I was having coffee with a friend from work the other day when we got on the subject of Steve Jobs. I posited that a great deal of the credit given to Jobs over the years, especially after his death, was misplaced. My intention was not to denigrate Steve Jobs but to emphasize that technological breakthroughs are not so much the products of any one man’s genius as they are the incremental advancements of our knowledge. In other words the iPhone did not spring fully formed from the mind of any one person, but was the product of many individuals working, often anonymously, to help reach a point where it could happen. I suppose the reason we don’t think of it this way is because it is easier–and lazier–to attach the name and face of one person to a product or idea and leave it at that.
One of those anonymous people died last month. John E. Karlin of Bell Labs died on January 28th at the age of 94. Among other things in his long and active life, he was the researcher in charge of developing the touch tone telephone.
I remember being a young kid and asking my dad, a mid-level manager at Ma Bell, why our new bush-button phone had the * and # symbols. He explained that in the coming years these features would allow us to use our telephone in ways we couldn’t just yet. They were there not for today but for future use. I was around five, which would make this about 1972. (The story has stuck in my mind for four decades, but my dad no doubt forgot it five minutes later. I guess that’s the nature of childhood memory.) Today we never think about them anymore because cell phones are ubiquitous, but the touch tone phone was part of American family life–at least my American family life–for decades. How many first dates were dialed on the family phone hanging in the kitchen? And you’d better use the egg timer if it’s a long distance call. In my teenage mind we “arrived” when we got one that had the long cord. Now we could leave one room and enter the adjacent one! The trouble was, if you walked too far you might dislodge the cord from the jack and disconnect. How long ago was that in the grand scheme of things?
It is interesting that its development was as much psychological as it was technological. One of the biggest obstacles was to develop the device in a way that people would easily remember the seven digit number. And yet we eventually carried dozens of such numbers in our heads and could dial them off whenever we wanted. Fittingly, 2013 is the 50th anniversary of the push button phone.
(images from top/Ben Schumin and Retro 00064)