Thinking About… Telephone Dialing

There are things we take for granted and never think about. Amongst them: The traditional way of laying out the buttons on a telephone. That 3 x 4 grid had to come from somewhere, though.

The man who designed it recently passed away at the age of 94. This whole New York Times article is fascinating, but here’s just a sampling:

In 2013, the 50th anniversary of the introduction of the touch-tone phone, the answers to those questions remain palpable at the press of a button. The rectangular design of the keypad, the shape of its buttons and the position of the numbers — with “1-2-3” on the top row instead of the bottom, as on a calculator — all sprang from empirical research conducted or overseen by Mr. Karlin.

The legacy of that research now extends far beyond the telephone: the keypad design Mr. Karlin shepherded into being has become the international standard on objects as diverse as A.T.M.’s, gas pumps, door locks, vending machines and medical equipment.Mr. Karlin, associated from 1945 until his retirement in 1977 with Bell Labs, headquartered in Murray Hill, N.J., was widely considered the father of human-factors engineering in American industry.

OK, one more awesome story:

An early experiment involved the telephone cord. In the postwar years, the copper used inside the cords remained scarce. Telephone company executives wondered whether the standard cord, then about three feet long, might be shortened. Mr. Karlin’s staff stole into colleagues’ offices every three days and covertly shortened their phone cords, an inch at time. No one noticed, they found, until the cords had lost an entire foot.

From then on, phones came with shorter cords.


 
 
 

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