Saturday, October 3, 2009

Dial Phones in Brookline: A New England First

Photo: An early dial telephoneBefore smart phones, before cell phones, before keypads and answering machines and area codes, before much of what think of when we think of telephones today, Brookline played a part in the introduction of a major innovation in telephone technology.

At midnight on the night of July 14, 1923, some 1,800 customers of the Aspinwall exchange office on Marion Street become the first in New England to be able to make calls themselves without having to speak first to an operator.

The customers had been supplied with new dial telephones (like the one at left). Phone company representatives visited people's homes to show them how to use the new devices, and instructions were distributed in flyers and through the newspapers.

The method is very simple [according to instructions published in the local paper]. You remove the receiver from the hook and listen for a steady humming sound known as the dial-tone, which is the equivalent of the operator's "Number, please?" After hearing this dial-tone, which comes on the line almost as soon as you place the receiver to your ear, you place your finger in the hole through which the first letter of the central office designation appears and turn the dial around to the finger stop. Then remove the finger and let the dial return to rest.

The newsreel below shows how the dialing method was explained to customers in another city several years later.

Direct dialing was made possible by new automated switching technology installed in the Marion Street exchange office. Prior to the change, callers would tell an operator the number they wanted to call, and the operator, plugging jacks into switchboards, would manually make the connection for them.

Photo: The old Marion Street telephone exchange officePhotos: the entrance arch from the exchange office as it appears today
Automated switching equipment was available as early as 1896, but the dominant Bell System resisted the change. Bell's first dial phones were installed in Norfolk, Virginia in 1919, four years before Brookline. The new equipment spread slowly to other parts of the country. The last manual phones in the U.S. were not converted to dial until 1978.

Further Reading