How to use an old dial telephone
Old dial phones in the UK could dial a number directly provided that the phones were on the new STD system. This page explains in detail with illustrations how to dial a number with an old dial phone and how to receive the call. It includes finding the number, dialling and where necessary asking the operator to make the call. Also discussed are why the Q is missing on these dials and why there is no distinction between the letter O and the number 0. Features are the recollections from people who used these phones as a norm.
By the webmaster: her childhood recollections with further research and contributions from others who lived at the time
Structure of mid-20th century phone
All modern telephones in 1940s and 1950s Britain had a handset which rested on a cradle as shown below. The handset contained a mouthpiece and an earpiece, and there was a dial on the base.
Several steps were needed in order to use these phones. They are described here in some detail although they were straightforward and second nature for us at the time.
How to find a telephone number
First, the caller needed to know the phone number of the person to be called. This was just known as the number, even though it started with a three-letter area code as described on the page on subscriber trunk dialling.
Every household and every public phone box was provided free with several massive, heavy and unwieldy books of telephone directories for the area. These listed telephone numbers in alphabetical order by surname of the subscriber.
Most people kept their own record of numbers that they used frequently.
How to make a phone call: the dialling process
To start making a call, the caller lifted the handset from its cradle and listened to hear the dial tone - also known as the dialling tone. If there was no tone, the phone either wasn't working - a not uncommon situation in and after the Second World War - or was one of the very early phones.
On hearing the dial tone, the caller would dial the number of the person to receive the call. The dial had ten finger holes in it showing numbers and letters, as shown in the picture below. The numbers were 1-9 and O and the letters were A-Y, normally in threes: ABC, then DEF etc. To dial someone, the caller put a finger into the dial hole that showed the letter to be dialled - it didn't matter whether it was shown first, second or third - and dragged the dial round to the 'stop'.
On removal of the finger, the dial returned itself to its original position, ready for the next letter to be dialled - again it didn't matter where in the three letters it was. As it returned, it made a clicking sound: one click for the first hole, two for the second, etc.
After dialling the last of the three letters of the area code, the process was repeated with the numbers part. The number of clicks indicated the number required to the exchange.
Where the phone to be connected with was not yet part of subscriber trunk dialling - that is it was still an all numbers code with no letter area code - the number couldn't be dialled directly outside the local area and the connection had to be made via the operator. Such calls were called 'long distance' or 'trunk calls'.
There were, though, other reasons for needing to talk to an operator. It was relatively common in the 1940s and 50s because something often went wrong with the call that he or she needed to put right by the operator. To call the operator you simply dialled O.
Booking a trunk call
As a child in the 1940s I remember my parents talking about having to arrange a trunk call to a distant town. Apparently you couldn't rely on being able to do it on the spur of the moment.
Going through the operator was not necessarily quick because long distance calls had to go through several operators along the line, each one making connections by plugging in cables - see the page on manual telephone exchanges. Callers just had to hold on and wait. Then it would happen and the operator would say, "You're through, caller". If you were lucky, she would then disconnect herself, but unfortunately operators were often bored or just inquisitive. So they listened into calls and always had to assume that they were not private.
Trials of going through the operator
On one occasion I had to phone my boyfriend's place of work from a public phone box, going through the operator, and when she put me through my conversation was almost drowned by the music of "I Can’t Get No Satisfaction" being played down the phone by the operator. I’m sure she thought it was very funny. I did not.
Amanda - full name supplied
The Q, O and 0 on old telephone dials
Most old telephone dials seem to have Q, O and 0 at the far end of the dial, i. e. the O and Q are not in alphabetical order and the zero is not in numerical order.
Perhaps this may be because the three look so similar that it avoided misdialling. In other words, if someone meant to dial O and dialled 0 by mistake, it would not matter because the same code would be sent to the exchange. It is interesting to speculate whether the order of the letters on the old dials could be the origin of zero being frequently pronounced as 'owe' or whether the placement merely accommodated an existing practice.
Interestingly, an image search on old telephone dials shows that the Q was missing entirely on some dials.
Receiving a phone call
The phone rang when a caller was trying to get through. To receive the call - or 'answer the phone' as it was called - you just lifted the handset from its cradle. The correct procedure was to let callers know that they had the right number. Our telephone number was Stonegrove 9804 - yes it was called a number even though it contained the area code in letters. So our family would simply say into the handset "Stonegrove 9804" and wait for the caller to respond. At that time, it was considered socially incorrect just to say, "Hello", and it would never have occurred to anyone outside a business situation to say their name instead.
Returning the handset to its cradle cut off the call and was known as 'putting the phone down'.
Embarrassing experiences of 'putting down the phone'
As phones in homes were comparatively unusual while I was growing up, I was in employment before I needed to answer a phone call. The bell rang, so, being alone, I picked up the handpiece and gave the name of my employer, as I had heard others do. The caller asked for a person I would need to go to find. Naturally, I could not take the handpiece with me. So I put it back on its cradle. This cut off a number of calls this way. Eventually it was explained to me that I should leave the handpiece on the desk, off its cradle, to keep the connection alive.