October 7, 1999
When Dials Were Round and Clicks Were Plentiful
By CATHERINE GREENMAN
t's hard to imagine Jon Walz, a film producer and vintage-phone
collector in Los Angeles, getting as worked up in 20 years about
today's cordless telephones as he does about his Western Electric
302 rotary dial phone. To hear him lovingly describe its clickety
dial, the chime of its two-toned ringer and the shiny Bakelite
handset (the size and weight of which make him feel small in
comparison when he picks it up), Walz could just as well be referring
to a long lost toy truck, or even an old teddy bear.
Gary Tramontina for The New York Times
|Jonathan Finder, a Pittsburgh doctor who
collects and sells rotary telephones, shows off some beauties
from his collection.
"I guess it's a reminder of slightly better days, when
things were more fun and less stressful," said Walz, who
is 29. "They remind me of being at my grandma's house."
Walz is one of a dying breed of people who still use rotary
phones in their daily lives. Like other touch-tone avoiders,
he will gladly wait the extra seconds it takes for the dial to
twirl back and forth between the numbers and its starting position
in exchange for the feeling of nostalgia that the phones evoke.
"They're like little sculptures, very substantial and
beautiful pieces of craftsmanship," he said of his rotary
phones. (In addition to the circa 1930's Western Electric 302,
Walz has an Art Deco desk model made by Northern Electric as
well as a Princess phone from the late 1960's.)
"I'm in a business that recycles itself yearly,"
Walz said, "so it's nice to have the phones around the house
as reminders that things are still stable and that there's quality
Many people who collect rotary dial phones are looking to
recapture a piece of their childhood, said Jonathan Finder, a
pediatric specialist in Pittsburgh who sells vintage phones through
his Web site, www.oldphones.com.
"Some want wall phones, some want candlesticks, like the
ones they used on 'The Andy Griffith Show,' " he said, referring
to the type of phone that uses a stand for an upright receiver.
"I sell a ton of pink Princess phones. There are a lot
of professional women who grew up in the 70's who never got them
as little girls, and by God, they're going to get one now."
Other sought-after models, collectors say, include phones
with hollowed out "spit cup" receivers manufactured
in the 1920's and 1930's, as well as phones built before the
1950's. One way they can be distinguished from later models is
that their numbers are located inside the finger wheel instead
of being distributed, a few at a time, around each finger hole
(much as letters are put on the buttons of touch-tone phones).
Many vintage-phone enthusiasts marvel that nearly 80 years
later, even the earliest rotary dial phones can still communicate
with modern phone networks. Although networks largely recognize
numbers through a combination of tones, most can still recognize
the series of interrupted pulses in the electrical circuit generated
by rotary dials.
Rotary dial phones were introduced to American consumers in
1919, said Sheldon Hochheiser, the corporate historian at AT&T,
but they did not become widely used until the mid-1950's. Until
then, people relied on phone boxes with magneto cranks or battery
switches. The phones sent an electrical signal to an operator,
who would get on the line and ask, "Number, please?"
But in a bit of well-known lore among collectors, the patent
for the first automatic switch used by rotary phones was issued
in 1891 to Almon B. Strowger, a Kansas City, Mo., undertaker
who wanted a device that could make direct connections to the
phone switching offices. He was convinced that switchboard operators
were accepting bribes to steer calls for undertakers to his competitors,
so he wanted a way for calls to bypass the operators. Strowger
later became a founder of the Automatic Electric Company of Chicago,
an early manufacturer of rotary phones.
Even though rotary phones work with most phone networks, most
people who use them still have to keep a touch-tone phone around
for navigating through the sea of automated recordings now used
by many businesses.
Helene Lyons, who sells vintage phones at her shop, Remembrances
of Things Past, in Provincetown, Mass., uses a touch-tone phone
to get access to her automated voice mail. But she uses her see-through
rotary phone from the 1960's to call into automated switchboards
like customer service lines. She finds that she often reaches
a person more quickly by waiting for one to come on, and she
suggests that touch-tone users try this approach, too. "Sometimes
someone will come on the line a lot faster if you just hang on
instead of pushing all the buttons," she said.
Rotary phone users are somewhat surprised when they have to
show young children how to use them. That happened to Rick Walsh,
a broadcasting engineer in Hartford who has been collecting vintage
phones for 25 years, when he installed an intercom system based
on rotary phones at his friend's camp this summer.
preserve the artifacts of a time before touch-tone and cordless
became the norm.
"It seems like it would be pretty intuitive," Walsh
said, "but a lot of the kids had no concept of how to use
one. One 10-year-old boy who was trying to dial a three put his
finger in the zero dial hole, brought it to three, and then released
it. You'd have to see it to believe it."
But vintage-phone lovers aside, most people who switched to
touch-tone phones decades ago now find that waiting for a rotary
dial to make its rounds is too excrutiatingly slow.
Channing Wilroy, an actor and rotary phone devotee from Truro,
Mass., who has appeared in several films directed by John Waters,
said that when Waters visited his house, he found the rotary
"He has to be near a phone at all times, and my rotary
phones just drive him crazy," Wilroy said. "He screams
and carries on when he has to use one."
"It's not until you have something that works faster
that you become frustrated with something that works perfectly
adequately," Hochheiser said. "And it's not just true
with the telephone. I don't think people used to mind waiting
several moments for the vacuum tubes in their radios and TV's
to warm up either. That would never be tolerated now."
Here are some sites related to
TRIBUTE TO THE TELEPHONE:
Includes historical and technical information on how rotary and
touch-tone telephones work, lists of antique phone collector
clubs and telephone museums, and a glossary of telecommunications
TELEPHONE HISTORY WEB SITE:
Contains technical and historical information, links to American
telephone company history pages and sources for buying old phones
and miscellaneous parts.
Sells antique phones, reproductions and parts.
CYBER TELEPHONE MUSEUM:
A telephone museum with images and model names of common and
rare antique phones.
ABOUT AREA CODES:
A page on the Bell Atlantic site that documents the history of
TELEPHONE EXCHANGE NAME PROJECT:
Tells what exchange name the first two digits of a phone number
used to stand for.
A site produced by the Smithsonian Institution about Henry Dreyfuss,
who designed several common phones for Bell Telephone Laboratories
from the 1930's to the 1960's.
TELEPHONE COLLECTORS INTERNATIONAL
The Telephone Collectors International home page features monthly
newsletters, like Singing Wires and The Switcher's Quarterly,
which is devoted to the preservation of historic telephone switching
BILL'S 200-YEAR CONDENSED HISTORY OF TELECOMMUNICATIONS:
A history of the telephone written by an F.C.C. employee.
PORCELAIN TELEPHONE SIGNS:
A site for collectors of porcelain telephone signs.
These sites are not part of The New York
Times on the Web, and The Times has no control over their content