The future has arrived: Now you can dial! (video)

Best I can tell, this video from AT&T is from 1954. It’s to teach people who to correctly use this new-fangled thing called the “dial telephone.”


Here’s the description from the YouTube page:

The goal of this film was to aid in reducing customer dialing irregularities by demonstrating the correct way to use the dial telephone. It documents the shift between operator-based connections (which were on the way out) and having to dial the phone and make the connection yourself.

The dial telephone was new at this point, although the two-letter, 5-number system was still commonplace. This film even has to explain what a ringing and busy signal sound like!

This film opens with the demonstrator pointing out the importance of correctly using the dial telephone. Correct dialing techniques are demonstrated, with an emphasis placed on the following:

1. Be sure of the right number
2. Wait for the dial tone
3. Refer to the number while dialing
4. Turn the dial until the finger hits the finger stop
5. Avoid confusing the letter “O” with the “0”
6. The difference between ringing and busy signals

One by one, the conventions described in this film that aren’t already gone may disappear imminently – for instance: with voicemail the norm, when is the last time you got a busy signal on a call?

Susann Shaw, the demonstrator in this film, was a popular fashion model throughout the 1940s and 1950s, making frequent appearances in the pages of Vogue.

CyberDisobedience on Substack | @aravosis | Facebook | Instagram | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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40 Responses to “The future has arrived: Now you can dial! (video)”

  1. DGT says:

    As crude as the technology in this film seems by today’s standards, one interesting thing to remember is that, while switching systems and phones are obviously digital today, may of the actual lines transmitting them in the US are the same copper wires shown being strung in this film. That’s why DSL is slow.

    The same holds true for most of our infrastructure. Water and sewer systems in many neighborhoods pre-date dial telephones. The Metro North railroad system, which transports millions of commuters from New York to my area of Connecticut each day, uses tracks and overhead power lines laid during this era. It’s amazing when you think of it that way.

  2. The_Fixer says:

    That’s amazing. Silent movie and all. Pretty weird music for the type of short movie it was, I’d say.

    Looking at the history of dial service, it gives you a special appreciation for how life has changed and how things have sped up. Here they are in 1927, showing people how to use brand-new technology. And yet in 1954, they were still doing the same thing. I think dial service didn’t come into our community as a kid until perhaps 1956 or 1957. It took them about 30 years to get the country wired for that.

    In contrast, look at the life cycle of a typical cellphone. At one year old, it’s considered yesterday’s news. By the time your contract is up and it’s two years old, you’re ready for a new phone. The amount of progress and change in two short years is downright amazing compared to what it was like in the old days.

    Like Louie CK says, “Everything’s amazing.” Well, almost everything.

  3. The_Fixer says:

    Then there are those exchange names that can’t seem to be nailed down.

    In my hometown (village) of Palatine, IL, our exchange was named “Flanders”. I can’t find a real reason why; Palatine history has no prominent person named Flanders and the area wasn’t named Flanders. Certain neighborhoods in Chicago were named (Edison and Lincoln Parks, for example), but no neighborhood in that area was named Flanders.

    There are some historical references on Wikipedia about the Countess of Palatine and Flanders, I wonder if some history geek worked for the phone company and came up with that name?

    Now this is gonna bug me and make me spend a lot of time on the Internet looking for the answer :)

  4. frizbeesf says:
    Ah…. a simpler time *Snicker*

  5. therling says:

    Oh, how I miss the days when you could use a telephone receiver as a club for self-defense.

  6. therling says:

    My parents moved into the last house in which they lived in 1975, back when “the phone company” still forced you to rent their phones. That rent paid for those phones many times over. One good thing is that when they broke up Ma Bell, they never asked for those phones back. I still have two of them, and they still work.

  7. emjayay says:


  8. The_Fixer says:

    I do know that it did not happen in the 1960s as I vividly remember noticing that the Q was not there at that time. It may have come in the 1970s or 1980s, perhaps about the time that they broke up Bell and allowed competition. That brought out a lot of new telephone products – like the infamous and horribly cheap phone that Time magazine gave away or sold for cheap.

    A lot of people also don’t know that there are 4 additional tones on the DTMF (Dual-Tone Multiple-Frequency, AKA “Touch Tone”) keypad. These are the letters A,B,C, and D. They are used for control, but not with the phone system (at least to my knowledge). They are frequently used for remote control of various devices via radio, however.

  9. TampaZeke says:

    My parents were the first in Oxford, Mississippi to have a touch tone phone in the 60’s which meant, even at 50 years old, I’ve never lived in a home with a rotary dial.

  10. TampaZeke says:

    nicho, that was done intentionally so that people used to keying wouldn’t enter numbers too quickly. My aunt, who worked for Bell South for about 50 years starting in the early 60’s, told me that bit of trivia.

  11. Oh god I forgot about that!

  12. oh that’s really interesting

  13. Thom Allen says:

    And they added “Q,” too, but I’m not sure when.

  14. Thom Allen says:

    This was just re-released to teach some of the members of the Tea Party how to use their newfangled phones. Notice how slowly and clearly the spokes model speaks and how she repeats the instructions. And she’s dressed like one of the more wealthy Tea Party matrons.

  15. nicho says:

    One of the biggest design screwups — which many people don’t realize — is that on push-button phones, the numbers are the exact opposite of the numbers on a calculator. 1-2-3 is at the top on the phone and on the bottom on the calculator. This has been a problem for people who work extensively with calculators and can enter numbers without looking. Then, when they go to make a phone call, they end up dialing a wrong number.

  16. nicho says:

    My dad died in 2008 and still had a dial phone on the wall in the kitchen. It may still be there for all I know. My nephew is living in the house and he’s as cheap as they come.

  17. Gordon Fossum says:

    In 1927, AT&T released a far earlier movie about how to use dial telephones:

  18. Demosthenes says:

    Brings back memories of my long-list youth.

    A few years ago I was fortunate to tour AT&T’s Dallas Headquarters collection of Telephony memorabilia, including late 19th and early 20th Century telephones. It’s a history of communications. I don’t think it is open to the public, but it should be!

  19. BeccaM says:

    I often say ‘aye’ where many would say ‘yeah.’ Come from growing up in an x-th generation Irish household.

  20. 2karmanot says:

    It helps to be a Scot or Irish!

  21. 2karmanot says:

    The UP? A2 here. Go Blue

  22. 2karmanot says:

    One ringie dingie, Two ringie dingie——–

  23. emjayay says:

    “Aye”? No one told me this was Talk Like a Pirate Day.

  24. BeccaM says:

    I remember that part, aye. One of the reasons my family didn’t switch over to touch tone until around ’73 was because my dad was kinda cheap — and it was a long time before the phone companies stopped gouging on a feature that actually saved them money.

  25. emjayay says:

    I think this was actually here on AB, and it is somewhat annoying, but here’s some Kids Today meeting the dial phone.

  26. therling says:

    And what about those poor buggy whip makers? The pen knife sellers? Inkwell manufacturers? Oh, the humanity.

  27. therling says:

    I have a couple older phones like that. They still work. Some of the newer phones I’ve bought over the years? In the landfill by now.

  28. emjayay says:

    Very Pat Nixon, isn’t she?

  29. emjayay says:

    The old exchanges were named for the areas they covered, like AMherst (my childhood number), which changed to TF2, standing for nothing, around 1960 – on the way to three digits really standing for nothing, and now plus having to use three more. Good thing our phones know all the numbers now so we don’t have to.

  30. emjayay says:

    According to Wikipedia and my memory, touch tone phones came out in 1963. At extra cost for touch tone service, of course.

  31. emjayay says:

    For some reason she is demonstrating the Dreyfus 302 phone, made from 1936 to 1954. It featured a Bakelite case and handset useful for doing curls. The more modern shaped plastic 500 phone came out in 1949. I would have thought people getting a new phone with a dial in 1954 would have gotten a 500. Maybe they were getting refurbished ones previously used by urbanites who upgraded to a nice beige or light blue 500.

    People in urban areas had dial service for decades by 1954. I guess this film is for the rural areas which were finally getting it. Those Art Deco Bell Telephone mostly windowless buildings you still see around (only called Verizon or something) were for the mechanical switchers the dial system used.

  32. The_Fixer says:

    I noticed one change in today’s telephones – where the letter Z is placed. In the film above, the phones have the Z assigned to the 0 (Zero) digit, modern telephones have it on the 9 digit. I wonder when that happened? I was born the year that this film was made, and don’t remember when that changed.

    One of my earliest, foggy childhood memories was that of our original telephone, It was a desk model like that shown in the film, but it had no dial. It had a black filler piece where the dial would normally go.

    I suspect that’s because it took a while to roll out dial service. We lived in the then far-flung Chicago suburb of Palatine, and it’s probable that it took a few years for the outlying areas to get the latest tech upgrades. Hell, in the 1970s we had a party line in a rural area of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula when they were practically unheard of elsewhere.

    Sometime in the 1960s, I remember a large tractor-trailer coming to town that was a mobile Bell Labs technology demonstration center. At that time, touch-tone service (for which you had to pay extra) was the latest thing. They had a display that allowed you to use a Touch-Tone phone to “race” against someone who was dialing the old-style phone. Of course, the person with the Touch-Tone always won.

    That was big stuff back then. I remember when you had to rent a damn near bulletproof Western Electric phone from Bell. And you had better not hook any unauthorized extension phones up unless you disconnected the ringer – they would check if you did by measuring the amount of current it took to ring your phone (two sets of bells took twice as much current to ring). Every once in a while in the dead of night, you’d hear a very short ring – that was Ma Bell checking up on you.

    Ah, the good old days of regulated monopolies.

  33. goulo says:

    Everything which empowers people has some cost. Being able to create ice in our freezers at home put thousands of ice delivery services out of work, but I suppose most people don’t lament that. Electronic computers put thousands of human computers out of work, but overall it’s nice to have electronic computers. Etc.

    Although I too dislike robo-calls, I am glad I don’t have to talk with an operator every time I place a call.

  34. Indigo says:

    Thousands of phone company operators were put out of business, the human touch that enhanced the telephonic experience was diminished. The slide into robo-tech and the diminishing of personal interaction continues, even today, while the corporations and their government enablers increase profits as the public sinks deeper into poverty and feudalism reclaims the peasant soul.

  35. popculturez13 says:

    Have you checked out about this? It’s more on the story.

  36. BillFromDover says:

    I remember when our telephone number was 197M. (nail that one down, CIA)

    Sucks to be that old/me.

  37. WildwoodGuy says:

    Becca, I worked as an operator on cord boards starting in the early 1970’s… (one of the first male operators in the city of San Luis Obispo, CA) and I can assure you there were quite a LOT of long-distance calls that could only be made with the assistance of an operator.

  38. AdmNaismith says:

    I want that comically over-sized novelty demonstrator dial for my own!

  39. BeccaM says:

    Interestingly (to me anyway) it was less than ten years later before the Bell Telephone companies began rolling out their new “touch-tone” telephones. Some of the earliest trials were available in the early 1960s in my home area, Pittsburgh PA.

    I still remember though how back in the day, certain long-distance calls still could only be made with the help of an operator.

  40. When I was at Penn State in the late 70’s and early 80’s, UN was the exchange, and it was necessary only to dial the five numbers without the “86” in front. I would assume it holds here. In 1962, exchanges were going out for the full seven digits. Now in some places, we must dial the area code with them!

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