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Why Don’t Cell Phones Have Dial Tones?

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Phones have come a long way since the old landline days. Our smartphones are light, fast, and have more computing power than NASA used to put a man on the moon.*  Some advances came not by adding things to the phone, but by taking things away. Noticeably missing for anyone of a certain age is the dial tone. What happened to it?  We don’t need it anymore. Or, at least the phones don’t.

Back in the early days of telephony, a switchboard operator would answer when you picked up the handset and connect you with whoever you were calling. When operators were replaced with an automated system that connected calls in the late 1940s, the dial tone was created so that callers would know that the phone was connected to the system, the system was live, and they could place their call.

For most people, this was helpful, but it threw President Dwight Eisenhower for a loop at first. Ike had never had to use a rotary telephone and had never heard a dial tone before (he had a dial-less phone in the White House that connected him to a switchboard). When he retired in 1961, he had to deal with both in an embarrassing incident witnessed by a Secret Service agent. According to the Eisenhower National Historic Site, “Upon lifting the receiver and being confronted with a dial tone, the President began to repeatedly press the dial tone button. When that achieved no results, he hung up and began turning the dial as though the phone were a safe. He finally gave up and turned to the agent for assistance.”

Ike eventually mastered the rotary phone, and decades later, Bell Laboratories was ready to move the telephone world forward another big step: supplementing, and, for some people, replacing, landlines with cellular mobile phone technology. Tech guy Dan Goldin was reading The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation when he met the man who killed the dial tone. He quotes the book:

Meanwhile, Phil Porter, who had worked with [Richard] Frenkiel on the original system, came up with a permanent answer to an interesting question. Should a cellular phone have a dial tone? Porter made a radical suggestion that it shouldn't. A caller should dial a number and then push "send." That way, the mobile caller would be less rushed; also, the call would be connected for a shorter time, thus putting less strain on the network. That this idea—dial, then send—would later prove crucial to texting technology was not even considered.

The phone could do what it needed to without a dial tone, so why keep it around? That Porter’s dial-and-send idea, called “pre origination dialing,” and decision to leave the dial tone off the mobile network also did us the favor of paving the way for text messages is a nice bonus. Goldin wonders, “How many other technologies and businesses are built on top of SMS that wouldn’t have existed without this decision? I’m sure an SMS-like technology would have come along regardless of this decision but it still makes me wonder how significantly past technological decisions influence us in the present.”

For all the good its death did, some people still miss their old dial tone. The company Jitterbug capitalized on this with a  mobile phone and service—including a dial tone—that appeals to baby boomers and old folks. [Via Dan Goldin, via Gizmodo]

*I forget where I heard this or who first made the observation, and I wonder how accurate it is. That’s a post I should totally do, right guys?

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Big Questions
Why Does the Queen Have Two Birthdays?
CHRIS JACKSON, AFP/Getty Images
CHRIS JACKSON, AFP/Getty Images

On April 21, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II will turn 92 years old. To mark the occasion, there are usually a series of gun salutes around London: a 41 gun salute in Hyde Park, a 21 gun salute in Windsor Great Park, and a 62 gun salute at the Tower of London. For the most part, the monarch celebrates her big day privately. But on June 9, 2018, Her Majesty will parade through London as part of an opulent birthday celebration known as Trooping the Colour.

Queen Elizabeth, like many British monarchs before her, has two birthdays: the actual anniversary of the day she was born, and a separate day that is labeled her "official" birthday (usually the second Saturday in June). Why? Because April 21 is usually too cold for a proper parade.

The tradition started in 1748, with King George II, who had the misfortune of being born in chilly November. Rather than have his subjects risk catching colds, he combined his birthday celebration with the Trooping the Colour.

The parade itself had been part of British culture for almost a century by that time. At first it was strictly a military event, at which regiments displayed their flags—or "colours"—so that soldiers could familiarize themselves. But George was known as a formidable general after having led troops at the Battle of Dettingen in 1743, so the military celebration seemed a fitting occasion onto which to graft his warm-weather birthday. Edward VII, who also had a November birthday, was the first to standardize the June Trooping the Colour and launched a tradition of a monarchical review of the troops that drew crowds of onlookers.

Even now, the date of the "official" birthday varies year to year. For the first seven years of her reign, Elizabeth II held her official birthday on a Thursday but has since switched over to Saturdays. And while the date is tied to the Trooping the Colour in the UK, Commonwealth nations around the world have their own criteria, which generally involve recognizing it as a public holiday.

Australia started recognizing an official birthday back in 1788, and all the provinces (save one) observe the Queen's Birthday on the second Monday in June, with Western Australia holding its celebrations on the last Monday of September or the first Monday of October.

In Canada, the official birthday has been set to align with the actual birth date of Queen Victoria—May 24, 1819—since 1845, and as such they celebrate so-called Victoria Day on May 24 or the Monday before.

In New Zealand, it's the first Monday in June, and in the Falkland Islands the actual day of the Queen's birth is celebrated publicly.

All in all, just another reason it's great to be Queen.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
What Is the Meaning Behind "420"?
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Whether or not you’re a marijuana enthusiast, you’re probably aware that today is an unofficial holiday for those who are. April 20—4/20—is a day when pot smokers around the world come together to, well, smoke pot. Others use the day to push for legalization, holding marches and rallies.

But why the code 420? There are a lot of theories as to why that particular number was chosen, but most of them are wrong. You may have heard that 420 is police code for possession, or maybe it’s the penal code for marijuana use. Both are false. There is a California Senate Bill 420 that refers to the use of medical marijuana, but the bill was named for the code, not the other way around.

As far as anyone can tell, the phrase started with a bunch of high school students. Back in 1971, a group of kids at San Rafael High School in San Rafael, California, got in the habit of meeting at 4:20 to smoke after school. When they’d see each other in the hallways during the day, their shorthand was “420 Louis,” meaning, “Let’s meet at the Louis Pasteur statue at 4:20 to smoke.”

Somehow, the phrase caught on—and when the Grateful Dead eventually picked it up, "420" spread through the greater community like wildfire. What began as a silly code passed between classes is now a worldwide event for smokers and legalization activists everywhere—not a bad accomplishment for a bunch of high school stoners.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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