100 years ago: Dial phones debuted at AT&T

When we first installed dial phones in 1919, they were the distinctive candlestick model.

AT&T installed the first dial telephones in the Bell System in Norfolk, Virginia on Nov. 8, 1919. That’s almost exactly 100 years ago. 

The change was a dramatic one for customers. They went from lifting the receiver and asking the operator for assistance to (gasp!) dialing the number themselves.

AT&T soon headed to Dallas, cutting over parts of the city to dial service in 1921.  The next year, New York City was introduced to the dial.

“The transition was done one exchange at a time, over many decades,” said Sheldon Hochheiser, AT&T historian.

And he does mean “many.” The last manual telephones in the system were not converted to dial until 1978. The last cutover in the AT&T-owned Bell System occurred then in the city of Avalon on Catalina Island in California.

“The transition required replacing the manual switchboards in an exchange with an electromechanical switch, replacing every telephone connected to that exchange with a new dial telephone -- and teaching every subscriber how to use the new dial phone,” Sheldon said.   

Check out this AT&T 1936 short subject video. It played before the main feature in movie theaters the week before a city or community switched to dial services. The short subject includes step-by-step instructions for using a dial phone – and how to recognize a busy signal.


Photo courtesy of AT&T Archives and History Center