10 Aspects of Old Telephones That Might Confuse Young People

"What is this thing?!"
"What is this thing?!"
Alexandr Muşuc/iStock via Getty Images Plus

People who grew up with smartphones probably never carried around a tiny personal phone book to keep track of all their various contacts. They’ve probably never gotten their hair tangled in a coiled phone cord while holding the receiver with their shoulders, nor have they dialed 411 for directory assistance. Here are a few other aspects of old-school telephony that might stump younger people.

1. Busy Signal

These days, if a person is currently engaged on their telephone, any incoming calls be automatically sent to a voicemail system. There are not only consumers today who have become so unaccustomed to being thwarted by the stentorian tones of a busy signal that they are temporarily flummoxed at the concept of having to hang up and dial again later, there are also younger users who have never heard a busy signal. If you're one of those people, take a listen to the video above.

2. Off-Hook Alarm

It’s much harder to accidentally leave your telephone “off the hook” these days, since most folks using land lines have cordless phones that require different buttons to be pushed to start and end a call. But back when receivers had to either hang on the “hook” (wall phones) or be placed in the “cradle” (desk phones) to be disconnected or “off-line,” it was all too easy for a line to be left open whether accidentally or intentionally. In fact, it happened often enough that the telephone company had a special tone to alert customers that their phone was off the hook. After the dial tone had timed out and a recording advising you to “Please hang up your telephone” played, a grating “howler” alarm would blast.

3. Party Lines

Party lines were very common in the first half of the 20th century, especially in rural areas and during the war years, when copper wire was in this short supply. A party line was a local telephone loop circuit that was shared by more than one subscriber. There was no privacy on a party line; if you were conversing with a friend, anyone on your party line could pick up their telephone and listen in. Also, if anyone on your party line was using their phone, no one else could make a call—even in an emergency situation. (There were this laws that made it mandatory for all parties to hang up if someone announced they had an emergency, but that didn’t mean everyone complied.) Subscribers could pay an extra monthly fee to upgrade to a private line, and once services such as call waiting became available, most of the switching equipment required to maintain multi-party lines was rendered obsolete—and private lines became the standard. 

4. Pipeline/Jam Line/Beep Line

Thanks to a quirk of the old analog system, savvy phone customers had access to “chat lines” long before that term was coined. Beginning in the mid-1960s, the Bell System started implementing their new Electronic Switching System, and during that lengthy and elaborate process, the modern switches were installed parallel to the old mechanical devices already in place. As a result, a loop was created so that when a circuit was overloaded, people could talk to one another either between the beeps of a busy signal, or during the spaces between a repeating “Your call could not be completed as dialed” recording. It didn’t take long for teens to exploit this easy and cost-free (you didn’t get charged for an incomplete call) way to talk to a whole horde of people. The key was that a lot of people had to dial the same number in order to properly overload the circuit. The phenomenon was called different things in different locales—the Jam Line, the Beep Line, and the Pipeline.

5. Dial Plate Number Cards

If you’ve never owned a rotary dial telephone, then you’ve probably never seen a number card installed in the center of the dial plate. (Touch Tone phones had a slip of paper at the bottom of the keypad.) This enabled anyone who was using the phone to immediately know what number they were calling from.

6. Large Print Dial Overlays

Large print plastic dial covers were once a common promotional giveaway item. They served a dual purpose: making the numerals easier to see for those with aging eyes, and also keeping the number of your local pizza delivery place (or 24 hour plumber) extremely close to the phone.

7. Telephone Numbers with Exchange

You can still hear people asking for a telephone number using the exchange in older movies and television shows (“Operator, give me MUrray Hill 5-9099”). Back when exchange names were still in use, you could even tell what neighborhood a person lived in by the first two letters of their telephone number; for example, despite the name, the location that belonged to the telephone number PEnnsylvania 6-5000 was not in the Keystone State but rather in New York City, at a hotel near Penn Station.

8. Talking Clock

Every local phone company had a number you could dial to get the correct time. It was an easy way to synchronize the clocks in your house after a power outage, or if your watch had run down.

9. Tapping the Switchhook to Summon the Operator

Those “click-click-click” noises you hear when a rotary dial is released and returns to its starting position are called “hook flashes.” They were what told the switching equipment down at the phone company what numbers were being dialed. The disconnect button (called a “switchhook”) on the telephone could also be used to send hook flashes—if you wanted to dial 411 without using the rotary, you would tap the switchhook four times, pause, tap once, pause, then tap once again. Tapping it 10 times was the equivalent of dialing “0,” which is why in old films you’ll often see a character frantically hitting the disconnect and yelling “Operator? Operator!” into the receiver; once they’d hit it 10 times the operator would answer.

10. Four-Prong Phone Wall Jack

Until 1976—when the FCC set the wheels in motion for consumers to purchase their own telephones with the Resale and Shared Use decision—telephone customers didn't own their home telephones; they technically rented them from phone companies and were charged a monthly fee for the privilege. (Funnily enough as of 2006 there were still 750,000 people renting rotary phones from one of AT&T’s baby bells.) If you wanted an extension in another room, you couldn’t do the drilling and the wiring yourself; you had to call the phone company and have a technician install the necessary four-prong jack in the wall. Thanks to the jacks, now you could move a phone from one jack to another instead of having them connected for life, but it still took a visit from the Telephone Guy to install one in another room.

Take Advantage of Amazon's Early Black Friday Deals on Tech, Kitchen Appliances, and More


This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Even though Black Friday is still a few days away, Amazon is offering early deals on kitchen appliances, tech, video games, and plenty more. We will keep updating this page as sales come in, but for now, here are the best Amazon Black Friday sales to check out.


Instant Pot/Amazon

- Instant Pot Duo Plus 9-in-115 Quart Electric Pressure Cooker; $90 (save $40) 

- Le Creuset Enameled Cast Iron Signature Sauteuse 3.5 Quarts; $180 (save $120)

- KitchenAid KSMSFTA Sifter with Scale Attachment; $95 (save $75) 

- Keurig K-Mini Coffee Maker; $60 (save $20)

- Cuisinart Bread Maker; $88 (save $97)

- Anova Culinary Sous Vide Precision Cooker; $139 (save $60)

- Aicook Juicer Machine; $35 (save $15)

- JoyJolt Double Wall Insulated Espresso Mugs - Set of Two; $14 (save $10) 

- Longzon Silicone Stretch Lids - Set of 14; $13 (save $14)

HadinEEon Milk Frother; $37 (save $33)

Home Appliances


- iRobot Roomba 675 Robot Vacuum with Wi-Fi Connectivity; $179 (save $101)

- Fairywill Electric Toothbrush with Four Brush Heads; $19 (save $9)

- ASAKUKI 500ml Premium Essential Oil Diffuser; $22 (save $4)

- Facebook Portal Smart Video Calling 10 inch Touch Screen Display with Alexa; $129 (save $50)

- Bissell air320 Smart Air Purifier with HEPA and Carbon Filters; $280 (save $50)

Oscillating Quiet Cooling Fan Tower; $59 (save $31) 

TaoTronics PTC 1500W Fast Quiet Heating Ceramic Tower; $55 (save $10)

Vitamix 068051 FoodCycler 2 Liter Capacity; $300 (save $100)

AmazonBasics 8-Sheet Home Office Shredder; $33 (save $7)

Ring Video Doorbell; $70 (save $30) 

Video games


- Marvel's Spider-Man: Game of The Year Edition for PlayStation 4; $20 (save $20)

- Marvel's Avengers; $27 (save $33)

- Minecraft Dungeons Hero Edition for Nintendo Switch; $20 (save $10)

- The Last of Us Part II for PlayStation 4; $30 (save $30)

- LEGO Harry Potter: Collection; $15 (save $15)

- Ghost of Tsushima; $40 (save $20)

BioShock: The Collection; $20 (save $30)

The Sims 4; $20 (save $20)

God of War for PlayStation 4; $10 (save $10)

Days Gone for PlayStation 4; $20 (save $6)

Luigi's Mansion 3 for Nintendo Switch; $40 (save $20)

Computers and tablets


- Apple MacBook Air 13 inches with 256 GB; $899 (save $100)

- New Apple MacBook Pro 16 inches with 512 GB; $2149 (save $250) 

- Samsung Chromebook 4 Chrome OS 11.6 inches with 32 GB; $210 (save $20) 

- Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 with 13.5 inch Touch-Screen; $1200 (save $400)

- Lenovo ThinkPad T490 Laptop; $889 (save $111)

- Amazon Fire HD 10 Tablet (64GB); $120 (save $70)

- Amazon Fire HD 10 Kids Edition Tablet (32 GB); $130 (save $70)

- Samsung Galaxy Tab A 8 inches with 32 GB; $100 (save $50)

Apple iPad Mini (64 GB); $379 (save $20)

- Apple iMac 27 inches with 256 GB; $1649 (save $150)

- Vankyo MatrixPad S2 Tablet; $120 (save $10)

Tech, gadgets, and TVs


- Apple Watch Series 3 with GPS; $179 (save $20) 

- SAMSUNG 75-inch Class Crystal 4K Smart TV; $998 (save $200)

- Apple AirPods Pro; $169 (save $50)

- Nixplay 2K Smart Digital Picture Frame 9.7 Inch Silver; $238 (save $92)

- All-New Amazon Echo Dot with Clock and Alexa (4th Gen); $39 (save $21)

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- Amazon Fire TV Stick with Alexa Voice Remote; $28 (save $12)

Canon EOS M50 Mirrorless Camera with EF-M 15-45mm Lens; $549 (save $100)

DR. J Professional HI-04 Mini Projector; $93 (save $37)

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Netflix Viewers Are Petitioning the Streaming Giant to Stop Cutting Off the End Credits

"Wait! There might be a post-credits scene."
"Wait! There might be a post-credits scene."
JESHOOTS.com, Pexels

To help us decide what to watch next as easily as possible, Netflix always serves up a few suggestions immediately after we’ve finished a program. For many viewers, it’s a little too immediate: The credits shrink to a small window, and Netflix’s recommendations take center stage.

Composer Daniel Pemberton, whose most recent scores include Netflix original films Enola Holmes (2020) and The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020), likened it to a rushed meal at a restaurant. “The second that final spoonful goes in your mouth the waiter runs over, noisily clears the plates away and shoves a new menu under your nose, while insisting that you order the set menu immediately,” he wrote for The Guardian.

While people do often walk away or switch to another program as soon as the credits roll, plenty of others consider them an important part of the viewing experience. The music alone justifies sitting tight for a little while longer, and the credits provide the perfect opportunity to contemplate whatever you’ve just seen. They also pay homage to the hundreds of people who brought the project to life. And, as the Marvel Cinematic Universe always reminds us, not all movies actually end when the credits start to roll.

Netflix doesn’t outright prevent viewers from watching the credits. If you click on the minimized box, the credits will spring back to full screen and remain there until the very end. But if you take too long fumbling for the remote, you might miss your chance—Netflix’s autoplay feature often begins the next preview in mere seconds, in which case you’d have to go back to your home screen and restart the previous program to see the credits.

A video producer named Mark Boszko got so fed up with the arrangement that he launched a petition on Change.org. He’s not asking Netflix to get rid of its end-of-program advertisements across the board; rather, he just wants the platform to let viewers choose to have the full credits play as their default setting.

Boszko’s petition is evidence that he’s far from the only person who cares about the cause. So far, more than 10,500 people have signed it—you can do so here.

[h/t The Guardian]