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1963: Pushbutton telephone

December 11, 2006 | Comment?

The telephone is a classic example of when technology evolves, it often introduces pushbuttons to replace the older, more primitive interface.

Telephones had used rotary dials since 1891 when Almon Strowger patented the twin inventions of the automatic telephone exchange and the pulse-driven telephone in the home. The legend is that he did this to replace the operators whom he was convinced were re-routing calls to his competitors. For decades, the basic interface of the telephone was stable.

But the telephone was destined for an upgrade. Western Electric had been working on pushbutton prototypes since 1948. Here are some examples located at the history of Western Electric prototypes.

Western Electric 1948 telephone

1948. An early pushbutton prototype. It’s interesting to see they are using two rows of five buttons instead of the three-by-three+zero grid that came later. In the process of developing products, this feels like a natural decision. There are ten numbers to lay out. The only “clean” option is two by five. Ten doesn’t split any other way.

Notice that there is a Z but no Q.

Western Electric 1960 telephone

1960. Somewhere over the 12 years, they settled on the basic phone key layout that we still use today, less the * and # keys. Notice how the keypad is located within a ring. Either the industrial design team was still used to encasing the interface in a circle, or they were simply using existing models and replacing the dial with the keypad.

Still no Q, but now the Z is gone. Why would it go away?

Western Electric 1963 telephone model

A great example of the industrial design process. Here is a wood model of the classic first pushbutton telephone that most people over the age of 30 or so will remember. Compare it to the image below.

Western Electric 1964 telephone

1962. The final publicly introduced version. Notice how they replaced the basic design language from a circle to square to accentuate the change from dial to pushbutton.

Like many other significant device introductions, the pushbutton telephone was introduced at a World’s Fair. Bell Systems / Western Electric introduced the pushbutton telephone at the 1962 World’s Fair in Seattle. Hmm, maybe the Q and Z were introduced in the 1974 World’s Fair in Spokane.

Below is a movie from a promotional film about the World’s Fair. The pushbutton phone was such a significant part of this film that it was called “Century 21 Calling.” How many seconds can you save doing it the new way?

And finally, now that the pushbutton telephone was available, it was time to propose concepts for the videophone, such as this concept ad from 1963. I think this one’s a winner.

Western Electric 1963 videophone concept

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