Answer Man: Why don't numbers on phones and calculators match?

News-DemocratDecember 17, 2013 

Why does the order of the push buttons on a phone not match the pattern on a calculator or keyboard? I work with numbers and a calculator a lot. Sometimes when I make a quick phone call, I end up pushing the buttons as if they were on the calculator because my fingers are so trained for that pattern! Doesn't it seem odd that whichever product came first, the other one didn't follow suit? -- S.J.K., of Waterloo

Not really, as you'll soon discover. But as so often happens in this type of question, a number of theories have arisen to explain the discrepancy. I'll leave it to you to finger the one that makes the most sense:

First, let me tell you about the one that doesn't add up. In fact, this popular explanation blames people exactly like yourself for your current plight. According to this theory, when researchers at Bell Labs were developing the touch-tone phone in the late 1950s, they worried about how fast those who used calculators for a living would punch out seven-digit phone numbers.

Because the technology was still primitive, the developers feared if numbers were entered too quickly, the company's system could not handle the input. This would lead to calls that couldn't be connected and plenty of user frustration.

So, to slow down people like you, Bell reversed the layout of numbers so they'd have to master an all-new pattern. Nice theory, but employees who worked at Bell at the time said it's probably not the case, according to Todd Campbell, who once researched the question for his Answer Geek column.

Instead, the switch seems to have resulted from an evolution in technology and a little modern consumer research.

When calculators first became popular, they weren't the sleek little things you could put in your shirt pocket like we have today. These were mechanical or electric behemoths on which the key pads were patterned after old cash registers, according to Imponderables series author David Feldman.

Those ancient registers would have vertical rows of keys, where one row would start with a 9 on top and go down to 0. The next row would start at 90, the next at 900 and so on.

When the first calculators were developed, makers apparently put the larger digits on top so it would be an easier transition for those familiar with the cash registers. But when they started developing the touch-tone phone, Bell Labs did something novel, Campbell says: They asked the consumer what they would like.

So in 1960, the company published "Human Engineering Studies of the Design and Use of Pushbutton Telephone Sets." They had offered participants several possible layouts, including two rows of five numbers both horizontally and vertically; circular patterns both clockwise and counterclockwise; and a three-by-three square with 0 at the bottom. The current system won hands-down as easiest to master.

It certainly makes sense. Even on the old rotary phones, the "1" was on top, albeit on the right. By keeping the smaller numbers on top, the transition from rotary to dial wouldn't be such a shock to the system even though the 1 was moved to the left.

And there was one more important consideration: the lettering. If they had put 7, 8 and 9 on top, that would have meant putting ABC under the 7, DEF under the 8, etc.

In other words, you would have been going up the alphabet while the numbers became smaller. Otherwise, you would have had to start with PQRS on top over the 7. Either way, punching up something like 1-GO-CRAZY-FOLKS to order Cardinal tickets would have indeed made you gone crazy as you tried to work the two contradictory patterns.

So to make their product appealing and simple to use, Bell went with the current configuration. Looks like they made the right call. Although computer keyboards have kept the reverse pattern for you calculator wonks, other devices such as gas-station pumps and ATMs have adopted the telephone-keypad layout for the common folk.

Today's trivia

What cast member of "The Partridge Family" has English author Charles Dickens in his/her family tree?

Answer to Tuesday's trivia: The question about Japanese-born Oscar winners was sparked by the death of Joan Fontaine on Sunday. If you didn't know, both Fontaine and sister Olivia de Havilland were born in Tokyo and both won best-actress Oscars -- Fontaine for "Suspicion" in 1941 and deHavilland for "To Each His Own" in 1946. Since then, only Miyoshi Umeki, born in Otaru, Hokkaido, has picked up an acting Oscar for her supporting role in "Sayonara" in 1957. Japan is still waiting for a fourth, which almost came in 2006 when Rinko Kikuchi was nominated for her non-speaking role in "Babel."

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or rschlueter@bnd.com or call 618-239-2465.

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