The Dumb Phones We Had Before Smart Phones: Busy Signals and Kinky Cords

Culture | December 13, 2017

Left: Joan Collins on the set of film 'Alfie Darling,' October 1974. (Photo by Kent Gavin/Mirrorpix/Getty Images) Right: A Nazi answers a very large old phone in 'Top Secret!' (1984). Source: IMDB

Smart phones (or cell phones, or mobile phones) are a vast improvement over yesterday's telephones, with their clunky handsets, spiral cords, rotary dials, and busy signals. But that's history for you -- the old dumb phones were once the cutting edge of technology. It was once amazing to think that one could dial a number and talk to a person far away over a wire. Now that sounds like a 7th grade science project. Cell phones are such an everyday and indispensable part of our lives that we have to remind ourselves of the routines or hassles of phoning back in the day.

Your Fingers Did The Walking

To make sure we always had our most important phone numbers at hand, there was a clever invention called a "phone book." This was a tome, sometimes a few inches thick, listing the phone numbers of everyone in an area. The white pages of the phone book contained residential numbers, while the yellow pages were for businesses. Businesses could also buy advertisements in the yellow pages -- and if you lived in a city your white pages and yellow pages might be two separate books. The slogan for the Yellow Pages was "let your fingers do the walking" -- because you could call shops or establishments to ask about their hours or products, rather than go there in person. This was a real innovation and time-saver.

Write It Out

Even more convenient was the personal address/phone-book. We were able to record and keep all of our most important personal contacts in one place in case we wanted to contact someone by phone. Of course, we had to fill in our personal address/phone books ourselves -- this was pen-and-paper stuff. You couldn't use a "notes" app on your phone because your phone didn't have any apps.

Houses had a phone, or perhaps a few of them, located strategically. Probably the most common one was the wall-mounted kitchen phone. This was often the most-used phone in the house, as the kitchen is often the most used room in the house.

Old Phone, Who Dis?

Years ago, when the phone rang, the only way to know who was calling was to answer it. Caller ID didn’t become common until around the 1980s -- and even then, all we saw was a number. Before call-waiting, if someone was already on their phone, the caller got an obnoxious busy signal. If you called a person who was not home, you were at the mercy of the family member who answered the call, to deliver a message -- if it was a kid, your message was unlikely to be passed on. If nobody at all was home, the phone would ring endlessly -- until the invention of a wondrous thing called the answering machine. These often contained cassette tapes to record the message.

If the phone was accidentally left off the hook, a convenient message would play advising us to, “Please hang up your telephone”. If the phone was not hung up in a timely manner, a nerve-racking alarm would sound in hopes that it would get the attention of someone close by.  

Because telephones were hard wired to the house, a person would have to remain in generally the same area for the duration of the call. If you wanted privacy, chances are you stretched that coiled phone cord to its limits to get as far away for others as possible. After the cord was sufficiently stretched, it wasn’t uncommon for girls to get their long hair tangled up in it.

The phone company had numbers you could call to find out what the time and temperature. You could also call information to get a number, if you couldn't find it in the phone book or were just lazy.

Party Like It's 1959

For years, party lines were a common feature of the phone system. Copper wire, used for telephone lines, was in short supply, so people were sharing phone lines. This was especially popular in rural areas because houses were so spread out. Each subscriber had their own unique ring, so they would know who the call was for. And talk about no privacy… your nosey neighbors often listened in on your conversations. If someone was on the line and you needed the phone for an emergency, protocol was to pick up the phone to announce it, requiring the person to end their call.

After most homes ended up with private lines the busy signal was still an issue. Some savvy, if not impatient, callers were known to call the phone company operator to ask that a call be interrupted so you could get through if the line was busy for an extended period of time. It was like having a personal secretary.

When Dialing A Number Meant Actually Dialing The Number

If you grew up in the pre-cell-phone era, it's possible that the first phones you remember had rotary dials. The caller would put a finger into the hole next to the necessary number and move the dial partway around -- and do this seven times to dial a seven-digit local number. Today we still say we are "dialing" a number even though the old "dial" phones are long gone.

Pushing The Buttons

When touch-tone phones came out, it was like a dream come true. It made calling so much easier. If a mistake was made in dialing, it wasn’t as big of a deal. 

Look Ma, No Cord

Even more impressive was the cordless house phone. It was like a Christmas miracle when they came out! Never mind that they had long antennas that had to be extended in order to get reception. We were then free to move about the house and maybe even as far as the front porch!

Cell Phones Arrive, Not That You'd Recognize Them

Cell phones came to the market in phases, and the early ones were a far cry from the iPhone indeed. Some were hand units that connected, by a cord, to a large device (with a large battery) that had to be carried in a shoulder bag. Others were wired into a car, with the antenna mounted on the roof.

A telephone in a car? This was some Buck Rogers stuff. If only we had known what lay in store...

Tags: A Brief History Of... | Technology | Telephones

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Rebeka Knott


Rebeka grew up in the 1960’s & 1970’s and has always subscribed to the theory that a positive attitude will take you far! She is a wife and mother of 3 with a fun-loving spirit, believing that family and relationships are invaluable.