It was a bustling day at the Free Press when our director, Jim Kramer, hung up his cell phone and sighed. I glanced over at Jim. He turned to me with his cell phone still in hand and a quizzical look in his eye.
“Anna,” he said, “do you know where the phrase ‘dial the number’ comes from”?
Now, I have heard this phrase a couple of times before. But I’ve never really thought about its meaning or history.
Upon hearing that I was unfamiliar with the phrase, Jim took the opportunity to impart some wisdom. He told me that in the past, before most people owned mobile phones, the general population had corded home phones. These are also called rotary phones because they rely on something called a “rotary dial.” This is a part of a telephone that uses signaling technology known as “pulse dialing.” People had to dial a phone number—one number at a time—in order to place a phone call.
On a rotary dial, numbers zero-10 are arranged in a circular layout. Callers have to use their fingers to rotate a finger wheel from the position of each number to a fixed stop position. This stops the finger wheel from rotating too far. Sometimes, this method is called “decadic dialing,” due to the number of digits represented on the telephone.
Nowadays, rotary phones are rarely seen or used. This is why many young people don’t know the phrase. Now that you know the phrase, you can surprise and impress your elders by asking them to “dial the number”!