November 18 is Pushbutton Phone Day

On November 18, 1963, the first pushbutton telephone went on sale to the public. It may seem quaint now in the age of mobile phones when many of us don’t even have landlines anymore. But this was cutting-edge technology in its day and remains an integral part of the history of telecommunications.

Industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss, working under contract to Bell Systems, devised the form of the Touch Tone™ Model 1500 telephone with the help of wooden models like this one.

pushbutton phone day

Tone dialing had been in use within Bell Systems’ switching network for several years. With the introduction of the Model 1500, tone dialing was made available to the general public. It featured the same footprint and handset as its predecessor but replaced the rotary dial with a 10-button keypad. (It had no # and * buttons; those keys were added in 1968 with the Model 2500.)

Bell set the stage for the rotary dial phone’s replacement when it showcased the new pushbutton phone’s speed and convenience at the 1962 World’s Fair in Seattle, Washington.

The Model 1500 was a natural evolution of the rotary dial telephone, which had represented a transformational piece of technology when it supplanted the old switchboard method of placing calls 44 years earlier. Prior to 1919, operators at centrally-located switchboards manually connected calls by inserting a pair of phone plugs into the appropriate jacks.

pushbutton phone day

A phone subscriber lifted the receiver off the hook and asked the operator to place a call. If the requested number was located on the operator’s switchboard, she would connect the call by plugging the ringing cord into the jack corresponding to the called customer’s line. If that line was on a different switchboard or in a different central office, the operator plugged into the trunk for the destination switchboard or office and asked the operator who answered (known as the “B” operator) to connect the call.

Operators were in the perfect position to listen in on conversations. Their assistance was required for anything other than calling telephones across a common party line. Back then, “party line” did not refer to one of the infamous 900 numbers that pegged credit card limits in the 1980s: compilation here. Party lines were shared by residents, especially in rural areas, where demand outstripped supply, and were notorious for neighbors monitoring each others’ conversations for gossip fodder.

pushbutton phone day

First dial phone–1919

Rotary dial service eliminated the need for human switchboard operators. An “off-hook condition” was immediately detected when a caller lifted the handset. The sound of the dial tone signaled that the automatic exchange was ready to receive dialed digits. Pulse tones defined by the length of each rotation of the dial were processed and a connection established to the destination telephone.

Pushbutton Phone Day

The touch tone system introduced in 1963 greatly improved upon the speed of the rotary dial’s pulse method of routing calls. It also entertained teenagers who enjoyed keying songs into their parents’ phones using its musical notes. This sometimes resulted in huge phone bills when one of those tunes happened to begin with a 1 or a number within a local area code that incurred long-distance charges.

The Pushbutton Telephone Songbook was published in 1971 to address the problem with instructions about how to safely play songs without running up long distance charges. The book sold more than 500,000 copies.PushButton Phone Day

Today’s cellular phones don’t need a dial tone because they parse and send whole phone numbers at once. Some include a simulated dial tone as a familiar aural cue to the owner that a “line” is available. Jitterbug phones, marketed directly to seniors, incorporate this comforting feature.

For the most part, these technologies are rapidly fading from memory. The phone is more ubiquitous than ever, having made the leap from our homes to our pockets. Many young people have never touched a rotary phone or heard a dial tone. So today we take time to remember the innovations that brought us to this moment in time.

Happy Pushbutton Phone Day!

Copyright 2016 Worldwide Weird Holidays

June 7 is VCR Day

vcr day

Ampex VRX-1000, 1956

Today is VCR Day. It commemorates the date in 1975 when Sony Corporation supposedly released the Betamax videocassette recorder (VCR) made specifically for home use. Some histories place the release in November 1975. In any case, it beat JVC’s Video Home System (VHS) to market by a year.

A VCR records the analog audio and video of a television broadcast or other signal source onto a removable, magnetic tape videocassette for subsequent playback. A programmable timer allows the user to schedule the recording to initiate, run and conclude while unattended. It can also play back prerecorded tapes.

The history of the VCR reaches back to the Ampex VRX-1000, released in 1956. Due to its substantial size and prohibitive cost of $50,000, it was affordable only to television networks and largest individual stations. Toshiba, Philips, and RCA joined the fray; Sony partnered with Ampex for a while to share technology.

In 1965, Sony introduced the reel-to-reel type CV-2000—CV stands for Consumer Video—as its first home-use model. (One ad shows the price as $695.) In spite of Sony’s marketing, it was mainly used for medical and industrial applications. Companies jockeyed for position for another decade.

There are many theories about why Sony won the battle to beat JVC to market in 1975 only to lose the war. One irrefutable fact is that each videocassette format was compatible only with its own VCR, ensuring that VHS and Betamax would never be able to play nice.

Sony may have gambled on their customers’ desire for quality over quantity, making higher definition tapes that could record up to one hour of programming. While we value that today, it was much less of a selling point in 1975, when simply being able to record a show and watch it was more of a priority than being able to parse every speck of dust on M*A*S*H in hallucinatory detail.

When JVC released its VCR a year later, it used VHS tapes that held two hours. By the time Sony caught up, it was too late. VHS had become the standard. In 1981, Betamax had only a 25% market share. By 1986, it had dropped to 7.5% and continued to decline. Although it began to sell VHS recorders in 1988, Sony continued to make Betamax recorders until 2002 and only stopped making Betamax tapes as of March 2016.

Of course, VHS didn’t stay on top forever. JVC stopped manufacturing standalone VCRs in 2008, long after DVD and Blu-Ray players had supplanted them. Streaming services hope to put them out of business, too.

Can a direct neural interface be far behind? As long as it doesn’t require the skull drilling we see in science fiction movies and the monthly fee is good, we say bring it on!

Copyright 2016 Worldwide Weird Holidays


May 8 is Have a Coke Day

have a coke day

John S. Pemberton

Today is Have a Coke Day. The first glass was sold for five cents at Jacob’s Pharmacy in Atlanta, GA, on May 8, 1886. The story of one of the most popular beverages on Earth began at the end of the American Civil War.

Confederate officer and Freemason John Stith Pemberton was slashed across the chest by a Union soldier’s saber and treated with morphine, to which he became addicted. When he returned after the war to his job as a druggist, he became obsessed with finding a substitute.

In 1885, he formulated French Coca Wine, using coca leaves and caffeine-rich kola nuts. When the mixture of cocaine and alcohol was ingested, it created a third substance called cocaethylene which heightened the euphoria experienced from the use of cocaine alone.

Pemberton didn’t invent the drink himself; he used the two-year-old formula of a Parisian chemist named Angelo Mariani, whose Vin Mariani was so beloved that he was awarded a gold medal by Pope Leo XIII.

Pemberton marketed his version as a nerve tonic ideal for “scientists, scholars, poets, divines, lawyers, physicians, and others devoted to extreme mental exertion” as well as “a most wonderful invigorator of  the sexual organs” and a cure for morphine addiction.

When early prohibition laws were passed in Atlanta, he removed the alcohol and developed Coca-Cola as a patent medicine to be mixed at pharmacy soda fountains, which were popular because of the belief that carbonated water was good for health.

Not long after Coca-Cola’s debut, Pemberton became ill. Ironically, he was nearly bankrupt due to the high cost of his ongoing morphine addiction; as a result, he began to sell the rights to his formula but tried to retain a share of ownership to pass on to his son, Charles. But his son wanted the money instead so they sold what was left to business partner Asa Candler.

John Pemberton died of stomach cancer on August 16, 1888, at age 57. Charles attempted to sell and popularize an alternative to his father’s formula but died six years later, an opium addict himself.

Copyright 2016 Worldwide Weird Holidays