Celebrating National Telephone Day: From Rotary Phones to Cell Phones and Beyond

Jim Gustke profile image April 19, 2022 | 5 min read

April 25th is National Telephone Day! Because of this, now is a great time to think about the telephone, a truly amazing technology that has shaped civilization with its fascinating evolution. 

When the first phone was invented, many people thought it was unnecessary because the telegraph was already able to send a message to someone. Now, of course, we all carry smartphones in our pockets. While SMS messaging (similar to the telegraph) is once again an important component of communication, there’s no denying the power and importance of voice when it comes to communication.

Let’s walk through the telephone’s history, starting nearly 150 years ago.

infographic covering nearly 150 years of phone history from rotary phones to cell phones

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A Telephone Timeline

The 1800s

In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell created a short-range telephone. Many inventors were working on similar devices at the same time, but because Bell was the first to patent the invention, his milestone is often cited as the genesis of the telephone. 

Development was happening quickly in the early years. Just two years later in 1878, the first commercial telephone exchange in North America opened in New Haven, Connecticut. This was a shift where communication technology was becoming communication infrastructure. 


The first transcontinental telephone call was placed between San Francisco and New York City in 1915, showing that calls could be made across long distances. Calling automation was also being developed. Initially, the operator would connect callers, but in 1919, rotary phones were introduced into the Bell system, allowing callers to dial numbers themselves. 

Then in 1927, the device design got an upgrade; a telephone handset was developed that combined talking and listening components. Developers continued to push the limits of long-distance calls, and in 1935, the first telephone call was routed around the world by wire and radio. More than a decade later, in 1947, the telephone numbers system was developed for North America.


In 1961, direct long-distance calls became available nationwide. This meant an operator was no longer needed to call long distance. 

Another design upgrade happened in 1963. The first push-button telephone was developed, allowing for  Touch-Tone dialing. Two years later, phone design got even more streamlined with the classic Trimline telephone model. Changes were also made to improve consumer safety and convenience. In 1968, the first 911 call was made. During the 1970s, party lines began to be phased out for single lines per household.


During the 1980s, telephone calls were becoming wireless. First, cordless phones freed callers from being connected to the wall when using their landlines. Cellular phone technology was also being developed. In 1984, the first commercially available mobile phone became available. It cost $4,000, weighed 1.75 pounds, and had 30 minutes of talk time. 

Answering machines were the next big innovation, and in 1991, two out of five homes had them. They cost between $50 and $250 just for the answering machine! Also in 1991, call waiting began to gain popularity. Before that, you got a busy signal. By 1993, Caller ID was available in 37 states and parts of New York City. 

Public payphones peaked at 2.6 million during the mid-1990s at the tipping point when cell phones were starting to gain traction. In 1995, the U.S. had 33.8 million cell phone subscribers, and text messaging was possible by hitting each number multiple times to get the right letter, a method called T9. Cell phones continued to get smaller and lighter, and in 1996, flip phones like the Motorola StarTAC were popular.


In the year 2000, there were 109.5 million cellular phone subscribers. Also that year, cell phone design began to merge with PDAs in the Handspring VisorPhone. In 2004, BlackBerry added full web browsing capabilities to its functionality. 

In 2007, the first iPhone made its debut, costing $600. There was already a frenzy for iPhones, and people lined up for days to get one. One buyer told Macworld at the time, “Today, I’ve got three things in my pocket,” referencing his iPod, PDA and cell phone. “Tomorrow, I’ll have one,” he adds. 

The first-generation iPhone was lauded for its sleek design and intuitive touchscreen. However, not everyone was on board. The review in Wired commented about the cell phone’s cost, saying that it “isn’t worth the money,” and Blackberry fans ridiculed its lack of a physical keyboard. 

Nevertheless, the launch of the iPhone paved the way to our current smartphone era. In 2013, smartphones overtook “dumb” phones worldwide. Android devices were popular with 52 percent of smartphone subscribers in 2013 using Android, 38 percent using iOS, and the remainder using another platform.

As more people carried cell phones, payphones were no longer necessary. In 2014, fewer than 300,000 pay phones remained, and creative repurposing projects have converted phone booths into tiny art galleries, information booths and Wi-Fi routers. In 2017, 95% of Americans owned a mobile phone.


Because of quarantines, phone calls gained a new importance in keeping people connected. Providers saw the average call volume skyrocket and length of calls increase. Phone calls became a familiar touchstone amid social distancing, lack of gatherings, and concerns about well-being.

It’s not just personal phone calls that spiked. There was also a growing shift to using phone calls in the workplace as a way to combat nonstop video conferencing and Zoom fatigue. The Wall Street Journal called it a “phone call renaissance.”

Today’s Cutting Edge

Ooma Telo is more than just a phone. It’s a home’s central hub that offers advanced functionality in addition to saving you money on home phone bills. 

Use the Ooma Telo to maintain privacy with encrypted calls; transmit crystal-clear calls with HD Voice technology; stay connected to your home phone no matter where you are with the mobile app; make international calls for pennies; enable advanced call blocking to combat robocalls; and integrate with a smart home security system.