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Telephones: Push-buttons in, exchange names out

If the telephone wasn't born in Canada, it was certainly conceived here. In 1874, in Brantford, Ont., inventor Alexander Graham Bell first described the scientific principle that would convey the human voice over wires. By the Second World War, Canadians led the world in talking by telephone. Later they reached out to each other and around the globe with long distance calling, transatlantic connections and predictions for the future.

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Beep! Boop! Beep! The sound of the Touch-Tone telephone is music to the ears of Jack Mitchell of Bell Telephone. In the near future, Bell customers will be able to "dial" their telephones without using a dial at all. Instead, a new push-button system will send out tones that activate the switching equipment. And that's not all that's new at Bell, as Mitchell explains on CBC Radio's Assignment.

Telephone subscribers in urban areas will soon have new phone numbers to learn, too. Customers' familiar two-letter, five-digit numbers using exchange names will be replaced by a seven-digit number. For example, Klondike 5-3598 becomes 555-3598. With more telephones each year, the exchange system is running out of numbers. Many number combinations aren't possible when they're based on words. But, Mitchell assures listeners, seven-number dialing is no harder than two-letter, five-digit calling. 
• Rotary-dial phones use electronic pulses to direct telephone switching equipment to connect callers automatically. Dialing "1" sends out a single pulse, "2" sends two pulses, and so on.
• Touch-Tone telephones, a trademark of Bell in the United States, use musical tones -- a different one for each number -- to control the switching equipment. Upon the introduction of tone technology, dialing time for each call was reduced to an average of five seconds, compared with 14 for rotary phones.

• Tone technology was developed in the 1950s and introduced in Canada in 1964 but wasn't in widespread use until well into the '70s.
• Switching equipment in some smaller communities wasn't adapted for tone dialing until the 1980s. Telephone manufacturers addressed the problem by making phones that could send either pulses or tones.

• Exchange names were words representing the first two digits in a telephone number. Callers would dial the first two letters of the exchange name using the alphabet on the dial, then follow with the remaining five numbers.
• For example, a person's phone number might be KLondike 5-3598. Callers would dial 55 (for "K" and "L"), then 5-3598.
• Exchange names were often drawn from the street name or neighbourhood where telephone switching equipment was located.

• Besides Canada, the United States, Australia, and many European countries used exchange names.
• A 1961 Globe and Mail news story reported that the switch from exchange names to all-number dialing in Toronto increased the number of exchanges (the first three digits) from 540 to 800.
• Another reason all-number dialing was introduced was to end the confusion between the letter I and the number 1 and the letter O and the number 0.
Medium: Radio
Program: Assignment
Broadcast Date: Feb. 17, 1961
Guest(s): Jack Mitchell
Reporter: Rick Benson
Duration: 6:56

Last updated: December 18, 2012

Page consulted on February 17, 2015

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