Telephone Technology: Push Buttons and Party Lines

In the Spring of 1963, President John F. Kennedy sat down at his desk in the oval office. With cameras clicking, he picked up the handset of a telephone and pressed the numbers “1964”. The connection activated a countdown clock for the New York World’s Fair, set to open the following year. The photo opportunity was noteworthy, however, because Kennedy’s call showcased an amazing new technology – the push-button dial telephone

Later that year, on November 18, 1963, Bell Telephone officially rolled out push-button telephones to the public. A push-button interface meant customers no longer had to wind a rotary dial and wait for it to spin back when dialing each number. This technological achievement was the latest in a long line of telephone innovation that dated back to when Alexander Graham Bell received the first patent for a telephone in 1876.

Back then, Alexander Graham Bell and his colleague Thomas Watson shocked the world when they carried on a 30-minute telephone conversation from two miles apart. Their newly invented telephones converted sound into electric pulses that traveled along a wire connecting the phones.

The popularity of the telephone quickly grew and soon everybody wanted one. However, it wasn’t feasible to stretch a wire between every set of telephones, so inventors developed a telephone exchange. Each telephone connected to the exchange by wire. To place a call, a caller would pick up the phone and turn a crank. This illuminated a light at the switchboard at the central station and an operator would plug a wire into your jack and ask who you needed to reach. She then connected a wire to the appropriate customer and sent an electrical current down the line to alert them with a bell. 

Operators became a familiar voice to every telephone user. They generally worked with a relatively small group of customers and often knew each one. In 1903, one mother discovered a new use for her telephone when she opened the receiver and asked the operator to ring her at the neighbor’s house when her sleeping baby woke up! On any given day, an operator might soothe a frightened child, or even save a life. Rose Coppinger was an operator in Webber Falls, Oklahoma in 1914. When a fire raged through town, she refused to leave her post at the telephone exchange and warned neighbors of the approaching flames.

By 1918, ten million telephones were in use in the US. Rotary dials were the norm and party lines were common. A party line was a telephone line shared by more than one user and came at a reduced cost. It was not uncommon to pick up a telephone receiver and hear a conversation already occurring. The town’s news often traveled this way despite party line etiquette which dictated never listening in on another’s conversation. A party line presented challenges during emergencies, though, and tragedies occurred if users failed to yield the telephone during a crisis. The last operating party line in Woodbury, Connecticut shut down in 1991.

Technology has come a long way since party lines and push-button phones. Today, an estimated 5.3 billion people worldwide communicate daily using mobile devices. To learn more about the changing technology in telephone communication, search our archives today on Newspapers.com!

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