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Monday, April 7, 2014

Dial N for Nostalgia – but rotary phones still work just fine

David Brooks

Recently I called a local company and was startled to hear voice mail begin with this once-familiar phrase: “If you have a touch-tone phone, press 1 now.”

Years ago, you’d hear that phrase all the time as the telephone ecosystem shifted from dials to touch pads, but I thought rotary phones had gone extinct long ago. In fact, I assumed the phone network didn’t even support them any more. ...

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Recently I called a local company and was startled to hear voice mail begin with this once-familiar phrase: “If you have a touch-tone phone, press 1 now.”

Years ago, you’d hear that phrase all the time as the telephone ecosystem shifted from dials to touch pads, but I thought rotary phones had gone extinct long ago. In fact, I assumed the phone network didn’t even support them any more.

Silly me, as Lucy Schmidt of Lyndeborough can attest.

“I have three of them,” says the 93-year-old Schmidt – including the rotary phone installed upstairs years ago when her late husband, Edward, was fire chief.

“It still works, and I know how to use it. And when the electricity’s gone, I can (make a call),” she said. “As long as something works satisfactorily, and can do what you want it to do, why go to something else that you don’t know?”

Schmidt isn’t entirely alone, although she’s certainly a rarity. I could not find any data about how many rotary phones are still in use, either in New Hampshire or anywhere in the country, but I’m not abashed by my ignorance. Even telephone experts can be stumped by the topic of rotary phones.

Jeff Nevins, spokesman for FairPoint, had to go check with engineers to make sure that the landline network still supports the click-click-click method of connection, and the Public Utilities Commission’s telecoms expert, Kate Bailey, laughed when I asked her about them. She couldn’t remember the last time that topic came up.

Rotary phones will continue to make connections as long as the telephone network still uses the traditional switching system, called time-division multplexing, Bailey said.

But the nation’s networks are shifting to IP, or Internet Protocol which will doom those lovely old dial phones unless you add a pulse-to-tone translation device. Verizon and AT&T are leading the push to dump traditional phone networks entirely, although neither FairPoint nor TDS, which operates Schmidt’s phones as well as those in Wilton and Hollis, has made similar efforts.

The rotary dial with holes entered service in the Bell System in 1919. Touch tone dialing was introduced at the 1962 World’s Fair, but only took off in the 1970s.

As a certified Baby Boomer, I grew up with telephone dials. I remember well the satisfying sound and feel of using them, the rattle and purr of the mechanism, rebounding via an internal coil spring tempered by a centrifugal governor, and listening to the clicks as it sent electrical pulses over the line to the switching office.

I also remember the irritation of dialing numbers with lots of 8’s, 9’s and 0’s in them, because it took so much longer.

That last fact, incidentally, is why New York City was given 212 as its original area code. Those three-digit codes were assigned to minimize total network usage, so the figures that required fewer clicks were assigned to more populous cities: Chicago was given 312, Los Angeles 213, and so on.

You can tell that New Hampshire is bigger than Vermont because we got 603, with 19 clicks, and they got 802, with 20 clicks.

I’m not the only person who has fond memories of dial phones, as realized when I went online and discovered several small companies that sell refurbished dial phones, often for $100 or more.

Sheri Stritoff, owner of Phonevault.com in Washington state, said the dial-phone market can be broken into three groups: hipsters seeking “retro” funkiness; older people uncomfortable with new technology (who, me?); and theater groups, movies or advertising firms that need a stage prop.

“My husband and I traveled a lot in the last 20 years and went to garage sales, estate sales, antique stores, anywhere we could find them. We had spotters, too, across the country that would look for phones for us and give us a call when they found something,” she said.

The auditory aspect is definitely part of the appeal.

“Some people buy it because they like the sound of the dial,” Stritoff said. “I’ve had to let people hear the sound when they call, before they’ll buy it.”

As for their utility, most telephone systems still support rotary dialing, she said: “I’ve heard of some people having difficulty, when that happens, I just refund the money and take the phone back. ... But usually it works.”

Of course, a dial phone can’t interact with phone-based automatic systems for banking, credit-card purchases or similar things, as Schmidt admits.

“There are some things it can’t do, and sometimes I wish I had another phone,” she said.

But after all, Schmidt is old enough to remember the transition from operator-assisted calls to dialed calls, so she can put up with shortcoming – as do her grandchildren, reluctantly.

“I think they accept it. They know that grandma’s going to do it, anyhow,” she said.

David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or dbrooks@nashua
telegraph.com. Also, follow Brooks on Twitter (@GraniteGeek).