Dialing R for rotary reliability


Technology: In a speed-dialing, push-button age, millions of people stubbornly stand by the old-fashioned way of making a phone call.

June 10, 2000|By Mark Price | Mark Price,CHARLOTTE OBSERVER

CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Julie Farthing suspects that the telephone in her kitchen was installed sometime between the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the Truman administration.

It's black, it's rotary and it's mounted to the wall, pay-phone style. The cord is so short, you can't take more than a step away from the wall without the phone snatching the receiver out of your hand.

"We did have a newer phone with a longer cord there for about three weeks, when my daughters were complaining about having to sit in one spot for too long," says Farthing, 37. "Well, they were roaming around in the kitchen with this longer cord, and it melted on the wood stove. We went back to the rotary and the 24-inch cord."

The phone is a fixture in a Watauga County, N.C., farmhouse where clothes are still dried on a line, 45s are played on a record player, and TV channels (all three of them) don't get changed unless you get up, walk across the room, turn the dial and then adjust the antenna.

But rotary phones aren't limited to the boonies. Like Cher and cockroaches, they were built to last. So a subculture of stubborn people continues to use them, regardless of the fact that they don't work with automated touch-tone systems.

You can't press 1 for more options. You can't press 0 for an operator. "And you can't even find the pound [#] key," says Farthing. "It's not there."

So why not give up and buy a cordless phone? After all, rotary phones are behind glass at BellSouth's phone museum here.

"Why do I need a faster phone?" asks Jack Ritterskamp, 56. "If I don't have time to dial a phone number, then I'd say that my life is too fast-paced. I don't get what we need all these time-saving devices for anyway. If I build a new house, do I need to leave out the kitchen and install a vending station with a microwave?"

Sally Kovach, 54, is more blunt. "I've thrown away a lot of pieces of junk called portable telephones in the past 10 years, at least six of them," she says. "But you can't kill a rotary phone. You can take one of these things and throw it down 20 flights of stairs, and it works. You take a touch-tone phone and drop it on the floor, and it's broken."

Yet there's no denying that the rotary phone is rapidly headed the way of the milkman. In a span of 20 years, it has become both an antique and a reference point for diverging generations: those raised with a rotary phone, and those who know only how to push buttons.

Rotary user Roger Duval, 76, says he had no idea how much things had changed until the day a twenty-something van driver asked to use his phone.

"He'd come from California and was delivering to the house next door, so I let him in," recalls Duval. "When I pointed the phone out, he looked at it a second, then said: `How do you use it?' I told him it was simple: Look at the numbers and dial. He finally handed me the number and asked me to dial it for him."

Even more comical is the sight of a child confronting the phones for the first time. Some punch the holes. Others assume you stick your finger in at zero and rotate the dial only as far as the number you want, then jerk it out quickly. Still others stand and look like they saw a snake.

"I've got a granddaughter [age 7] who thinks it's a big treat to use it," says Robert Keeter, 75, who has two rotaries. "She'll come into the house, and the first thing she'll do is run to the dining area, pick it up and call somebody. ... I have no earthly idea why."

Pop-culture experts say at least part of the appeal is the idea that using a rotary makes talking on the phone feel different. The sound quality is often better, the ringer is loud as the dickens, and the receivers are big and heavy, like a bat.

"It actually makes the call seem more important when the phone is heavier and it takes longer to dial the numbers," says Jack Nachbar, a professor in the department of popular culture at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. "These things are almost symbolic to us. I just got one for my study, and it brings me back to that feel of the past."

For that reason alone, rotaries might make a comeback, he says. Collectors are willing to pay as much as $75 for a wall unit dating to the 1950s. The Web site - www.oldphones.com - notes that other styles fetch even higher prices, as much as $475 for models from the 1920s.

The oldest rotary phones date to 1919, when they were first introduced to American consumers. But not until the mid-1950s did they become common.

BellSouth has no idea how many people in the Charlotte area are using such phones, because the company doesn't lease phones anymore. However, a January Boston Globe report noted that AT&T has 3 million customers who continue to pay, many of them elderly.

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