Those People You’ve Never Heard Of That Changed Your Life

We have all heard of Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell but there are many people who changed our lives that we have never heard of.  A few years ago I wrote about Hiro Moriyasu who developed the digital oscilloscope and the first desktop computer, the Tektronix 4051.  He certainly changed our lives but few have heard of him.

Today where hear about another such individual, John Karlin of Bell Labs.

A generation ago, when the poetry of PEnnsylvania and BUtterfield was about to give way to telephone numbers in unpoetic strings, a critical question arose: Would people be able to remember all seven digits long enough to dial them?

And when, not long afterward, the dial gave way to push buttons, new questions arose: round buttons, or square? How big should they be? Most crucially, how should they be arrayed? In a circle? A rectangle? An arc?

For decades after World War II, these questions were studied by a group of social scientists and engineers in New Jersey led by one man, a Bell Labs industrial psychologist named John E. Karlin.

By all accounts a modest man despite his variegated accomplishments (he had a doctorate in mathematical psychology, was trained in electrical engineering and had been a professional violinist), Mr. Karlin, who died on Jan. 28, at 94, was virtually unknown to the general public.

But his research, along with that of his subordinates, quietly yet emphatically defined the experience of using the telephone in the mid-20th century and afterward, from ushering in all-digit dialing to casting the shape of the keypad on touch-tone phones. And that keypad, in turn, would inform the design of a spate of other everyday objects.

I am old enough to remember dial phones and party lines where you shared a wire with one or more other numbers.  I also remember  when our home phone number went from CApitol-XXXX to 227-XXXX and the first touch tone phone.  But I’d never really thought about this:

In 2013, the 50th anniversary of the introduction of the touch-tone phone, the answers to those questions remain palpable at the press of a button. The rectangular design of the keypad, the shape of its buttons and the position of the numbers — with “1-2-3? on the top row instead of the bottom, as on a calculator — all sprang from empirical research conducted or overseen by Mr. Karlin.

The legacy of that research now extends far beyond the telephone: the keypad design Mr. Karlin shepherded into being has become the international standard on objects as diverse as A.T.M.’s, gas pumps, door locks, vending machines and medical equipment.

Tektronix 4051

Touch Tone Key Pad

6 Comments

  1. I grew up using dial phones, I may even still have one in a drawer somewhere. I remember having to dial only five digits to call anyone in my city as well. I guess I’m older than I think.

  2. For the first five or so years of my life, I could pick up the phone and say “Grandma?” and Mabel the Operator (so help me, her name was Mabel) would know that if I was at Grandma Munck’s house, I wanted Grandma Strom, and vice versa. Mabel would connect me, even if the appropriate Grandma was off at her weekly bridge game or doing the books at Grandpa’s lumber yard.

    I agree with your praise of Mr. Karlin, but he never got us back up to that level of convenience.

  3. So he’s the man who decided all of us who used calculators and key punch machines would have to learn TWO sets of keyboards – one at work and one at home. I’ve often wondered who in the world had such a crazy idea. :-)

    At least the phones and the TV remote are in the same sequence!

  4. @The Ohioan
    I think he probably got it right. When calculators and keyboards were developed no one really studied the human nature of it all. They really are two different things and I work with both.

  5. Yeah, I think he got it right too. The other configuration was never intuitively easy to use. AND IT’S STILL ON THE KEYBOARD I’M USING RIGHT NOW. Some people never learn. :-)

  6. Cool story. Thanks for sharing. I grew up never needing to know how to dial a rotary phone — the only one I saw was at my grandparents’ house until they upgraded when I was about 6. My children will grow up never seeing a standard chorded phone with the spiral link between base and receiver. My best friend has a 4-year-old daughter that she was teaching to use the cell phone in case of emergencies. She taught her how to dial in the number, then told her to press the button that looks like a phone to send. The daughter looked up at her confused, since she had literally never seen something that looked like the standard handheld receiver. Or if she had seen it, she never connected that object and shape with the idea of a “phone”.

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