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