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Telephones in the 1950s

Updated April 17, 2017

You've seen them in old movies and maybe even used one as a child. Nothing excites the nostalgia for mid-century America more than the classic 1950s telephone. The decade marked significant changes in the look, function and technology of the telephone. While many take most of the advances for granted in an age of 4G cell phones and mobile computing, the telephone of the 1950s changed the way that people communicated.

Design

In earlier times, phones came only in black. However, personal telephones began to appear in blue, yellow, pink and red. Antique collectors should note many of these colours often appear very dated today (e.g., teal) and look great for interior decorators who want to create a "retro" atmosphere in a private or commercial space. The year 1952 saw the introduction of shoulder-rests that allowed callers to speak for longer periods without discomfort.

Rotary Dial

Phones with keypads did not become widespread until the late 1960s. Telephones of the 1950s used a rotary dial for making calls. The caller would need to insert a finger into a notch on the dial that matched the number or letter of the phone number and drag it in a clockwise direction. However, some phones such as the Western Electric 660 used punch cards, similar to those used in computers of the period, that allowed for automatically rotary dialling. The user would punch a button on the key set, and the phone would speed-dial the number.

Multiple Extensions

In smaller offices or hotels with frequent incoming calls, the 1950s saw the advent of phones that could switch between lines through a key set. For instance, someone would call a receptionist. She would punch in her boss on another line to announce the caller. If the boss decided to take the call, the receptionist then would patch them together through a key set on the phone like an operator. Other phones had multiple lines on the receiving end so that a busy worker could switch extensions depending upon the urgency of the call.

Technological Advances

The 1950s saw the earliest instances of automatic long-distance dialling. The first system was installed in Roberts, Idaho, in 1951. Birmingham became the second community to enjoy automated long-distance two years later. The first transatlantic cable was established between Newfoundland and Scotland in 1955. In 1958, decades before the Internet or even the humble fax, Bell Systems announced services for high-speed transmission of data over telephone lines.

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About the Author

Noel Lawrence has written on cultural affairs and cinema for Release Print and OtherZine since 2000. He holds a graduate degree in Russian literature from Stanford University and currently lives in Los Angeles.