The Sound of a Dial Tone

See Dialing Instructions
Rotary Dial For whatever the reason the terms we use to describe how we use phones have not kept up with the changes in phone technology. If anything, we might just want to raise awareness to some of the idiosyncrasies which have crept in.

On the left is a picture of a rotary dial. Has anyone seen one lately? So why are we dialing phone numbers? Is it because of the dial-tone? When did we last hear a dial-tone? Not to mention that dial-tones sounded like far away train whistles, or even farther away fog horns, both a far cry from the sound of dialing. So if dial tones were not the sound of dialing, what was the sound of dialing?

To find out you might watch an old movie, or a new movies about the past. Obviously you don’t want to watch Tarzan – who shouted his way across the jungle, nor should you watch The Jungle Book, although Bagheera’s purr does come somewhat close. If you like the sound of purring, you might also like Polulu’s in Bomba the Jungle Boy, or Elsa in Born Free. I wouldn’t watch Forever Free because they never made a movie of the book, probably because it was so sad – remember how Elsa died, and Jespa walked away from the camp – forever free, probably to eat someone, along with their clothes, shoes and satellite phone – but that’s beside the point.

Don’t watch Jurassic Park because the phones were dead, and the actors seemed to panic when they found that out, which is also confusing because objects such as phones are created dead. You know a phone with a rotary dial is dead, when you see the actor leaning into the ear piece, and then bringing it forward, looking at it, grimacing in heart wrenching dismay, or helpless anger, and pronouncing that the phone is dead. What do actors mean when they declare a phone to be dead – when they know it never lived? They are implying is that they could not hear a dial tone. Older actors (e.g. Laura Dern) know this from experience, and young actors (e.g. Jennifer Lawrence) know from the script that there is no point trying to dial, and if they don’t dial we cannot hear the sound of dialing. Not that you cannot hear the sound of dialing when you dial a phone without a dial tone – you can – but actors do not dial phones without dial tones, that’s just the way it is. You could try watching Thirteen Days where the president calls everyone – but more often than not he asked a secretary to ‘get him so-and-so’, where so-and-so was Nikita Khrushchev or his brother Bobbie, or Jackie-soon-to-be-Onassis. Calling Jackie added a gentle human, spousal, fatherly touch to the manly, tense scenes, and so well rounded the president’s character, and not a moment too soon, because then he had a secretary dial Curtis LeMey, who he would have preferred not to, but anyway, its rare that you see presidents dialing on their own, no matter what phone they’re using. Perhaps there’s something none presidential about dialing, certainly about eavesdropping. Still Nixon’s strongest defense was that he was checking for dial tones. Maybe women presidents would do their own dialing – but by the time a woman is elected Google glass will be obsolete (sorry Hilary) – who knows what they’ll be using to communicate, and what the right verbs would be.

If you couldn’t find a movie with the sound of dialing, you could try to emulate the sound with some low tech stuff. One option is to rip open a piece of corrugated fiberboard – the side of a carton box would do. It takes about ten inches of exposed corrugated paper and a pencil with an eraser at the tip. If you don’t know what pencils with erasers are – you can watch Mad Men – Joan and Betty have pencils tucked through their hair, behind one ear. The other ear they keep for the rotary phone’s handset. Run the pencil perpendicular to the groves of the corrugated paper, at the rate of five groves a second, pressing gently. If the eraser dents the groves then you’re pressing too hard. Go back and forth and listen. You will not know if you got it right because you never heard the sound of dialing – but its closer than a big cat purring. You can also try taking that piece of cardboard, attaching it to the front fork of a bicycle so that it touches the spokes and turn the wheel. The sound will most likely be a bit more raspy than what you’re trying to emulate, but you can try to run it through a filter that sounds like people who had their vocal cords replaced with guitar strings. For better results you can try the rubber top of a mixing spoon. You can simply believe me that dial tones and the sound of dialing are very different.

Rotary Dial However, If you don’t, or it’s not me that you don’t trust – it’s low tech in general and you happen to be especially curious, or enamored with the past, or want your terms to ring true; you can download a rotary dialer application for your mobile device, or you can buy one of these at Toys-‘R-Us.


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