50 years ago, touch-tone phones began a communication revolution
By Adam Smeltz
Published: Sunday, Nov. 17, 2013, 10:40 p.m.
Long before smartphones and text messages made the world instantly available with a split-second tap, reaching out to touch someone could take a full 10 seconds.
That was just to dial a number, ticked out one deliberate digit at a time, on a mechanical wheel owned by the phone company.
Monday marks 50 years since the United States began saying goodbye to the classic rotary phone, replaced by touch-tone services that slashed dialing time and foreshadowed a digital revolution that keeps reshuffling everyday communication.
The push-buttons became an especially big deal in Western Pennsylvania, where Carnegie and Greensburg were first in the country to see complete rollouts of the optional upgrade in November 1963.
Bell Telephone Co. customers could pay $1.50 a month for the pleasure and convenience of touch-tone, according to newspaper reports at the time.
“All of the many things we can do by phone — without interacting with a human — got an awful lot easier with the touch-tone,” said Jon Peha, a professor in engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University. “The introduction allowed you to interact with automated systems on the other end in an easy way.”
Although the pound and star keys would not appear until 1968, the first 10-button sets largely resembled the keypads used on billions of mobile and other phones worldwide. The Tribune-Review described the touch-tone approach as “space-age telephony” of “missile-like speed and musical tones” when Greensburg phone users tested the technology in early 1961.
“Once our customers get this thing in their hands, hear its melodious tones, they're sold on it,” Bell district manager Bud Kyle said in an employee newsletter in May 1963. “Sure, we still have people who stick to the old-fashioned way. But touch-tone is modern. The dial can't compete with it.”
The former Bell company, owned by AT&T, typically introduced services in smaller markets so engineers could tinker with and strengthen the technology, said Sheldon Hochheiser, an archivist and historian at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers History Center in New Brunswick, N.J.
Carnegie and Greensburg made the cut because of their phone systems, population, average income and isolation from other metropolitan areas, according to Verizon spokesman Lee Gierczynski. Verizon is a corporate descendant of Bell.
“The dream of a push-button telephone went all the way back to the 19th century,” said Richard R. John, a professor in communications at Columbia University. Hochheiser said Bell investigated faster alternatives to the rotary phone as early as the 1940s.
When it arrived, touch-tone service not only sped up the dialing process; the advanced devices set a foundation for features such as automatic callback, fax machines and data transmission into computerized dial-in services. They raised the prospect of digital call switching, a system innovation that gained speed in the 1970s.
Customers became so accustomed to the touch-tone keypad that it was a natural fit for mobile technology when cell phones reached the market in 1978, industry observers said.
As smartphones and other mobile devices replace landlines as devices of choice, innovations in communications are shifting from voice to data-driven services such as messaging and global positioning.
Smartphones “have been the fastest rise of telecommunications technology,” said John Zimmerman, an associate professor in the Human-Computer Interaction Institute at CMU. “It used to be you'd call a place, call a home, where your intention is that I'm happy to talk to anyone in the place. More and more, that's difficult to do. More and more, our phones don't mean anything about place.”
About 91 percent of Americans had a cell phone — and 56 percent had a smartphone — as of May, according to the Pew Internet Project. Cell phone ownership stood at 73 percent in 2006.
Americans are using their devices less for talking. Voice usage on cell phones slipped from 2.29 trillion minutes in 2011 to 2.23 trillion minutes last year, the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association reported. Total texting held relatively steady at 2.19 trillion messages in 2012 as some users embraced Internet-based services such as Facebook and Twitter messaging.
The phone habit has become so prolific, college instructors write classroom policies trying to limit the devices' use, said Jennifer Bannan, a fiction instructor at the University of Pittsburgh.
“Students aren't as good at interacting as they used to be. They don't look at you in the eye like they did 20 years ago,” Bannan said. “I think there's something to do that. There's a drawback in the way that people interact now that so much interaction happens on the phone.”
That interaction will boom as video applications, location-tracking programs and call quality improve in coming years, scholars said.
“It will be an increasingly complex and sophisticated piece of technology that gives us video and all sorts of applications and sensors we can barely imagine,” Peha said. “And, oh yes, it also allows us to talk to each other.”
Staff writer John D. Oravecz contributed. Adam Smeltz is a Trib Total Media staff writer.
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