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What is a Touch Tone Telephone?

Malcolm Tatum
Updated May 16, 2024
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The touch tone telephone is a communication device that makes use of a form of telephone switching — or the connecting of a call from one phone to another — that is known as dual-tone multi-frequency (DTMF). DTMF replaced the earlier pulse style of switching that was common with the rotary dial phones commonly used through the 1970s. A simple telephone keypad replaced the rotary dial on the newer touch tone units that became the industry standard for both cell phones and land lines.

More Options Available

The development of touch tone services began in the middle of the 20th century, and these telephones were first introduced to a wide sector of the consumer market in the early 1970s. The basic process of the new tone dialing made it possible to switch calls with more efficiency. It also created the means of using specific tones to access a range of ancillary services that were not possible with the traditional pulse signal. A user can press a button on a phone's keypad to emit a tone that is heard by the computer system to which he or she is connected, thereby relaying information or triggering a certain response. For example, a customer can enter credit card or identification numbers by pressing buttons on a keypad, or he or she can choose from among various options by listening to a menu and pressing the button that corresponds with the desired option.

Replaced Rotary Phones

To take full advantage of these new capabilities, major telephone service providers around the world began to order the manufacture of touch tone phones that would accurately emit the right type of tones to activate those features. Deployed to the business community initially, the technology quickly spread to the private sector. By 1979, the touch tone phone was the telephone of choice for most users in many parts of the world.

With the deregulation of the telephone industry in the United States in 1984, the touch tone telephone became even more important. Companies that specialized in particular telephone communication services began to compete with the main telephone carriers for business. Making use of the dual tone technology helped many independent conference call companies capture a profitable share of the market for those types of services.

Better Customer Service

The presence of touch tone telephones in the home also made it possible for businesses to provide enhanced customer service. This telephone made it possible for banks to set up direct access to information about current balances, latest activity and pending deposits by making use of the dual tone functionality. As time went on, other companies found ways to implement automated technology that allowed callers to reach the right contact or obtain account information by simply pressing keys on their phone keypad.

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Malcolm Tatum
By Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum, a former teleconferencing industry professional, followed his passion for trivia, research, and writing to become a full-time freelance writer. He has contributed articles to a variety of print and online publications, including EasyTechJunkie, and his work has also been featured in poetry collections, devotional anthologies, and newspapers. When not writing, Malcolm enjoys collecting vinyl records, following minor league baseball, and cycling.
Discussion Comments
By anon924735 — On Jan 07, 2014

The first time I used a touch-tone phone was 1964, at the NYC World's Fair. They weren't even in homes then. I remember calling home and I was so excited! I was the first in my family to use one!

By Mykol — On Oct 23, 2012

I was around even before there had the rotary dial phones. We I was a kid we had an old wall mounted telephone. If you wanted to make a phone call, you had to go through the local operator.

I also remember the days of party lines when you had several families that shared one phone line. If you were a nosy person, you could listen in on other phone conversations and hear everything that was being said.

It has been a long time since I thought about those old phones. The invention of a touch tone telephone really helped changed the future of the telephone. Even with the new technology in cell phones, you still use the touch tone dialing to make a call.

By myharley — On Oct 22, 2012

@anon225569-- I remember using the rotary dial phones when I was growing up. Changing over to the touch tone phone was a big deal. Now it would seem like forever if you had to wait to dial a phone number using a rotary dial. I still see a few of these old phones at garage sales from time to time, but would sure never want to go back to using one.

By anon225569 — On Oct 27, 2011

I remember going to the Ohio state fair back in 1980 and the telephone company had a display comparing rotary and touch tone phones. Visitors would first dial a phone call using the standard rotary dial, then make the same call using the new-fangled touch tone pad. A large digital clock displayed how long each call took to place. I remember it took me around 8 seconds to make a rotary call, but only two or three seconds to make a touch tone call.

A roommate showed me years later that you can make a pulse dial phone call on a touch tone phone if the pad quits working. He pressed the "flash" button at the bottom of the pad once he got the dial tone. If he wanted to dial a 6, he pressed that button 6 times in a row very quickly. He paused for a second, then started tapping out the second number and so on. I honestly thought it wouldn't work, since he had to tap in every number so fast and accurately, but sure enough, the phone started ringing and the right person picked up.

By anon61806 — On Jan 22, 2010

My friend has two touch phones ; both pick up her radio. Fortunately she has a very old pulse dialing phone which is unaffected. Has this phenomena been noted before?

By anon28250 — On Mar 13, 2009

"By 1979, the touch tone phone was definitely the telephone of choice"

A little bit US-centric. Very few people in the UK had access to a touch tone (MF) telephone in 1979.

The vast majority of 'phones were pulse dialing for at least another 10 years.

Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum, a former teleconferencing industry professional, followed his passion for trivia, research, and writing...
Learn more
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