(Note: The title is more than just gibberish.)
It seems silly now, but there were push-button telephones before rotary dials were invented. Maybe not; people have been pushing buttons and pulling levers for centuries, but if you ever used a rotary phone, looking back on it now, it seems like such a weird action to take to interface with a machine.
But they first tried buttons on the very earliest versions of telephones, in 1887, before phone numbers existed. The only person to reach would have been an operator to connect you to one of the handful of people with a phone line, but still. Almon Strowger, a civil war veteran and undertaker living in upstate New York, developed the rotary dialer as protection against a local telephone operator, who was supposedly funneling all funeral business to her husband and away from Strowger. Using a round collar box and some straight pins, he created the first direct-dialing system in 1891.
Operators continued to exist in various forms until the 1950s, when the last of them were phased out, and it was a decade of all rotary dialing, until November 18, 1963, when push-button dialing was officially offered as a pilot project to people in test markets outside Pittsburgh. Adoption was slow; it wasn’t until the 1980s that most people had push-button phones, and rotary phones still exist today, in an era when land lines as a whole are being phased out. (I’m guessing… mostly hipsters.)
The letters-over-the-numbers thing came along for two reasons: first, telephone numbers used to start with two letters, as a way of designating what neighborhood you were in, and secondly, as a way for advertisers to make their numbers more memorable. If you needed people to memorize a random seven- (or ten-)digit number, making a word out of it made it easier.
(Start at 2:04 to get a good example of how much we needed the letters over the numbers.)
Now, the alphabet doesn’t divide cleanly into sets of three, so the two least used letters, Q and Z, were often dropped so everything would fit on the buttons. These days, that doesn’t matter as much, what with design advancements, and so those letters have returned to the 7 and the 9 keys, respectively.
#OTD runs weekdays.