Why Do We “Dial” Phone Numbers

Old Style Telephone Dial

Old Style Telephone Dial

We are so used to it most of us don’t even think about it anymore — we automatically associate the word “dial” with the act of pressing sequences of numbers on our phones with the intent to place a call. But what is the meaning of this word and where does it come from?

Believe it or not, we inherited the word from the early stages of telephony, when telephone company subscribers had to “dial” a sequence of numbers on a rotary phone — a device which vanished so long ago, most teens nowadays don’t even recognize.

The steps required to place a call using a rotary phone where as follow:

  1. Insert finger into the finger hole of the rotary dial corresponding to the first number you wish to call.
  2. Rotate the phone dial clockwise until your finger reaches the finger stop.
  3. Pull your finger out of the hole and wait for dial to return to resting position.
  4. Insert finger into finger hole corresponding to next number you wish to call and go back to step 2.

The antiquated procedure required interacting with a round dial, thus people of that era came up with a new verb “to dial,” to describe the process — it just seemed appropriate.

Today we no longer have to rotate a dial to place calls but we still use the word to describe the pressing of number sequences on the touchscreen of our smartphones or the buttons of our digital handsets with the purpose of initiating a phone call.  Next time you are dialing your friend, your colleague or your favorite chatline number remember how long telephony has come since the days of pulse dialing.