Rotary Phones

Starting in high school I worked for the Montgomery County Department of Recreation. It helped keep the local office organized and eventually oversaw it by my senior year in high school. What I really loved was that I coached afternoon sports for the 30+ local elementary and junior high schools in the area. I coached everything from flag football, soccer, softball, and basketball. It was really a great experience.

The kids would show up after school and then their parents would pick them up when the program ended that day. One day a kid was hanging around waiting for his parents to pick him up. At one point I decided we should go up to the principals office in the school and have the kid call home. It was either calling home or calling the parents work because mobile did not exist.

In the office was an old rotary phone. The secretary asked the kid what his number was so she could call them. I piped up saying that the kid was more than capable of using a phone and calling his parents. She looked at me and said “well these kids have never used this kind of phone”. At this point the phones were all push button. I remember thinking how crazy that was. It was 1977.

Looking back at that random event that made me think about how innovation was moving us forward so I got a kick out of the video that Business Insider put up around kids and those old fashioned rotary phones.

Comments (Archived):

  1. William Mougayar

    It’s a cute video. Where is Art Linkletter to interview them.No disrespect to any of them, and i’m all for progress, but how difficult is it for a parent to give their kids a 2 min history lesson on telephones. Some of the dumb responses made me cringe.I hope the wired kids generation isn’t being dumbed down by new tech.

    1. Gotham Gal

      Sometimes it is hard not to wonder what’s being taught around the kitchen table

    2. Kirsten Lambertsen

      Ha ha! I think the kids are all right. They’ll see some old movies eventually and learn about rotary phones. There are SO many other things that they don’t learn about that would be more valuable if they did.

      1. William Mougayar

        we teach them history-; so maybe there needs to be “tech history”

  2. ellen sing

    so telling. Really makes me feel old.

  3. Tracey Jackson

    I remember the princess phone with push buttons in the receiver. Beyond innovation at that time. We actually have an old rotary phone with push buttons in Glenn’s office in the apt. I kind of love it.

  4. Susan Rubinsky

    I love the video!I still have an old black rotary phone. It works great when we loose power and nothing else works. I keep it in my office. It’s definitely a conversation piece.

  5. JLM

    .The sound of the rotary dial returning to its starting place after dialing an individual number is one of the most iconic sounds ever created.One of the best things about experience is being able to see where the progress came from as a means of seeing where it might be going.I was in business before the invention of the PC and Excel (Visicalc, Lotus 1-2-3, etc.). When I tell young people that, they always ask — How did you do stuff?JLMwww.themusingsofthebigredca…

    1. Brandon Burns

      How *did* you do stuff?!! 🙂

      1. JLM

        .Green and white accounting paper — taped together for really long spreadsheets — HP12C calculators and white out. Even had “green out” but it was messy.We made a lot fewer decisions per year and life was a “little” slower pace.We had fewer levels of supervision and we gave way more power to managers.We made a lot more mistakes, maybe?JLMwww.themusingsofthebigredca…

        1. Brandon Burns

          This is actually fascinating to me. Hearing about this makes me want to hold user testing sessions where I observe people using older techniques, see where the pain points are, and see which pain points are ones that we still haven’t fixed today — there’s probably a wealth of ideas there.

          1. JLM

            .Sometimes the old ways are the most comforting. I just returned from a leisurely breakfast where I was planning a book I am writing.I use a 5mm pen and a Moleskine notebook. The feel of the pen and the look of the page is comforting and gives me creative energy — of course, there was caffeine involved.I am now transcribing my notes on the computer.The mix of the old and the new is the best vintage?JLMwww.themusingsofthebigredca…

          2. Brandon Burns

            We can’t forget the old with the new. Not at all.The other day I had a meeting in an office building that uses this new tablet-based sign in app. I don’t know what its called, and don’t care either — I’ve seen it too many times now and it makes me so angry each time. When I get to a front desk, and I see a person, I want that person to help me. I don’t want that person to say, “use that app on that tablet there and leave me out of it.” What a terrible experience! Why not escort me to the person I’m here to see, like folks used to do?!And then I was watching Med Men last week (as referenced in an earlier comment) and was taken away with 1969 “voicemail.” How Don called what was basically a switchboard secretary who intercepted calls while he was away. I never knew this existed in the 60s, and it blew my mind. The “voicemail” human being told Don who called since he last checked in, a summary of what the caller had to say, and gave more details if asked for them.Imagine that — a summary! My mother’s long voicemail given to me in summary form?! I’d take that any day!On top of it, Don and the “voicemail” shared some brief yet meaningful banter about someone who left a message that Don was worried about. She could hear the frustration in his voice and responded in a consoling manner.Comfort, via voicemail.Now, today, I call my voicemail just as Don did in 1969 — we just get different experiences on the other end. But this is for sure, when someone or something picks up on the other end, I think I’d much rather have that human giving me sympathetic summaries of my calls vs. a machine spitting “dial X for Y” options at me. I’d easily take Don’s 1969 voicemail experience over my current one.Which makes me think about that godawful office sign in app, and how it should probably take some cues from 1969. It would make their 2015 product a lot better.

          3. Gotham Gal


          4. JLM

            .”Tech v touch” is always an opportunity to create the New Old School from a combination of the Old School and New School — like the incredible impact of a hand written note these days.I never allowed a machine to answer phones when I was in business — too impersonal and exactly for the reasons you noted. When I had nationwide operations, the receptionist came on before the beginning of East Coast time and the phones were covered until the last time zone was covered — usually 5:00 PM PDT.When I was first in business and traveling a lot, I had my secretary take my calls (when I was out) and transcribe the messages and be available to chat with me when I called in — a long time ago.The high touch moment is the time to have the person to person interface. When I was building high rise office buildings, long before the scourge of terrorism, we had people in the lobbies but they weren’t security people just “ambassadors” who knew every tenant in the building.I am going to ping you to catch up. Hope you are well.JLMwww.themusingsofthebigredca…

          5. Brandon Burns

            Before we catch up, I’ll likely, finally, have this new thing I’ve been working on in a place to share, and get some opinions from you that I’ve been craving!Its definitely rooted in humanizing an experience that’s currently not so great.Maybe that’ll be the theme of the next wave of the future?

          6. JLM

            .Pendulum effect of life. I am in ATX for the next 2 weeks.JLMwww.themusingsofthebigredca…

          7. laurie kalmanson

            electronic medical records, let me show you them

    2. laurie kalmanson

      did a contract at deloitte; showcase display in the lobby of hardbacked old ledger books, open to handwritten pages — why they called keeping accounts, “the books”related: handwritten us census records

    3. laurie kalmanson

      212: short way around the dial

  6. Eric Woods

    Funny enough, I was just mentioning that I’d like to find a rotary phone for my place. Something about the heft of the handset is comforting.

  7. Kirsten Lambertsen

    Most wanted phone of my childhood.

  8. Brandon Burns

    Last week on Mad Men, Don was on the phone talking to his 1969 version of voicemail — a human, from a service you pay to pick up your calls remotely and take messages — and I couldn’t help but stare at the rotary phone he was using. It looked so chic, matching the decor of his swanky Upper East side 1969 bachelor pad.My grandmother always had rotary phones when I was little, and I always thought they were these weird archaic things, even in the 1980s. They looked out of place compared to other digital things around me, like my Nintendo.But on that Mad Men set, you could see how the rotary phone — and, probably more so, the “voicemail” service — really represented the technology of the day. How they fit right in with the high rolling, high earning lifestyle of this, for that time, cutting edge ad exec. That stuff may be old to us now, but it was very, very cool in its day.And it just really made me think about old innovations, and how most of all the “innovations” of today are really just incarnations of things that were cool long ago. And how we should be more in tune with the past, and the people who are still around us today who lived in it.

    1. Gotham Gal

      old innovations, and how most of all the “innovations” of today are really just incarnations of things that were cool long ago.the future of everything…

    2. laurie kalmanson

      mad men episode: so much new technology

  9. laurie kalmanson

    YES. that is awesome. i took my tween to a junk shop / flea market and she could not imagine the ***waiting time*** in dialing a rotary phone.a bunch of things.1. the mural in the old att building in tribeca, with the mid-century optimism that technology would bring peace; “telephone wires and radio unite to make neighbors of nations” — i walked by that mural so many times when i worked for one of their skunkworks, back in the late 20th century.http://landmarkinteriors.ny…related: “This worker is bringing magic to the home” — the phone network was built house by house, wire by wire; so many countries are skipping that and going straight to mobile.this video — recruiting effort? publicity piece? — is an artifact of the days when the idea that you could pick up a phone in one place and talk to someone in another was still a new idea.

  10. Maribeth Mason

    1977? My family, and most people I knew, had rotary phones way beyond that, 1990 or so. And we weren’t in some remote backwater, either, just suburbia.