Lessons for 20th-Century Living: You Need to Know How to Place a Phone Call

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It may be hard to believe now, but in the 1920s people had to learn how to dial, much like we once learned how to text.

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Do you remember the first time you sent a text message? I remember that it took me a couple weeks to figure out where the punctuation was hiding. Though it may be second nature by now, clicking through keypad numbers to find the letters you need is a learned skill. And so was dialing a rotary phone.

In the early days of telephony, calls were routed by local operators, who directed calls through switchboards to other locations and exchanges. A version of the rotary phone had been invented in 1891, but it wasn't until 1919 that the Bell System started to roll out automatic pulse dialing across the country. The Bell System had solidified its national monopoly, and had decided to move from operators to automatic switching to save time and money. This replaced a level of human mediation with another, mechanical one. Consumers would have to learn how to dial their own calls, and would have to learn the new sounds of the dial system -- the dial tone, the busy signal.

To ensure a smooth transition from operators to the dial system, Bell and its local phone companies unleashed a massive onslaught of popular technology training.

The great writer for children, Beverly Cleary, who grew up in Oregon in the 1920s, remembered learning to dial so vividly that 60 years later she wrote it into her memoir A Girl from Yamhill.

The third-grade teacher introduced a man from the telephone company, who explained that Portland was going to use the dial system. "All telephones must have dials," he said, pointing to the mysterious object in front of the room. The man explained the system of numbers and letters, moving the big black circle to show us how it worked. The whole demonstration seemed so mysterious I did not understand it at all. His final words were "If you do not learn to use the dial system, you cannot use the telephone."

Beverly was distressed. What would happen to her family if they never learned to use the mysterious dial system?

I ran home from school. "Mamma, Mamma," I cried, panting. "You can't use the telephone anymore! You won't know how. A man came to school and told us."

Mother laughed. "Oh, you're talking about the dial system," she said, and showed me the small dial on anew telephone and how it worked, remarking, "I do miss Mrs. McKern. She was always up on all the news in Yamhill." How easy! I wondered why the telephone man had made something simple seem so mysterious and difficult.

A number of rotary phone instructional films are available online, and, since to us using a rotary phone is not only an obvious skill but a relatively useless one, the depth of explanation these films give is astonishing. How to Use the Dial Phone is a just-the-facts 1927 silent from Pacific Bell. The wonderful Dial Comes to Town, from the mid-20s, features a crotchety grandfather being convinced by his granddaughter of the advantages of the dial system. 

We forget how much of our interactions with technology, however "intuitive," are learned behaviors. For many the idea of needing to learn how to use the thermostat, the stove, the phone, or even a new piece of software seems absurd. We expect things to work, without having to work ourselves. We're out of the habit of exploration. Hence the rise of the "technology petting zoo," a program at library training conferences and local libraries across the country, where participants have a chance to play with high-tech tools they may not have seen or used before. We might as well get used to learning to use our tools, because learning how to learn is a skill we'll always need.

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Suzanne Fischer is a historian of science and technology. She serves as curator of technology at The Henry Ford.

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