Every time I watch bio/medRxiv’s Richard Sever patiently respond on Twitter to someone complaining about how the term “preprint” is nonsensical for an online-only journal article which will never be printed, I’m reminded of a video we hosted a few years back, where young children were shown a first generation iPod, and every single one of them referred to it as a “phone” — a word which used here means the portable computer you carry around in your pocket.

Thinking about the evolution of language, it’s worth noting that we still “hang up” at the end of calls on our portable computers, even if they no longer hang on the wall. And of course, we still “dial” a number, which brings us to today’s video, a tutorial from 1936 for the major user-interface shift from requesting an operator connect you to dialing the number yourself (using an actual dial). When was the last time you (have you ever?) dialed a phone number? The video also introduces the “busy signal”, which in an age of call waiting and ubiquitous voice mail, is also soon to become a more figurative term rather than something we actually encounter.

David Crotty

David Crotty

David Crotty is a Senior Consultant at Clarke & Esposito, a boutique management consulting firm focused on strategic issues related to professional and academic publishing and information services. Previously, David was the Editorial Director, Journals Policy for Oxford University Press. He oversaw journal policy across OUP’s journals program, drove technological innovation, and served as an information officer. David acquired and managed a suite of research society-owned journals with OUP, and before that was the Executive Editor for Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, where he created and edited new science books and journals, along with serving as a journal Editor-in-Chief. He has served on the Board of Directors for the STM Association, the Society for Scholarly Publishing and CHOR, Inc., as well as The AAP-PSP Executive Council. David received his PhD in Genetics from Columbia University and did developmental neuroscience research at Caltech before moving from the bench to publishing.


17 Thoughts on "A Primer on Phone “Dialing”"

I still have a “landline” and I get busy signals all the time although probably only when calling other landlines that don’t have an answering machine configured properly.
I also remember as a young child having a “party line” and my parents explaining the etiquette to me so I didn’t interfere with the calls by/for other households. And I’m not even of retirement age yet.

I have a landline as well, as our local service providers make it cheaper for you to subscribe to a combination of phone, television, and internet service than just the internet service alone. There’s also some joy in having a phone number you can give out to companies and data collection efforts that you never, ever answer. I check voicemails on that line about once a month and it is nearly entirely automated calls selling something, which I’m happy to keep away from my cell phone.

I remember the old black rotary-dial phones and party lines. I never would have imagined carrying my phone with me everywhere. I also remember when television stations had test patterns after signing off at the end of the day! Life paused for a few hours. Now we make phone calls, text, take photos, work, and watch TV on one device wherever we are and nothing shuts down. Life was a bit simpler when rotary phones and test patterns existed, we just didn’t know it at the time.

A few years back I tried to explain telephone exchange names to my kids, to help them understand why my childhood phone number was MYrtle2-XXXX, but their eyes glazed over quickly with visions of covered wagons and gas lamps…

In the 1990s there was a VOIP company (Voice Over Internet Protocol) whose tag line was “Dial tone of the Internet.”

I remember the crank telephone, where the party line numbers were represented by “long” and “short” rings. Not being coordinated I had problems–my “long” sometimes sounded like two “shorts”.

And then there’s the ubiquitous icon for “save” in most software, which looks like a 3.5″ diskette. I asked one of our undergrads if they knew why that particular picture was used to mean “save” and they didn’t know – they had never thought to question it, just accepted the convention, I guess like we all do with the old phone terminology.

I remember hearing of a teacher who showed their students a 3.5″ disc and the response was, “Look, someone 3-D printed the save icon!”

I remember using floppy disks that were actually floppy on our Apple McIntosh in the 1980’s … (in St.Kitts-Nevis)

I drove my car today, despite not having a team of horses pulling it. I also rolled down my window, but with a button instead of a hand crank. I typed at my computer that doesn’t have moveable type. I hailed an Uber without shouting. I called my friend though I didn’t show up at his house. I taped a funny movie with my tapeless, filmless phone.

When you typed, did you reach into the upper case and the lower case to get different types of letters?

Until just a couple of months ago, I was still driving a car that did NOT have buttons, just a hand crank, to roll down the windows. My somewhat newer car has the buttons, and I miss the hand crank, with the windows now all frozen shut – the buttons are worthless in our winter weather. I’ve also thought that in some kind of emergency (does everyone fantasize what they’d do if their car drove into a body of water?) I’d be much better off with the hand crank. Oh, and Uber hasn’t made it to my province yet. I got to try it once years ago when I had a conference in a “big city”, but we still call normal taxis here and that works just fine. And yet I am living in an “advanced”, G7, country (Canada).

All the above posts are from people in the Global North.I am happy to see that good old mechanisms have not altogether disappeared and that down South, we’re not that backward after all (just kidding!!!! ).

On the same token…. we still use CC (Carbon Copy) and BCC in our emails!

In the bygone era of 1967, my 2nd grade class was visited by a representative of AT&T (the *only* phone company back then), and we all received a hands-on lesson in phone etiquette including how to politely answer and complete a phone call. I sometimes wonder if the world would be a more civilized place if we included those lessons in elementary school today.

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