Today in History – “ November 18, 1963 – “Bell Telephone introduces push button telephone, eventually to replace the rotary dial telephone that had dominated the market since its invention in 1891 when Almon Strowger patented the twin inventions of the automatic telephone exchange and the pulse-driven telephone in the home. Although early prototypes had been built earlier by Bell Labs in 1941 in a 302-style case with F1 handset with two rows of five keys on the front that plucked reeds to produce two tones for each digit. The design was shelved during World War II and forgotten until many years later after the transistor was developed and tones could be produced with electronic oscillators.
Henry Dryfus, an industrial designer working for Bell Telephone, is credited with inventing the interface notion of the pushbutton, working as a consultant to Bell Telephone. One of the first prototypes of the design was made of wood (second photo above) showing how early prototypes can be quite effective in communicating new concepts and getting customer feedback. The version that Bell Systems / Western Electric introduced in 1962 at a World’s Fair in Seattle and as a commercial product on November 18, 1963 was based on this wooden model (third photograph above). They replaced the basic design language from a circle to square to visibly highlight the change from dial to pushbutton design.
The pushbutton concept was considered as the seed for revolutionary telecommunications concepts, such as the one pictured in the right-most image above for the videophone concept published as an advertisement in 1963. The “button” continues to be a winning design concept for telecommunication devices and is used in the recent introduction of a new generation of phones and advanced button designs inspired by Apple Computers’ iPhone.
For more information, see the Engineering Pathway‘s resources on push buttons and telephone design or our resources on industrial design. For related educational resources, visit the Computer Engineering Education, the Electrical Engineering Education, the Computer Science Education disciplinary communities or the Design Education and the Industrial Design Education interdisciplinary communities.