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!

Share using:

35 thoughts on “Telephone Technology: Push Buttons and Party Lines

    • Your rotary phone needs to go because it forces the phone company to support two switching systems, the pulse system (dial) and the digital touch tone system. (digital) I have not had a land line for years, but the last time I looked, the phone company was still charging extra for touch tone, a fee of about two dollars a month to let the companies pay for the new switching system, That has long been accomplished and is pure profit. It is time to reverse that and charge for those who require accmodation to the old system.

    • Glad to see someone still living the old life. Nothing like those old rotary phones. I don’t have one now, and don’t have a landline at all, but those were certainly good days!!

  1. I remember party lines very well. And the near tragic outcome when a person would not get off when the line was needed for an emergency.

    • I remember something really weird when using a White Pages to look up phone numbers.
      It said it was illegal to declare a false emergency to take over a party line. This was around 1996-1997. And for some reason it struck my friends and myself as one of the funniest things ever!

        • The article said the last party line in that CITY shut down in 1991. We removed the last party line in Spokane, Wa in 1998 or 99. I’m sure others existed beyond that elsewhere.

      • Having been raised on a party line, you find a balance or you find a new way of communicating. If your home is on fire, but he teenager on the phone won’t give up their call so you can use the phone to call the fire dept, they are violating the law. TO PRETEND you have an emergency, is also a violation of the law.

    • Since I had private lines in New Jersey and later in Fort Lauderdale FL when I moved to a rural area in Florida It never occurred to me to ask about a party line for our week end house. I later moved there full time . We had a community group that met at my house and I asked the Telco to attend the meeting. and found out almost all the neighbors had party lines as they kept complaining about not being able to use their phone
      The neighbors said that because of being over 25 miles from the central office they could not get a private line. I was quiet because by then I had a residential private line and a business private line.

  2. From 1877 through 1984, the Bell System provided telecommunications technology throughout the United States, Canada, Asia and Europe.

    During this period the Bell System consisted of tens of thousands employees working with Bell Labs, the Western Electric Company, and up to twenty-five subsidiary telephone exchanges operating across the United States and Canada under the AT&T, American Telephone and Telegraph banner.

    Western Electric Company aka WECo was a manufacturing, distributing and installation subsidy of the Bell System. As a former WECo installer, I witnessed and participated in the evolution and transition of telecom equipment from the slower, old reliable, “noisy” electro-mechanical age into the silent, swift and reliable ESS, Electronic Switching System era.

    As depicted in the photo, the introduction of ESS technology is what allows President Kennedy to place the first “Touch Tone” telephone call.

    Since the 1984 break-up of the Bell System the world’s telecom requirements have evolved through global high-speed internet technologies.

    • My dad worked at Western Electric for 30-some years. It was a good company to work for. He ended up the head of security in Cicero.

  3. My rotary dial phone is still working. Bell tried to charge me extra to keep it, but others with rotaries objected, so I still have it at no additional cost.

  4. Yes, my Father in Fraser Valley, BC had to scream at MRS. BERG to get off the party line when a foolish employee was sent to cut the overhanging branches on the power lines. It was quite windy that day, and my Father who had been a logger in the Fraser Valley Forests for several decades, tried to explain to the young man with the chain saw, that the branch which he was going to cut, would twist back and knock him into the 40,000 volt line. Young man replied, “What would you know, old man?” My Father left him to his work, and in a half an hour, there was a 2 inch to 4 inch hole burnt thru the young man’s mid -section. It sickened my Father that the young man had given up his life in such a way. My brother, Dan, was going to try to lift him off, but my Father told Dan leave him…..the young man’s whole body is arcing with the current. Nevertheless, Mrs BERG would not get off the party line …….she bitched and complained until the police came to her door. As Dan stood guard over the body, my Father repeated told Mrs Berg on the party line, it was an emergency. “Yeah, yeah, a cow is dying”, she told her friend, “Ha! Ha! let it die, always a fuss about somebody’s problem!” Nevertheless, after a half hour of continuous appeals, the ambulance was finally called. The fire department, the police vehicles and the hydro trucks were dispatched to deal with the situation. Mrs. BERG ran down the road to see what was happening at the neighbours……the commotion, the lack of electricity, and then, Dan says to her in front of the small crowd gathering, “Doesn’t look like a cow dying now, hey, Mrs BERG”. Within 2 months, the telephone system was changed from party line to single line for my Father and most of the neighbourhood. Mrs. BERG was charged with interference with an emergency. NO MORE!! Mennonite gossip for Mrs. BERG on a party line.

  5. I still have a rotary phone that sits on a table, I think they called it a candle stick phone, and it still works but I don’t use it. I still have the information that came with the phone telling how to use it. I will never forget the old phones and telephone operators, and the party lines, and telling the operator what number you wanted to call.

  6. Considering that there is no such thing as a rotary push button phone and that the article given as a reference for that term does not use it, This is a somewhat sad, sad tome. But, accuracy in journalism is outmoded, isn’t it.

  7. I mentioned to my youngest granddaughter that we had party lines when I was her age and her eyes lit up and she said that sounds neat how did it work. After explaining it to her it didn’t sound appealing at all. Still laugh when I think about how excited she was to find out how they worked.

  8. And now you can’t get anyone on the phone plus it’s 24/7 robo scam calls. The FCC/FTC does nothing about it either. The dimwits of the Left keep saying Trump will set us back 50 years. Please Mr. President hurry up and do so. BTW get rid of 5G and all Cell phones.

  9. I lived in central Wisconsin until 1965 we still had the operator that you told them the number you wanted to call. Ours was 34R2.
    We moved to southern Wisconsin the fall of 1965 and had rotary dial phones. I am 66 years old.

  10. Actually the Bell System at Bell Labs trademarked and Registered the “Touchtone” name. Competitors in the manufacturing to the 1500 or 2500 series sets always referred to Push Touch or Push Button and never claimed Touchtone to describe their product. Touchtone is actually another name for DTMF which is Dual Tone Multi Frequency

  11. I remember when direct dialing arrived in North Jersey during the 1950’s my parents had a 4 party line for years, we moved to a new house in 1959 I was working by then and convinced them to switch to a private line and I would pay the bill. I did so because when I went to call someone the neighbor was always on the phone. I got married in 1966 and moved and had a touch-tone phone line installed in my house. I lived a short distance from Bell Labs and they would experiment with new services close to the labs.

  12. As a kid, I remember, we shared a telephone line with four other households. It was fun to “listen in” until our folks caught us, then WOW did we catch it!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *