Why the Touch-Tone phone era was rough for rotary phones

A CBC reporter finds out what happens to rotary phones in the Touch-Tone phone era.

Touch-Tone technology sent old phones abroad or to a chop shop

An ode to rotary phones

29 years ago
Duration 1:36
Bill Cameron asks what happens to all the old rotary phones now that Touch-Tones are the standard.

The sheer volume of old telephones was off the hook.

When Touch-Tone technology became widespread in the 1980s, the writing was on the wall for the rotary phone.

Phones were opened up to get at the valuable metals inside. (CBC Archives)

'Phone abattoir'

"Now, if you want to see a herd of them, you have to go to a phone abattoir like Telcom Equipment Systems," said Bill Cameron in a ruminative CBC report on Sept. 28, 1993.

Alongside staff cleaning Touch-Tone phones with toothbrushes to send out for re-use, others were charged with preparing a select few rotary phones for export to Russia and Saudi Arabia.

But the majority of the work involved cannibalizing old phones for their precious metals.

Warehouse owner Brian Presley said he saw -- and heard -- all those phones in his dreams. (CBC Archives)

"Most are cracked open and laid on their backsides, their guts exposed to be cleaned like plastic chickens for their gold, copper, aluminum, cobalt and bronze," said Cameron.

Here the rotary phones were treated casually, without care.

"The instruments of a million conversations, arguments, flirtations, seductions, lies, arrangements, deals, pitches, great meals and memories — junked." 

The stuff of nightmares

Telcom owner Brian Presley wasn't as nostalgic about the phones under his watch. They plagued his dreams.

"My worst dream at night: I come into the warehouse and they all ring at one time," he said. "And I can't answer them."


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