To Get Customers Acclimated To Rotary Telephones, Theaters Played This PSA

Telephones got their start in the late nineteenth century, connected through exchanges. In the early twentieth century, however, Bell introduced a new dial system, and needed to tell callers how to use it.


The new rotary telephones were a major departure from that of early phones, and would soon become widespread throughout the country. To get callers prepared, the company sent a film to local theaters, demonstrating its use:

This short subject newsreel was shown in movie theaters the week before a town’s or region’s telephone exchange was to be converted to dial service. It’s extremely short—a little over a minute, like a PSA. The film concisely explains how to use a dial telephone, including how to dial, how to recognize dial tone, and how to recognize a busy signal.

The first dial telephone was manufactured in 1897. It was part of an automatic switching/dialing system invented by Almon Strowger and patented in 1889. (You can see this switching system in action on the film “The Step By Step Switch”). But the Bell System didn’t start to roll out Strowger’s invention until 1919, though they did showcase the technology in 1904. In 1922, New York City was introduced to dial. The first popularized dial telephone was a desk set candlestick model; the smaller, more familiar desk set came later.

It took decades for dial to sweep the entire Bell System. The last holdout was Catalina Island, off the coast of California, which finally converted to dial in 1978. In Camp Shohola, Pennsylvania, an internal automatic switch system still connects campers with the outside world, it’s the oldest functioning Strowger switch in the world.

Eventually, the rotary phone was overtaken with touch-tone phones, beginning in the 1970s. It’s interesting to see just how phones have changed, and how people had to become acclimated to their use after their deployment.

This video could be useful today, by being used to educate someone who’s only ever grown up with a mobile phone.



I grew up with a rotary phone in the ‘50s. The phone in my parent’s house was the now-famous “Lucy Phone”* , the one Lucy and Ricky had in their apartment in the tv show. Note the fabric-covered handset cord, seemingly designed to kink up.

In those days you never owned your phone; Ma Bell owned it and you leased it month by month, forever. Because Bell owned them they were intended to last, made of cast iron and built like a tank; they would stop a bullet, or in a pinch you could use one as a weapon. There were no active electronic parts inside, only coils, solenoids and clever transformers. The bell was an actual brass bell that went ding-a-ling when the phone rang.

Long distance calls in those days were a big deal, and quite expensive; a three minute call cost at least $20 in today dollars**. First you’d dial “0” to get your local operator, then ask for “long distance.” You’d be connected to a long distance operator, and you’d tell her*** the city and number you wanted. As often as not she’d tell you the circuits were busy, and she’d log your call. You’d hang up, then maybe an hour later the operator would call you back when the line was available.

Compare that to now: <speaking to your wristwatch> “Hey Siri, call Mom”; it’s really a different world.

*Western Electric model 302

**nights and weekends; business days were much higher. People would routinely wait until after 7pm to make long distance calls.

***virtually all telephone operators in those days were women.