19, 20091:23 am

    I have a pic that has a woman with a huge phone in her hand. and it says it’s humurous. whereubeat2715 yahoo messenger.

  25. whereubeat2715 says: May 19, 20091:25 am

    a humurous classis might i say.

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