CLOSE
ThinkStock
ThinkStock

Why Don’t Cell Phones Have Dial Tones?

ThinkStock
ThinkStock

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?

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
Big Questions
What Makes a Cat's Tail Puff Up When It's Scared?
iStock
iStock

Cats wear their emotions on their tails, not their sleeves. They tap their fluffy rear appendages during relaxing naps, thrash them while tense, and hold them stiff and aloft when they’re feeling aggressive, among other behaviors. And in some scary situations (like, say, being surprised by a cucumber), a cat’s tail will actually expand, puffing up to nearly twice its volume as its owner hisses, arches its back, and flattens its ears. What does a super-sized tail signify, and how does it occur naturally without help from hairspray?

Cats with puffed tails are “basically trying to make themselves look as big as possible, and that’s because they detect a threat in the environment," Dr. Mikel Delgado, a certified cat behavior consultant who studied animal behavior and human-pet relationships as a PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley, tells Mental Floss. The “threat” in question can be as major as an approaching dog or as minor as an unexpected noise. Even if a cat isn't technically in any real danger, it's still biologically wired to spring to the offensive at a moment’s notice, as it's "not quite at the top of the food chain,” Delgado says. And a big tail is reflexive feline body language for “I’m big and scary, and you wouldn't want to mess with me,” she adds.

A cat’s tail puffs when muscles in its skin (where the hair base is) contract in response to hormone signals from the stress/fight or flight system, or sympathetic nervous system. Occasionally, the hairs on a cat’s back will also puff up along with the tail. That said, not all cats swell up when a startling situation strikes. “I’ve seen some cats that seem unflappable, and they never get poofed up,” Delgado says. “My cats get puffed up pretty easily.”

In addition to cats, other animals also experience piloerection, as this phenomenon is technically called. For example, “some birds puff up when they're encountering an enemy or a threat,” Delgado says. “I think it is a universal response among animals to try to get themselves out of a [potentially dangerous] situation. Really, the idea is that you don't have to fight because if you fight, you might lose an ear or you might get an injury that could be fatal. For most animals, they’re trying to figure out how to scare another animal off without actually going fisticuffs.” In other words, hiss softly, but carry a big tail.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
AFP, Getty Images
arrow
Big Questions
What Happened to the Physical Copy of the 'I Have a Dream' Speech?
AFP, Getty Images
AFP, Getty Images

On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and gave a speech for the ages, delivering the oratorical masterpiece "I Have a Dream" to nearly 250,000 people.

When he was done, King stepped away from the podium, folded his speech, and found himself standing in front of George Raveling, a former Villanova basketball player who, along with his friend Warren Wilson, had been asked to provide extra security around Dr. King while he was speaking. "We were both tall, gangly guys," Raveling told TIME in 2003. "We didn't know what we were doing but we certainly made for a good appearance."

Moved by the speech, Raveling saw the folded papers in King’s hands and asked if he could have them. King gave the young volunteer the speech without hesitation, and that was that.

“At no time do I remember thinking, ‘Wow, we got this historic document,’” Raveling told Sports Illustrated in 2015. Not realizing he was holding what would become an important piece of history in his hands, Raveling went home and stuck the three sheets of paper into a Harry Truman biography for safekeeping. They sat there for nearly two decades while Raveling developed an impressive career coaching NCAA men’s basketball.

In 1984, he had recently taken over as the head coach at the University of Iowa and was chatting with Bob Denney of the Cedar Rapids Gazette when Denney brought up the March on Washington. That's when Raveling dropped the bomb: “You know, I’ve got a copy of that speech," he said, and dug it out of the Truman book. After writing an article about Raveling's connection, the reporter had the speech professionally framed for the coach.

Though he displayed the framed speech in his house for a few years, Raveling began to realize the value of the piece and moved it to a bank vault in Los Angeles. Though he has received offers for King’s speech—one collector wanted to purchase the speech for $3 million in 2014—Raveling has turned them all down. He has been in talks with various museums and universities and hopes to put the speech on display in the future, but for now, he cherishes having it in his possession.

“That to me is something I’ll always be able to look back and say I was there,” Raveling said in the original Cedar Rapids Gazette article. “And not only out there in that arena of people, but to be within touching distance of him. That’s like when you’re 80 or 90 years old you can look back and say ‘I was in touching distance of Abraham Lincoln when he made the Gettysburg Address.’"

“I have no idea why I even asked him for the speech,” Raveling, now CEO of Coaching for Success, has said. “But I’m sure glad that I did.”

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios