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John E. Karlin, Who Led the Way To All-Digit Dialing, Dies At 94 120

Posted by timothy
from the hollywood-zero-one-two-three-nine dept.
First time accepted submitter g01d4 writes "Who was John E. Karlin? 'He was the one who introduced the notion that behavioral sciences could answer some questions about telephone design,' according to Ed Israelski, an engineer who worked under Mr. Karlin at Bell Labs in the 1970s. And you thought Steve Jobs was cool. An interesting obituary in the NYT."
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John E. Karlin, Who Led the Way To All-Digit Dialing, Dies At 94

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  • upside down keypads? (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward

    I want to know if they are his fault. It's annoying to have phones different from everything else that has a keypad.

    • by stevedog (1867864) on Saturday February 09, 2013 @11:45PM (#42848093)
      Apparently he did. From TFA... "The rectangular design of the keypad, the shape of its buttons and the position of the numbers — with “1-2-3” on the top row instead of the bottom, as on a calculator — all sprang from empirical research conducted or overseen by Mr. Karlin."
      • by hpa (7948)
        The fail was that the analysis was done in a time when calculating machines were a speciality item few people were familiar with. 15 years later, they were not. It is worth nothing that some countries went with the AT&T scheme and others stayed with the 7-8-9 layout on their phones. Unfortunately the proliferation of letters on keypads (a lot of countries did not have them) in recent years have made 1-2-3 more prevalent.
        • by arth1 (260657)

          The fail was that the analysis was done in a time when calculating machines were a speciality item few people were familiar with.

          I would think that a sizable part of the population had operated a cash register or elevator, even in 1960.

          • by NixieBunny (859050) on Sunday February 10, 2013 @12:27AM (#42848261) Homepage
            Elevators and cash registers did not have 7-8-9 keypads in 1960. Cash registers had 10 keys per digit, and elevators have always had one button per floor.

            The only type of machine that had a 7-8-9 keypad was the ten-key machine, used by bookkeepers and accountants to total receipts.
            • by arth1 (260657)

              No, but they had the higher numbers higher up, which is the significant difference between phone pads and other pads.

          • by Rockoon (1252108)
            Yes. they operated one of these early cash registers. [google.com]

            Note the distinct lack of a 3x3 grid of numbers 1 through 9, because these cash registers were mechanical not digital.
            • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

              by rpstrong (1659205)

              10-key adding machines were also mechanical. I pulled one apart once; it had a series of flexible springs held between two plastic plates which translated the keypress to a series of wheels. The plate would move sideways with each keypress in order to engage the wheel for the next digit.

              I suspect that that the cash registers didn't change over as quickly for several reasons, including:

              - A cash register didn't have as much need to be as compact as a desk calculator.
              - The clerk

            • Those old registers reminded me of the first one that I used, an NCR (National Cash Register) that was already old for its time. The data plate called out the required power: Zero to 120 volts, zero to 60 cycles. And if the power failed, you could stick a crank in the side.

        • Unfortunately the proliferation of letters on keypads (a lot of countries did not have them) in recent years have made 1-2-3 more prevalent.

          Fortunately, the proliferation of touch screen smartphones puts you into the position to choose what you want.

    • by Dan East (318230) on Saturday February 09, 2013 @11:46PM (#42848101) Homepage Journal

      Supposedly it is calculator keyboards that are upside down. Two reasons touch tone phones use the order they do:

      Touch tone phones replaced rotary phones, which already had 123 at the top of the dial, and 789 at the bottom. So it made sense to keep the same order that millions of people were already used to, in order to make the transition easier.

      Touch tone phones have the alphabet sharing the keys, starting with ABC on key 2. Thus the letters are alphabetic from top to bottom, which also properly follows reading order.

      Apparently no real research was done in the choice of calculator keyboards having the numbers descending from 9 down. It just happened, and since calculator keyboard layout was more arbitrary (it had neither a predecessor like touch tone phones, nor the alphabet sharing the keys), it would have made sense for calculator designers to match the touch tone phone layout.

      I don't know if any studies have been done, but I don't see any reason why one layout would be more intuitive than the other for pure numerical use to a human than the other. It's whatever you get used to. If calculators matched telephones from the beginning then today no one would feel something was inherently wrong with their calculator or that it is upside down from what it should have always been.

      • by stevedog (1867864) on Saturday February 09, 2013 @11:52PM (#42848125)
        Although it wasn't based on research, it actually is fairly intuitive. Given that calculators were probably most commonly used in finance initially, I would guess that the most common number used (possibly even now) would be 0. Placing that most common number at the thumb position has clear utility, similar to that of the spacebar. My guess is that that served as the anchor, with the other numbers logically flowing from there.

        Obviously, all of this is coming out of my ass, but like I said, I don't think it's entirely illogical (though I also think that, for its own purpose, the phone's layout is equally logical, and emulating the calculator on a dialpad would have made the phone look ridiculous when it was released).
      • by tlhIngan (30335) <slashdot@wor[ ]et ['f.n' in gap]> on Sunday February 10, 2013 @01:40AM (#42848559)

        Supposedly it is calculator keyboards that are upside down. Two reasons touch tone phones use the order they do:

        Touch tone phones replaced rotary phones, which already had 123 at the top of the dial, and 789 at the bottom. So it made sense to keep the same order that millions of people were already used to, in order to make the transition easier.

        Touch tone phones have the alphabet sharing the keys, starting with ABC on key 2. Thus the letters are alphabetic from top to bottom, which also properly follows reading order.

        Apparently no real research was done in the choice of calculator keyboards having the numbers descending from 9 down. It just happened, and since calculator keyboard layout was more arbitrary (it had neither a predecessor like touch tone phones, nor the alphabet sharing the keys), it would have made sense for calculator designers to match the touch tone phone layout.

        I don't know if any studies have been done, but I don't see any reason why one layout would be more intuitive than the other for pure numerical use to a human than the other. It's whatever you get used to. If calculators matched telephones from the beginning then today no one would feel something was inherently wrong with their calculator or that it is upside down from what it should have always been.

        Sorta, kinda accurate.

        The main reason actually relates to the position of the zero. On a rotary phone, the numbers go 7-8-9-0 (phone phreaks should know that dialing 0 generates 10 pulses - just like 1-9 generate 1-9 pulses, respectively).

        On an adding machine and other such hardware, the zero is actually beside the 1-2-3. As at the time the numbers were in a vertical column, you'd see them as 0-1-2-3 ... -8-9.

        So when they went to the key pad, the phone engineers decided that since the 0 was besides the 9 on every phone they made, it should stay close to the 9 on the final phone layout. Hence 1-2-3 on top, 7-8-9 on the bottom, and *-0-# on the bottom. (Or on old keypads, 0 aligned with either the 8 or 9).

        LIkewise, calculator engineers saw that people who used adding machines expect the 0 to be near the 1-2-3, so they designed their keypads with that in mind as adding machine users expected 0 to be near 1.

        And look at your keyboard to this day - the number row reflects the telephone layout (1-2-3 ... -7-8-9-0) while the numeric keypad reflects the calculator layout. Presumably, this was because the typewriter guys saw that the telephone kept the 0 near the 9 so they kept their 0 near the 9 as well (being that more people would've seen a phone at the time than a calculator. I'm certain back in the late 19th century when keyboards weren't standardized on QWERTY and the phone was for rich folks, they probably had 0-1-2-3 just as often as 1-2-3..-9-0.

        • by Pieroxy (222434)

          You have an unbalanced parenthesis. You will be terminated shortly. Resistance is futile.

        • by rpstrong (1659205)

          "So when they went to the key pad, the phone engineers decided that since the 0 was besides the 9 on every phone they made, it should stay close to the 9 on the final phone layout. Hence 1-2-3 on top, 7-8-9 on the bottom, and *-0-# on the bottom. (Or on old keypads, 0 aligned with either the 8 or 9)."

          Sorta, kinda inaccurate. The phone engineers did not make the decision, the behavioral engineers (led by Mr. Karlin) did. And they made their decision based on testing; people were simply faster with the 1-2-

      • Touch tone phones have the alphabet sharing the keys, starting with ABC on key 2. Thus the letters are alphabetic from top to bottom, which also properly follows reading order.

        Touch tone phones were only following the pattern already long established by rotary phones - those had the same letters associated with the same digits.

        As a matter of fact, when I was a kid our phone numbers were usually stated with the first two digits being replaced by letters - so you might've said "my number is LE5-4192" for instance. That first bit indicated which exchange you were on, and was probably a hold-over from when operators had to manually make the connections.

        • by quetwo (1203948)

          Having just two letters that represented the digits was just a transition from manual operators to a step-switch. Back when, people knew the name of their central office... for example, mine was Carriage Acres, plus a 5 digit number (95985). Shortly before we got that number, many only had three digit numbers -- Carriage Acres plus a 3 digit. When they started moving towards automated switching, they replaced our phones with the notifier (arm that you cranked) with phones that had the rotary dial and the

      • They should make a Dvorak keypad, with the most commonly used number in the middle.

    • by trb (8509)
      Yes, the upside down keypads are his "fault." The obit has the info wrong. Adding machine keypads always had the lower numbers at the bottom, and so do computer keypads. You can google for about this, but I think he figured that American phone users (who mostly weren't adding machine users) were used to reading from left to right and top to bottom, hence the order.
      • by stevedog (1867864)
        It says "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." I think when they said "the configuration used" they were referring to "the bottom" rather than the entire preceding phrase. Admittedly though, whatever they meant, it wasn't very clear.
        • by trb (8509)
          That's amusing. It's definitely possible to interpret the text the way you describe, and looking again, I'm sure that's what the author intended. But not only is the preceding phrase describing 123 on the top, so is the following phrase. So the parenthetical phrase refers to the 123 on the bottom, but in "it made for more accurate dialing," "it" flips back to 123 on top.
    • by arth1 (260657) on Saturday February 09, 2013 @11:57PM (#42848145) Homepage Journal

      No, the 1-2-3 on the top appears to be due to an R. L. Deininger [vcalc.net], and probably some Bell execs who figured (npi) that it would look better with ABC at the top instead of PRS.

      What Mr. Deininger didn't realize was that the industries that already used keypads with higher numbers at the top weren't likely to change.

      Calculators started out with 900, 90 and 9 at the top, and going down to 0 at the bottom. Later digital calculators continued with the high numbers at the top, because that's what calculators (the human ones) were used to. So 7-8-9 went at the top.

      Similar for cash registers, which really were just narrow purpose calculators, but here there was also a mechanical reason. Registers popped up plaques with the numbers for the customer to see. The designs varied, but generally these were slotted in order from 0-9, with the 0 and 1 closest to the customer, to prevent fraud where the customer would see (and pay) a higher sum that what was entered. Having the low numbers at the bottom meant fewer mechanical crossings.

      Then there's the elevator industry. Buildings in general go upwards, not downwards, and placing the top floors, i.e. high numbers at the top was natural.

      So there were at least three examples of higher numbers at the top which Bell ignored.

      What bothers me is that ATMs also appear to have 1-2-3 at the top. I cannot get this to make any kind of sense, as they're used to enter sums, not mnemonics.
      Did AT&T perhaps "help" design early ATMs?

      • by Dan East (318230) on Sunday February 10, 2013 @12:12AM (#42848201) Homepage Journal

        Never really noticed before, but you're right about ATM machines. The millions of POS terminals out there also match telephone keypads with 123 at the top. Guess it makes a little sense. You would enter your PIN into your phone when checking balance via a call to automated support, but you wouldn't ever type your PIN into a calculator. So at least you will always be entering your PIN on the same style keyboard (not counting computer keyboard numeric pads, but I really don't think the average person enters enough numbers to even bother using the numeric keypad on a computer - it would be interesting to see a study showing if the typical person even uses it at all).

        • by vrt3 (62368)

          ..., but I really don't think the average person enters enough numbers to even bother using the numeric keypad on a computer - it would be interesting to see a study showing if the typical person even uses it at all).

          People do in countries that use AZERTY, because on AZERTY keyboards you have to use shift or caps lock to access the digits in the top row. Much easier to use the numeric keypad.

          • Azerty sucks for anything requiring punctuation, i.e. most programming languages & CLIs.

            I can't do the angle brackets on one without taking my shoes off.

        • by Anonymous Coward

          Not in Shanghai - the ATM keypad at the airport terminal has 789 at the top, like a computer keyboard. Couldn't understand at first why it kept saying "wrong PIN number". Got it on the third attempt (luckily!)

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          In Denmark they actually reversed it a few years back, with all the horrors of people not remembering or mistyped their PIN number.
          Before it was in the Calculator style, with 789 at the top, now all terminals are with 123 at the top, phone style...

          • by Anonymous Coward

            Meanwhile here in Japan they randomize the keys on the touch screen for security

            • by David_W (35680)

              Interesting... how do blind people use the ATMs there?

              • by vlpronj (1345627)
                I would guess by Braille, as seen or felt on Drive Up ATM consoles, at least in my area.
                • The braille dots move around when it randomizes the keypad? How do they do that then?

          • by xenobyte (446878)

            Yes! - I remember that!

            I were among those that discovered that the rubber keypad on the "Danmark" phones could be cut and the wires to the rows could be switched (individual wires), so we simply cut up the keypad in three rows, switched the wires for the top and 3rd row and voila! - We had the old ordering back.

      • by rkww (675767) on Sunday February 10, 2013 @08:38AM (#42849591)
        According to your reference, they measured the time taken to dial using the 7-8-9 and the 1-2-3 keypads, and the 1-2-3 was slightly faster: "arrangement I-A had an average keying time of 5.08 seconds, and arrangement IV-A had an average of 4.92 seconds." which is pretty much the point of the article: they measured this stuff.
      • by Anonymous Coward

        Did AT&T perhaps "help" design early ATMs?

        Yes - most ATMs are made by NCR which, like IBM, have had a long relationsship with AT&T - even an aqusition and spin-off

      • That is an amazing paper, thanks for the link. But, John Karlin actually contributed to that too. Among the acknowledgments:

        The author would like to thank J. E. Karlin for his advice in conducting the latter phases of the program and in writing this report.

    • Unlike a calculator which could begin at the top or bottom of the 10-key, the telephone has to have 1 at the top left, because we read left to right & top to bottom. Add in the alphabet which likewise needs to begin with A at the top left. Logically, when we associate numbers to letters, A is first, ie 1, and the rest of the alphabet follows in numerical order. So there is no logical way for the telephone keypad to be arranged Cheers !
    • Last line of the article, apt on many levels:

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

      In fairness to Mr. Karlin, he figured out what "ordinary people" could handle, and the target of "ordinary person" has moved.

  • TFS: behavioral sciences could answer some questions about telephone design

    Kudos

    CC.

    • Western Electric took their time and engineered a marvel of function. Too bad nobody bothered to save the tooling for those things.

      A lot more engineering effort nowadays is rightly focused on the extremely profitable control of product life cycles.

      I wonder what sort of volume Unicomp [pckeyboard.com] is doing lately?

      • by foobsr (693224)

        Unicomp seems to be well off, Wikipedia: "Recently, Unicomp has begun expanding their product line. Due to customer demand showing that this was no longer a special request, Unicomp now sells beige, black, and colored key caps, with printing and without. In addition, Unicomp sells replacement parts for older IBM/Lexmark keyboards, and will repair just about any keyboard manufactured by themselves, IBM, or Lexmark." (emphasis mine)

        No wonder if you are based on the Model M (I own two, both from the beginning

  • by Anonymous Coward

    I shall mourn his loss.

  • Arguably.... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by stox (131684) on Saturday February 09, 2013 @11:39PM (#42848077) Homepage

    He was also the Father of the User Interface. He was the first to take human factors into consideration in the design or products.

    • by Animats (122034) on Sunday February 10, 2013 @01:06AM (#42848437) Homepage

      He was also the Father of the User Interface. He was the first to take human factors into consideration in the design or products.

      No, that goes back at least to the Gilbreths. Frank Gilbreth created time and motion study for industrial work. His wife, Lillian Gilbreth [wikipedia.org] was more on the product side. She is responsible, among other things, for kitchens with long continuous counter space with cooking surfaces and sinks at the same level.

      The first "intelligent user interface" is hard to pinpoint. Railroad interlocking control boards were close. They prevented the operator from doing anything that would cause a collision (that's why they're called interlockings) but didn't help set up routes. The General Railway Signal NX system [nycsubway.org] in 1936 was probably the first automatic intelligent user interface. Routes were set up by pressing a button to indicate where a train was going to enter the controlled area. Lights on a track model board would then light up indicating all the places it could exit. The operator would select one, push one exit button, and all the switches and signals for the route would be set accordingly. The control system took into account all trains present, and all routes already set up, so only safe routes could be set. The operator could even set track or switches out of service and the system would route trains around the area of trouble.

      • I guess I'm not getting the point of that strip. I've never run into a residential or cellular voice mail system that requires DTMF interaction to leave a message. If anything it's "press 1 or stay on the line". Which modern voice mail system is it satirizing?
  • by Anonymous Coward

    I've worked jobs with nine-button phones and with mechanical / electro-mechanical calculators.

    Mostly, you'd take a breath and reset internally to make the swap. And hopefully notice not too many taps past the inevitable reversals. While cursing whoeverinhell didn't follow the established international keypad convention with the new phones.

    It's not like calculators were exotic. Sure nobody had them at home, but a hell of a lot of people used them at work. Basic kit of all clerical work everywhere.

    I still scr

  • by Jane Q. Public (1010737) on Sunday February 10, 2013 @02:08AM (#42848617)
    Don't tell me: John Karlin and the Touch-Tones.
  • http://dmdb.org/lyrics/freberg.underground.html#A4 [dmdb.org]

    Alas, I couldn't find a site with an actual audio recording of it--the tune was as funny as the lyrics.

  • If it weren't for him, Jenny's Phone Number might have been "UNion 75309".

    Doesn't have quite the same ring to it.

  • by TheRealHocusLocus (2319802) on Sunday February 10, 2013 @12:27PM (#42850883)

    When we were growing up on our little island in the Caribbean we could just pick up the 'phone --- and yes, oh best beloved, in those days an apostrophe would typically precede the word phone --- we'd dial five digits. And the call would just go through.

    Not seven, not ten. Never eleven! It is so obvious looking back, the seconds we saved by not dialing those unnecessary digits stretched into minutes, hours, days... by 1980 we were wandering, listless, the burden of those extra hours weighed heavily on us. Many would gaze at their telephones, silently pleading for some sign or answer. But the phones were silent too --- with so much accrued time it was pointless, there was nothing left to say, all had been said.

    Then one day a visitor came ashore and asked the number for such-and-such. While dialing the five digits they remarked, "We dial seven. This would not work where I come from."

    What an disturbing idea! Ripples of amusement and shock passed through our small society. 'Phones began to ring once again as people mulled this concept. It was unsettling, the idea that should we venture too far from home those familiar numbers we use to communicate would simply not work!

    But how far was too far, we wondered? In whispers at first. For now it was possible there was some unknown, invisible boundary surrounding us. For our safety and that of our children it must be mapped. So we asked for volunteers... and sent them out to neighboring islands at all points of the compass, and the US mainland --- and waited by our 'phones.

    We sighed with relief when the first reports came in from adjacent islands. Five digits, all clear!

    But then our worst fears were confirmed. From Puerto Rico, nothing. From The United States, nothing. We never heard from those brave souls again. Time accrued and the days became longer still.

    Then one day a village idiot --- the same who had once suggested we borrow a lug nut from each of the other wheels --- wondered that maybe there are really seven digits... but two of them are somehow invisible. A digits of the land and one of the sky he said, that are unknown to us because we live on and breathe them unaware.

    I was intrigued by this idea. What would those digits be? How could one discover them? There are only a hundred possibilities. We all were amused by this but I was perhaps the first one who actually started dialing through them. That is when I discovered that 'phones are patient. Unlike all the people I knew, my 'phone did not seem to mind if I repeatedly dialled numbers that did not work. I had found a new friend!

    It is hard to describe what happens after a lifetime of complacent acceptance, as one applies barely an hour of concentrated effort towards some insane idea -- only to reach a moment where you break through and the world changes forever. The call went through and my friend picked up and I heard a familliar 'Hello?' For In those days, oh best beloved, when we answered our 'phone we always said "Hello." We did not bark or grunt, and especially not the impolite "...yes?" or "what the fuck now??" of today.

    I shouted breathlessly "I am speaking to you from SEVEN DIGITS! SEVEN! Can you hear me??" Sure, he said, I don't think he knew what I meant and it was past midnight anyway. Being a scientist or explorer of uncharted waters is a heady responsibility. I circled and underlined the two amazing digits and proceeded to complete the sweep. The next combination yielded nothing, and the next. Finally --- the last.

    Only one circled pair of digits on my worksheet. I had concieved a simple experiment of technology that was bound to an existential question, performed an exploratory experiment and had obtained a clear and astounding result. We were all saved, we could dial seven digits now like everyone else... and all our time would be spent dialing --- glorious dialing!

    I hugged my 'phone.

    And in days to come I would discover that dialling a leading '1' forced long distance trunking to occur (Why are these local numbe

  • by ChrisMaple (607946) on Sunday February 10, 2013 @09:45PM (#42855091)
    It was found that telephone numbers could be remembered better if the exchange was last. If you look up a number, the exchange is likely to be a familiar number, one of maybe ten, while the other four digits are essentially new to you. You have a better chance of remembering the number long enough to dial it if the unfamiliar part comes first. Never implemented, probably because the nature of stepping relays made it impractical.
  • You know what pisses me off?
    To dial long distance, I have to dial "1-" first (which is OK, since I don't want to call LD by accident). But if I do dial "1-" and then a number that isn't long distance,
    it says "BEE-BEE-BEEP Your call can not be put through as dialed. Please dial again."

    Knowing what is long distance and what isn't is very complicated around here. If I start the number with "1-" it means "I don't care if the number is long distance".
    If I don't care that the number is long distance, I ce

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