The Touch-Tone Phone turns 60

Garry Berman
4 min readNov 15, 2023

It’s something none of us really stop to think about (except me, apparently), but there was a time when those little touch-tone buttons on our phones were new and exciting, and represented a big step in the evolution of how we communicate with each other.

Consider this: Every telephone we use today, either landline or cell, uses touch-tone buttons to enact our commands for phone numbers, e-mail addresses, text messages, and other functions. We use similar-type buttons on our TV remotes, microwave ovens, and various conveniences to which we don’t give a thought on an average day.

Now imagine a cell phone with a tiny, old-style rotary dialer instead of touch tone buttons. Engineer Justine Haupt (pictured below), an astronomy instrumentation engineer from New York’s Brookhaven National Laboratory, created one as part of her resistance to the smartphone/texting culture. She used a 3D printer to create the cell phone case and added speed dialing buttons so she could call her husband and her mother at the click of a button. She has been inundated with requests from others who dislike smartphones and has developed a build-it-yourself version for sale.

Some may consider a smartphone with a rotary dial a step backward in the progress of consumer products, but it serves as an example of how a modern technological development that we take for granted now — like the touch-tone phone — was once a new, and even wondrous, innovation. The introduction of the touch- tone phone in the early 1960s made it possible for the phone itself to evolve into the hand-held, multi-use marvel it has become.

The idea of pushbuttons for telephones originated in the late 1880s with a device called the micro-telephone push-button, but, since this was only a decade after the invention of the phone itself, it was not an automatic dialing system. The invention of the rotary dial is credited to Almon Brown Strowger in 1891. The Bell System in the United States relied on manual switched service until 1919, when it progressed with dialed, automatic switching.

With the exception of this experimental prototype from 1941, the push button phone has been around only since the early 1960s.

Touch-tone phones were first introduced and demonstrated to the public in the Bell System Pavilion at the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair.

A Bell public relations film shot at the Fair featured a teenage boy and girl having a race to make a phone connection, rotary dial vs. touch tone phone. Also on display at the Bell Pavilion were early incarnations of the call-forwarding, call-waiting, pagers, and conference call features that later became commonplace.

While developing the touch-tone system, Bell engineers ran into a quandary. The push buttons triggered audio frequency signals, or musical tones that register phone number digits in the central office receiving apparatus. But human voices also produce patterns of speech energy often in the same frequency range. This necessitated a way to prevent the automatic equipment from mistaking human voices or random noises as the push button tones. The engineers solved the problem by combining a high and low frequency tone for each button (or row of buttons), much like how a car horn is really comprised of two separate horns sounding in unison. The touch tones are used in combinations that rarely occur in human speech, and are also more “pure” without the random fluctuations of tone and pitch in speech.

On November 18, 1963, as the print ad below made the announcement, touch-tone phones were first made available to the public — specifically, the towns of Carnegie and Greensburg, Pennsylvania, where the new method for dialing a phone number came with an additional charge.

And there would be no turning back.

The ad introducing the new phone innovation to the public.

Until next time…

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Garry Berman

Pop Culture historian, Freelance Writer, Author, specializing in American comedy history in films, radio, and TV. Beatles and jazz enthusiast, animal lover.