The push button telephone’s debut
By Carl Stieren
Bell Telephone introduced the first commercial push-button telephone on November 18, 1963. It was installed first in Carnegie and Greensburg, Pennsylvania, just outside of Pittsburgh. The push-button phone replaced the rotary dial phone, which had been in use for decades. Customers had to be convinced to use the new phones. Bell was quick off the mark with their interactive display shown in this video from the 1963 Seattle World’s Fair, showing why users should switch to the new push-button phones.
The push-button telephone was only one part of the package that completed the modern telephone system. One other major part was automating the signals sent down the wire after you pushed the buttons. To fill this gap, touch-tone dialing was also introduced on November 18, 1963 to speed the transmission of telephone numbers. Rotary dial phones had used pulse dialing, a much slower method of routing a call to an exchange to connect with another number.
Until rotary dial phones were introduced, telephone operators at an exchange grabbed plugs on the end of long cord and pushed them into a jack on a board, connecting someone placing a call with the party they were calling, or with a long-distance operator in another city. While I was a student at the Illinois Institute of Technology in the mid-1960s, I had a part-time job as the night shift operator on the internal version of such a switchboard inside the University Club of Chicago, connecting members in their rooms with other rooms, the dining room, room service or an outside line by inserting a plug into a jack.
As with all new modes of communication, they say that the first use of such a system is pornography. I don’t know about that – perhaps others can enlighten us. I do know, however, about the second use of new technology: practical jokes by 11-year-old boys. Shortly after the push-button phone came out, teenagers were keying songs into the phones, sometimes running up huge phone bills for the parents as the price of a few bars of a tune that began with a 1 or a number within a local area code that had long distance charges. Capitalizing on this trend was the Push Button Telephone Songbook by Michael Scheff, published by Price, Stern and Sloan in 1971, which had instructions about to how to keep from running up long distance charges. The book sold more than 500,000 copies.
When the rotary dial phone was introduced in what was then Tilsit, Germany, my father, (an 11-year old boy in 1911) and his friends delighted in the anonymity that this system provided. There was no operator to snitch on which household placed a crank call. So he and his friends called up the local pharmacy to inquire about a brand of pipe tobacco. “Hello,” they asked, “Do you have Prince Albert in a can?” “Yes,” came the answer from the pharmacist. “Well, for heaven’s sakes, let him out!” roared my dad and his friends, and slammed down the receiver.
No system is safe from 11-year-old boys.