In the late 1940s, switchboard operators already had a more efficient push-button setup that used tones instead of electrical pulses to signal each digit. So Bell Labs engineers set out to adapt that system for customers. Gutting a Western Electric 302 tabletop rotary, they installed a set of ten 3-inch metal reeds. Pressing a button plucked a specific reed, producing a unique sound. Thirty-five test units were deployed to phone company employees’ homes in Media, Pennsylvania, but the yearlong trial was a bust. Moving or bumping the phone warped the reeds, and any static on the line—or even talking—while dialing caused interference. Push-button phones didn’t become consumer-ready until 1963, when solid-state electronics replaced the reeds, generating foolproof digital tones.
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