February 9, 2013

Why does a telephone have 1-2-3 at the top instead of at the bottom, like a calculator?

Because "a modest man" with "variegated accomplishments (he had a doctorate in mathematical psychology, was trained in electrical engineering and had been a professional violinist)" applied behavioral science to telephone design. He was John E. Karlin, who died on January 28th at the age of 94.

Karlin also determined "the optimal length for a phone cord":
Telephone company executives wondered whether the standard cord, then about three feet long, might be shortened. Mr. Karlin’s staff stole into colleagues’ offices every three days and covertly shortened their phone cords, an inch at time. No one noticed, they found, until the cords had lost an entire foot.

From then on, phones came with shorter cords.

Mr. Karlin also introduced the white dot inside each finger hole that was a fixture of rotary phones in later years. After the phone was redesigned at midcentury, with the letters and numbers moved outside the finger holes, users, to AT&T’s bewilderment, could no longer dial as quickly.

With blank space at the center of the holes, Mr. Karlin found, callers no longer had a target at which to aim their fingers. The dot restored the speed.
Despite these efforts at helping, he found himself referred to as "the most hated man in America," because his name was attached to the decision — made in the 1960s — to switch to all-digit phone numbers instead of things like PEnnsylvania 6-5000." The phone system was running out of numbers made from pronounceable words, and it was Karlin figured out that people would be able to remember 7 digits.

I'm old enough to have lived through the big switch from named "exchanges" to all numbers. There was a lot of anguish, back then, over whether the human individual was being turned into a number. It was also in the 60s — 1963 to be exact — that the post office forced ZIP codes on us. Before then, you had a number in between the city and the state names. I remember the last line of my address being Wilmington 3, Delaware. The government tried to soothe us by personifying the number as a human character, Mr. ZIP:

It's hard to imagine the government today using such an obvious, laughable technique as it pushes us into a life of regimentation. Mockery would be made. But those were simpler times.


pm317 said...

to switch to all-digit phone numbers instead of things like PEnnsylvania 6-5000."

That explains this. I didn't know the full history of that title until this post.

madAsHell said...

The zip code was intended to make sorting mail more efficient and economical. Shortly after the introduction of zip codes, the cost of a first class stamp went to 7 cents. How much is a first class stamp today?

Nice stamp. Why doesn't the woman row the boat? How sexist!!

Obviously, if the government paid for her birth control, then she would be able to row. Instead, she is relegated to holding the child.

Carol said...

Ah, L.A. 41 here, Clinton telephone exchange.

Eric the Fruit Bat said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
SteveBrooklineMA said...

I'm not really convinced it was wise to have different key layouts for phones and calculators. Benford's law seems to point to having the layout like the calculator... so the lesser digits are near the enter and decimal point.


The "push it 'til they bitch" approach to business has it's downside too. How small can we make airline seats? How much crushed ice can we put in a soda cup? How few M&Ms can we put in a pack?

ricpic said...

The phone system was running out of numbers made from pronounceable words...

I believe that as much as I believe the ruling class protestations about the difficulty of building a fence. The phone numbers starting with Pennsylvania or Lackawanna or Murray Hill were ended so that peoples' natural local patriotism, natural connection to home would be weakened and their sense of being helpless unconnected units in a giant soulless system would increase.

Mr. D said...

Charles Schulz added a character named "5" to Peanuts around the time that zip codes were introduced. His full name was 555 95472, which was the zip code of the town in California where Schulz lived.

Mr. D said...

Here's a link that I mentioned in the earlier comment.

Bart Hall (Kansas, USA) said...

I still remember that as a child in the early 1950s our telephone number consisted of just three digits -- in a town of 5,000 people! By the mid'50s connecting to everyone in town required four digits, but my father appreciated that the ring-through to the Department of the Navy in Washington (less than 400 miles distant) usually now took only ten minutes.

There's also an hilarious radio skit from that era in which the mark, when told to write down the telephone number CApital-2 8496 (or whatever) pauses, and then asks "How do you make a capital two?" Couldn't find if for a link, however.

MadisonMan said...

His full name was 555 95472, which was the zip code of the town in California where Schulz lived.

With the accent on the 2.

5's teacher misprounounced it.

Our exchange was ADam. I never heard our phone number referred to with ADam though.

Kimberly said...

My parent both worked for "the phone company" (Southern Bell) for a long time - in my mom's case, from the 1950's through the 1990's. They collect old phones now and have the best stories from that time. Apparently, being the single operator for a small town was the greatest job ever, because you knew ALL the dirt - and there was always a switch an operator could flip to listen in on a call without anyone knowing she was there.

Sam L. said...

We had a party line, 4 numbers. Got a private line, GIbson2-1677. My town had no zones. Now there are 3 ZIPs.

AllenS said...

It was designed that way to fool Soviet agents.

Beldar said...

Things were certainly different in the 1950s and 1960s, but varied from place to place, so my recollections diverge from Prof. Althouse's.

The doing away with exchanges, for example, may have been a big deal in places whose populations required multiple exchanges. For most of rural America, however, only the last three, four, or sometimes five digits of a phone number were necessary to dial a local call. I clearly recall from pre-school days having to re-learn my home phone number to include an additional leading digit when my hometown made the change from four to five digits. It confused and annoyed me, because I had invested great effort in memorizing it at my parents' insistence.

I also remember the nationwide institution of ZIP codes -- I was a first-grader then, and my teacher incorporated that current event into our geography lessons. I always wondered if Mr. Zip was related to Reddy Kilowatt.

But I think that the 'tween-city-and-state digit that Prof. Althouse recalls was by no means universal across the country. Rather, like Washington, D.C.'s or London's letter designations, they were local peculiarities designed pre-ZIP code but to serve some of the same macro-level sorting/directing functions for address-finding for mail carriers and everyone else.

kentuckyliz said...

Does anyone use their ZIP+4 extension routinely?

I know mine. 3119 at home, 1684 at work.

ganderson said...

St. Paul 4, Minn. and MIdway5-5312. I always liked Joni Mitchell's "That Song About the Midway"

edutcher said...

I still remember our old phone number as LA5, not 525.

And Bryn Mawr didn't have a zone - that was only for big cities.

kentuckyliz said...

Does anyone use their ZIP+4 extension routinely?

I don't, but I know someone...

PS Remember all the acceptable abbreviations for states before the 2 capital letters that went with Mr Zip?

PA wasn't just Pa, but Penn and Penna.

Cal and Calif.


Michael K said...

I remember the phone number, with exchange, of my childhood home. Midway 3-7634. My aunt's number was South Shore 8-7163.


The postal code numbers are still there, just with the city or area code preceding.

Dust Bunny Queen said...

For most of rural America, however, only the last three, four, or sometimes five digits of a phone number were necessary to dial a local call.

It is still that way here. When people give you their phone number they just say the last 4 digits, because the prefix is always the same. With more and more people having cell phones instead of land lines, we do often see the full phone number being given.

I remember the change from Clayburn [in our case]to the numbered prefix.

The phone key pad has actually helped me be able to "dial" numbers more easily since I tend to remember the number by the pattern and not by the actual numbers. So if you ask me what the "number" is I can tell you a pattern that I visualize in my minds eye. Right upper, middle, left up, right down. etc.

Switching back and forth from a calculator to phone key pad wasn't all that hard. I used to use a desk calculator all the time in my banking career and never needed to look at the key pad. Like touch typing. If I look at the keyboard, I'm screwed. Don't look and everything is easier.

Dust Bunny Queen said...

Here is a cool website about old names of prefixes.

Find yours

edutcher said...

You're right, that is cool.

Ann Althouse said...

I remember the exchanges of childhood. First, Endicott 6 and later Sycamore 9 (think). Our grandparents had an Olympia number. These words added color to life. It's hard to explain why and to feel what is missing now.

Now, you almost don't recognize the numbers. We see the names on the phone (and even the photos). It's more personal now, actually. We almost don't remember phone numbers now. Could be trouble if you've forgotten your phone. I'll bet a lot of people don't know their own spouse's number by heart.

John said...

Old phone guy. AT&T from 1961 through 1996.

My aunt went to Miami from Jacksonville to help her sister after she had a baby. During the week she was out of town (abt 1955), Southern Bell introduced 7-digit calling. When my aunt got off the Greyhound bus, she was unable to call home to get a ride. She was in tears and close to hysteria before she got help.

My grandfather always remembered my parents number as 35-35-33-1 instead of the approved 3+4 format. Drove operators crazy.

Charlie Currie said...

I grew up in Hawthorne, CA - we were too small to have a number after the city name.

Our phone number was OSborne 6-4046. I was always impressed that the digits could be said in either direction - there's a word for that.

If they had kept the named exchanges, it would have been cool, and appropriate, to have changed ours to - BEach Boys.

Not only did we have to go through the conversion of our prefix from OS to 67, and the Zip Code addition to our address, but the city decided to conform our addresses to the LA County scheme - we went from 326 to 4326 (we were a east/west street, my grandmother was a north/south street, her's went from 456 to 12045). It was supposed to make finding addresses easier, but not every city went along, so it was easier until you crossed into one of those cities, then you were completely lost.

Seven numbers are easy to remember - so to help us out they added a three digit area code - then a country code (1) - then overlaid area codes - thank goodness for cell phones with stored numbers - except when my phone dies, I can't remember anyone's number.


Dust Bunny Queen said...

I'll bet a lot of people don't know their own spouse's number by heart.

I do, because the numbers are all on the right hand side of the key pad, and sort of cascade down and up again.

But you are very correct. With the advent of speed dial and memorized numbers it is very difficult to remember what the phone number is because we just don't manually dial it. Easier to let the phone 'remember' the number for you. Pretty dangerous practice because if you DO lose your phone or the memory takes a dump.....you are lost.

virgil xenophon said...

My childhood home in Illinois was DIamond-5-4032.

Dust Bunny Queen said...

About 10 years ago, we [in this rural area] were assigned street numbers. Up until then you either had a rural route name {Star Route 3} or people just found your house by the description or name of a landmark nearby or name of the neighbor. For instance the Old Johnson ranch house second road on the left.

That changed when the emergency services 911 call center was moved to a town about 80 miles away. None of those call center people had a clue about the area and were calling out emergency services [fire, sheriff, ambulance] to completely wrong locations. Previously, you just called the local volunteer fire dept or sheriff sub station (only 35 miles away!!) and they knew who you are and where you were located.

It created chaos for quite a while because most people couldn't remember their street address, since it wasn't used for anything. Mail being not delivered to your house or a rural route bank of boxes at the end of the road/dirt road. The UPS and FedEx guys knew where you lived. You didn't need a street address.

edutcher said...

My question is, does anybody use the 12-digit ZIP code?

John said...

Old phone guy. AT&T from 1961 through 1996.

Thanks for your service. Ma Bell gave good service.

Which is why the Feds had to kill her.

She was showing them up.

Penny said...

DBQ, touch typing on your phone key pad is an enviable skill!

Does anyone else do this?

AllenS said...

Our telephone number in White Bear Lake, MN was GArden9**** (429).

DBQ is correct about rural addresses. My address used to be Route 1. That's all that the post office in town needed. I lived on the Alden Township Dump Road, also called the Swede Lake Road. Everyone had a fire number, which became my address. Out here that number corresponds to how far you live from the southern boundary of Polk County. The street numbers correspond to how far you are from the eastern boundary of the county.

John henry said...

The reason I have always heard for the difference in keypads was due to the nature of the phone switches.

It used to be that by dialing a number, you set a series of physical switches or relays that gave a wired connection to the phone you were calling.

As late as 1980 or so the company where I worked had a huge, think the size of an old timey phone booth, closet full of relays. It was next to my office so every time someone made a call I could hear each relay clunk into place.

Most people who use calculators daily can touch type on them very quickly. So quickly that the relay from one number would not clunk into place before the next digit was pressed.

This led to inaccuracy, not in entering the digits but in the system responding to them. If dialing 123-4567 the 2 was pressed before the system was ready, it would be ignored and 3 accepted in its place.

John Henry

Known Unknown said...

Mr. Death Panel will be along to make Obamacare much more soothing.

Or maybe that will be the sodium thiopental.

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...


I'll bet a lot of people don't know their own spouse's number by heart.

His I sure do; it's my own cel that I sometimes don't remember. I never dial it myself, and I don't often give it out; I don't really use the cel much except to dial other people. (Once I was carpooling to a gig and one of the other musicians in the car asked for my cel number so we could connect up for rides, and we had to resort to his giving me his cel number so that I could phone him and bring the number up on his own cel. Embarrassing.)

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...


I read somewhere very recently an article about West Virginia's drive to create street addresses in areas that didn't have them, which apparently is a good fraction of the state. Not only no house numbers, but no route numbers or street names.

It's not uncommon for locales to dispense with house numbers. I used to play the Carmel (CA) Bach Festival, and in most of Carmel there are no numbers. And no postal delivery either; you want your mail, you drive to the post office, not they to you.

I grew up in a suburban community about an hour out of NYC, a place where practically every house but ours had a swimming pool out back, and our street address was still in the form Rural Route X, Box YYY. We, though, did have mail delivery.

Don said...

The old IBM 026 & 029 keypunch machines also had 123 above 456 above 789, but they had the 0 at the very top (while the phone company put the 0 at the bottom)

Don said...

Along with PEnnsylvania 6-5000, another number famous from a song was BEechwood 4-5789.

I used to have a pencil from the Plaza Hotel (the big picturesque hotel in NYC) that gave their phone number as PLaza 5-9000.

Captain Curt said...

"With blank space at the center of the holes, Mr. Karlin found, callers no longer had a target at which to aim their fingers."

When I played soccer goalie as a kid, I noticed that far too many balls were kicked right at me to be from chance, and I came to the conclusion that it was difficult for people to aim at empty space. Recently, as an adult coaching kids' soccer, I noticed the same phenomenon. I worked to combat this in the teams I coached by putting physical targets at the sides of the goal in practices, trying to get the kids in the habit of shooting for the sides by giving them something to aim at.

I too grew up in Wilmington 3, Delaware, which became Wilmington, DE 19803. I was originally in the POrter4 phone exchange, which became the 764 exchange. I find it curious that we lost the two-letter phone exchanges at about the same time we got the two-letter state postal abbreviations.

What neighborhood in Wilmington 3 Delaware did you grow up in? I grew up in the "Green Acres" subdivision (so named well before the silly TV show).

From Inwood said...

Prof A.

Since you're into an American Novel' how about BUtterfield 8, O’Hara 1935. The title was an hommage to the method of listing telephone exchanges as two capitalized letters followed by five Arabic numbers, BU 8 being that of Manhattan’s Tony Upper East Side (now coldly listed as “288”), today’s version - or at least 'til cell phones became ubiquitous -being the need for “a (landline '212’ area code”.)

I tell people that there is a real song about the telephone number of the place where my wife & I had our wedding reception.

They laugh at first (if they even care) & then I tell 'em it was PE 6-5000 by Glenn Miller (noted by Don above), an hommage to the Old Hotel Pennsylvania in NYC.


I am old and gray and full of sleep and nodding by the fire.

PS RE Gatsby, O'Hara having much disdain for Irish-American Gatsbys, tho he himself was one, wake me when you get to the party in Washington Heights, contiguous to Inwood.

Rumpletweezer said...

So this is the guy responsible for making the telephone something that's usable by even the dimmest and densest people on the planet. Have you ever met anyone sentient who has trouble using the standard telephone? It may be the perfect device.

From Inwood said...


Thanks for that site. Fun.

It didn't have my first Inwood exchange (Lorraine) but it had my later one (Williams). Not sure of the relevance of the exchanges to Inwood, but then I'm not sure of the relevance of Butterfield to the UES.

Gospace said...

Mt first phome # GIlbert 4-4486, or 444-4486. Easy to remember.

Used to have well over 20 phone numbers memorized, as did everyone else.

Now, at most, 3. I use phone numbers once, to plug them into the phones memory. Never need 'em again after that.

John from Pomeroy on the Palouse said...

edutcher said...

I still remember our old phone number as LA5, not 525.

Must be a Lakeview thing. I still say parent's number as LA4-1234 not 524-1234. Their first house had a phone number of MElrose 1234. When Seattle added the 3rd digit (the number) to exchanges, they kept the 1234 part and just exchanged LA4 for the ME. Back in 1956. Still have that number.

And for Madashell... The PO skipped 7 cents for a first class letter. Rates went from 4 cents to 5 to 6 to 8 to 10. The Mary Cassatt stamp that is on this post was from '65, I think. There WAS a 7 cent rate for airmail, just not for regular mail.

Peter said...

Sorrybut, making telephone keypads the opposite of calculator keypads was just plain dumb.

The standard ten-key calculator keypad layout was well-established before AT&T introduced touch-tone phones, and it worked well enough.

It's as though IBM had introduced a new, non-QWERTy keyboard layout when it introduced the IBM PC. Of course, IBM didn't do that- because the public would have rejected it.

But the public couldn't reject AT&T's touch-tone keypad layout because it was introduced back when AT&T would cut off your service if they determined you had connected a non-AT&T phone to their network.

In short, the reason why we have to put up with two different keyboard layouts today is because of AT&T's former monopoloy power.

Would we be better off with multiple keyboards- or are we better off in a world in which practically all keyboards are QWERTY- and, even if these are not ideal, at least you know you'll be able to use whatever device happens to be available to you?

Were we truly better off in the dull world in which a paternalistic monopolist (former AT&T) determined the "optimal" length of phone cords, or one in which the market provides whatever length phone cord (not to mention cordless) one wishes to buy?

Anonymous said...

Calculators were so expensive that my college wouldn't allow them for tests. The telephone touch tone system on a princess phone may not have come before hand calculators but was far more popular and known and makes sense. And has nothing to do with calculators or texting and never did.