This Week In Proviso Township History: When Rotary Dial Phones Came To Town

A woman shows how to use a rotary dial in a video produced by AT&T’s Bell system. Below left, a rotary dial phone with a moving finger stop.  | AT&T 

Wednesday, December 14, 2022 || By Michael Romain || @maywoodnews 

On Dec. 14, 1950, the Chicago Tribune reported that construction of a “two story and basement structure” had started in Bellwood and was expected to finish within two years.

Once completed, the new $2.9 million building, the Bellwood dial exchange, would enable “more than 23,000 telephones in Bellwood, Berkeley, Broadview, Hillside, Maywood, Melrose Park, North Lake [sic], Stone Park, and Westchester” to finally get dial telephone service.

For those too young to remember, before push-button telephones and later cell phones, people mainly communicated by rotary dial telephones. The website explains what they were:

“On the rotary dial, the digits are arranged in a circular layout so that a finger wheel may be rotated with one finger from the position of each digit to a fixed stop position, implemented by the finger stop, which is a mechanical barrier to prevent further rotation.”

Patented in 1892, the rotary dial phone was a major innovation and a dramatic change for customers, AT&T, which first installed dial phones in 1919, explains on its website.

People “went from lifting the receiver and asking the operator for assistance to (gasp!) dialing the number themselves.”

AT&T historian Sheldon Hochheiser adds that the change to dial phones “required replacing the manual switchboards in an exchange with an electromechanical switch, replacing every telephone connected to that exchange with a new dial telephone — and teaching every subscriber how to use the new dial phone.”

The change also required the installation of equipment like new cables and the erection of buildings like the dial exchange in Bellwood that housed “dial apparatus and other equipment,” along with “assembly and training rooms on the first floor [and] and a maintenance room and office space for the wire chief,” the Tribune reported in 1950.

Because there was so much that went into the transition from operator-assisted phones to dial phones, the change took decades to be implemented across the United States. Even though the first dial phones were installed in 1919, AT&T was still converting phones to dial through 1978 (and, as you can see above, rotary dials didn’t reach a good portion of the west suburbs until the early 1950s).

The lesson?

Change, especially technological change, doesn’t just happen out of thin air — it takes people and processes to make it happen.

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