John Karlin, The Psychologist Who Designed the Telephone

John E. Karlin died two weeks ago at the age of 94. He was a pioneer in the field of using psychology in product design. Specifically, he was responsible for devising many elements of the telephone:

Telephone company executives wondered whether the standard cord, then about three feet long, might be shortened. Mr. Karlin’s staff stole into colleagues’ offices every three days and covertly shortened their phone cords, an inch at time. No one noticed, they found, until the cords had lost an entire foot.

From then on, phones came with shorter cords.

Mr. Karlin also introduced the white dot inside each finger hole that was a fixture of rotary phones in later years. After the phone was redesigned at midcentury, with the letters and numbers moved outside the finger holes, users, to AT&T’s bewilderment, could no longer dial as quickly.

With blank space at the center of the holes, Mr. Karlin found, callers no longer had a target at which to aim their fingers. The dot restored the speed.

Karlin's accomplishments weren't limited to rotary phones. You're probably still using his design for the push-button phone:

Keypad configurations examined included Mr. Mallina’s, one with buttons in a circle, another with buttons in an arc, and a rectangular pad.

The victorious design, based on the group’s studies of speed, accuracy and users’ own preferences, used keys half an inch square. The keypad itself was rectangular, comprising 10 keys: a 3-by-3 grid spanning 1 through 9, plus zero, centered below. Today’s omnipresent 12-button keypad, with star and pound keys flanking the zero, grew directly from this model.

Putting “1-2-3” on the pad’s top row instead of the bottom (the configuration used, then as now, on adding machines and calculators) was also born of Mr. Karlin’s group: they found it made for more accurate dialing.

But Karlin's most lasting impact was the development of all-number dialing. Back in the old days, phone numbers included words as well as numbers. Karlin expanded the number of potential phone listings by making them all numerals. It was not a popular change:

“One day I was at a cocktail party and I saw some people over in the corner,” Mr. Karlin recalled in a 2003 lecture. “They were obviously looking at me and talking about me. Finally a lady from this group came over and said, ‘Are you the John Karlin who is responsible for all-number dialing?’ ”

Mr. Karlin drew himself up with quiet pride.

“Yes, I am,” he replied.

“How does it feel,” his inquisitor asked, “to be the most hated man in America?”

Link -via Althouse | Photo: Bill Bradford

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