What is/was the maximum number of rings on a landline?
August 4, 2019 2:28 PM   Subscribe

In the olden days (i.e., 1991) when everyone had landlines, how long would a phone ring if nobody answered? I'm assuming there is/was a cut-off point -- a certain number of minutes at which point you would get disconnected, yes?
posted by swheatie to Technology (45 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
If so, I never discovered the limit.
posted by you must supply a verb at 2:34 PM on August 4 [34 favorites]


You could set your answering machine to a certain number of rings, but other than that, no, our phone would just keep ringing until eternity.
posted by Melismata at 2:35 PM on August 4 [3 favorites]


I recall a phone preaking article about a box that would connect the call but fake the ringing with a caveat that it shouldn't be used for more than 30 minutes at a time to avoid raising eyebrows.
posted by llin at 2:35 PM on August 4 [2 favorites]


I remember calling in to radio contests and just letting it ring forever. 5 minutes? 10?
posted by you must supply a verb at 2:36 PM on August 4 [4 favorites]


It would simply keep ringing until the caller hung-up.

Now, if you left your phone off the hook (without placing a call) after a period of time, the system would cut you off.
posted by Thorzdad at 2:38 PM on August 4 [7 favorites]


I don't recall that there was a limit. I remember my parents telling me very clearly that it was rude to not hang up after 12 rings. (Why 12, specifically, I have no idea. I guess in their minds this was the maximum reasonable upper bound for someone to come in from the barn and answer the phone or something, if they were inclined to do so.) But it was up to the caller to hang up.
posted by Kadin2048 at 2:41 PM on August 4 [5 favorites]


Two corollaries: AFAIK the ringing the caller heard was not the phone ringing, but just a recording at the central office, so pre-arranging with the called party to pick up on the 3rd ring was fraught with imperfections. Also, if you unplugged your phone from the modular jack, the caller still heard the central office recording of the ringing sound.
posted by forthright at 2:41 PM on August 4


Oh, wow. Okay, thanks, everyone. I'm writing a novel set in 1991. I'm finding it hard to recall these little details.
posted by swheatie at 2:45 PM on August 4 [1 favorite]


No limit that I remember. You could call someone and literally let it ring all day until they picked up.
posted by Autumnheart at 2:45 PM on August 4 [2 favorites]


Yup it just kept ringing. It was just an open circuit, no technical jiggery-pokery to count the actual rings. You hung up to break the circuit.

Another thing that was different was that once the (tape-based) answering machine kicked in at a set number of rings, you could listen to the caller on your answering machine speaker as they were leaving their message. This led to people calling, getting the answering machine, and then saying things like "Pick up, carter! I know you're there!" They were assuming that I could hear them on the answering machine speaker. This was quite a good way to screen calls in real time - you could pick up only for people you really wanted to talk to.

IANAEngineer etc.
posted by carter at 2:48 PM on August 4 [21 favorites]


And hanging up after the third ring could be a prearranged signal to call the original caller to avoid the high cost of a collect call.
posted by Botanizer at 2:52 PM on August 4 [13 favorites]


Another thing that was different was that once the (tape-based) answering machine kicked in at a set number of rings, you could listen to the caller on your answering machine speaker as they were leaving their message.

Yep. It was the original call screening. You could listen to whomever was leaving the message, and pick-up if it was someone you wanted to talk to. You’d have to turn off the answering machine, though. Otherwise, it would just keep recording the conversation.
posted by Thorzdad at 2:56 PM on August 4 [4 favorites]


Haha, yeah, I had a friend who would talk/sing to my cat if the answering machine picked up: "I'm gonna have some food and you can't have any..." Answering machines would generally stop recording after a while, though, and hang up the call. Length was dependent on the machine/mechanism.
posted by inexorably_forward at 3:04 PM on August 4 [5 favorites]


I clearly remember calling a help line for something I needed help with and after 20-30 minutes I got a phone company recording along the lines of "You call can not go through. Please hang up and try again." This was very early 90s.
posted by BlahLaLa at 3:07 PM on August 4 [3 favorites]


In the 60s, if you were calling and it just rang and rang, you could call the operator and have her break into the line and see if there was a conversation going on or if the phone was off the hook. This was used as kind of a wellness check to see if the called person was alright and just on the phone for a long time.
posted by a humble nudibranch at 3:13 PM on August 4 [5 favorites]


Tangential, but I remember learning in... the late 80s I think that the reason that earthquakes tended to knock out the phone system was that many phone handsets would get shaken off their hooks, resulting in more open lines than the system could handle at once. So we were taught to check that the phone was properly hung up after an earthquake to keep the lines available for emergency calls. (And maybe make one call to a relative outside the region who could then inform friends and relatives that you were safe. This was in California.)
posted by heatherlogan at 3:22 PM on August 4 [8 favorites]


This might have been after the installation of local electronic/computerized switching but I remember only being able to let a phone ring for about 15 minutes after which the line would switch to, I think, a fast busy (certainly something besides a regular ring).

Earthquakes and similar disturbances is why this was done. You wouldn't want an earthquake or mischief tying up all your trunk lines (which were vastly outnumbered by local lines). Without the time out someone with access to a lot of lines (say a disgruntled employee in an office building) could have easily tied up much of your trunk lines by dialing out to a set of numbers that wouldn't answer (say calling bank extensions on a long weekend).

PS: Minute details of phone operation varied wildly well into the 80 in the US. Even in the 90s there were still manual central office switchboards in some rural locations and places where if you were making a local call you only needed to dial 4 or 5 digits. If you want to be sure of these sorts of questions you'll need to research for specific locals and systems.
posted by Mitheral at 3:42 PM on August 4 [7 favorites]


By 1991 most people had answering machines. Call screening was possible. This is when people started avoiding answering their phones. Before that, if it rang, you answered it. (And before that, if you wanted to avoid calls, you took your phone off the hook. Callers would hear a busy signal and assume you were talking to someone else.) By 1991, call waiting also existed, so if you were on a call, the caller would hear ringing and you would hear an annoying intermittent tone breaking into your conversation to let you know another caller was on the other line. It was also possible to join those lines together, for a three party conference call. In 1991, only luddites and old folks were still resisting answering machines. Without a machine the phone would ring indefinitely, but it was polite to hang up after 10 rings. Some people had caller ID by then too. By 1991, *67 and *69 (if you didn't have caller ID) also worked, and on a rotary phone you could get these services by dialing 1167 and 1169.

Man, I really miss old phones.
posted by shadygrove at 5:10 PM on August 4 [9 favorites]


My recollection from 1988 is about the phone next door. My neighbor broke up with her boyfriend and went out. He called while she was gone and her landline rang for HOURS.
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:23 PM on August 4 [3 favorites]


My memory is that there was an upper limit of rings, maybe 25(?) after which it would flip to a fast busy tone.

Growing up, for reasons that were never clear to me, in the 70s, we had two lines in our house. This was before call waiting. My brothers and I were to call the unlisted 2nd line. Anyway, my brothers and I would call the other line to test things like how long it would ring and if the rings were the same time on each line. While I do not recall if the rings were the same on both phones, I know it would stop ringing after some number.

The first test was when we boys were going to visit our grandmother in Brooklyn.. It cut off before we got home hours later. We then tried it live and it cut off. I just tried to call my brother on his POTS line but had to leave a message. He will remember the number of rings before cut off.
posted by AugustWest at 5:25 PM on August 4 [1 favorite]


This might have been after the installation of local electronic/computerized switching but I remember only being able to let a phone ring for about 15 minutes after which the line would switch to, I think, a fast busy (certainly something besides a regular ring).

That's what I remember too (from the 1980s/90s), only I would have put it around just 3–4 minutes / 30 rings or so. I'm surprised that almost all the answers here say the phone rang indefinitely.
posted by aws17576 at 5:26 PM on August 4 [1 favorite]


I have vague memories that somewhere in, I think, the '80s, there was a limit imposed because there was a hack that involved a resistor and amplifier whereby you could make the phone company think the phone was still ringing while still talking on the line. If you could tolerate talking over/through the ringing.

I'd guess the advent of digital switches made that possible.
posted by straw at 5:42 PM on August 4 [2 favorites]


You couldn’t have the operator break in for a ringing phone. That was for a busy signal, which meant the person was on the phone with someone else or had left it off the hook. If you left it off the hook for a long time, it would eventually make an extremely annoying, loud sound.
posted by FencingGal at 6:24 PM on August 4 [4 favorites]


The talking over the line was over a busy signal (e.g. when a lot of people called in to the same radio prize number, etc). Many providers did eventually impose a time limit on rings after which you'd get a reorder tone (the "fast busy signal" we all remember), but I'm having a damned time finding specifics on it. I can say from my own experience that in 1996 or so (in Western WA) it would kick in after about 10 minutes of ringing.
posted by j.edwards at 6:24 PM on August 4 [1 favorite]


To my knowledge, there was no limit to the how long a phone would ring. I know for a fact that it could go on for more than an hour. How do I know? Because I experienced it.

In 1988, I was a freshman in college. For some reason, I decided to come back early from Spring Break. I was the only one in my dorm one afternoon when the phone began to ring in the room next door. After it had been ringing for ten minutes, I contacted campus security. They said there was nothing they could do. It kept ringing. I wanted to go to bed but couldn't fall asleep with the damn phone ringing.

I lived on the second floor. I went outside to look at the building on the off chance there was a window open. There was! Hot damn! So, I did a very silly thing: I climbed out the window of my dorm room and shimmied along the outside of the building (wasn't tough) to the open window. I crawled in, picked up the receiver, and hung up. Then I left the room without disturbing anything else. The residents of that room were good friends, so I didn't feel too bad about what I did. Plus, I wanted to get to sleep.

I know the phone rang for at least an hour before I did this, and it may have been longer. Seriously, I want to say the ringing lasted two or three hours, but I can't be sure. That's 31 years ago, though, so I can't remember the exact length of time.

Also: The information from @shadygrove regarding the prevalence of answering machines is absolutely incorrect. Even in 1994, only 31% of U.S. households had answering machines, which is nowhere close to "most people". And they were far more commonly used by the wealthy than the lower- and middle-class. It wasn't a "luddite" thing. It was an income thing. [Source: my memory and this study]
posted by jdroth at 6:36 PM on August 4 [7 favorites]


This led to people calling, getting the answering machine, and then saying things like "Pick up, carter! I know you're there!" They were assuming that I could hear them on the answering machine speaker.

My mother still does this, albeit, she's never rude. It's been 15+ years since I had a land line with an answering machine.
posted by she's not there at 6:59 PM on August 4 [4 favorites]


I pinged a coworker who is a died in the wool telephone nerd. He's the kind of person who plans his vacations around visiting places like this telephone museum in Seattle.

Short answer is: it will ring indefinitely.

Furthermore you can try this yourself by calling someone who still has a true landline phone (as in an analog, pair of copper wires run to their house) today. As long as there is no answering machine to pickup for you, it will continue to ring.

Which makes sense in general as once you're patched through to the point of ringing the line there's no difference between that and you being on the call with someone (to those switching telco systems anyway) - if the other handset picks up or not doesn't matter to that system. They can detect when the line is picked up (I'm assuming, for billing only connected calls) but overhead of counting rings for such a simple function where a person would probably give up long before it was a tax on the system. And then when you consider that you'd be going through a multiple different systems if you were dialing from rural Connecticut to Seattle adding what seems like a simple thing such as a dialing timeout becomes really complicated. Does SNET (Connecticut's post ma Bell breakup telco) enforce the timeout? Does Washington's local carrier do it? Does AT&T who owns the trunk used by both carriers do it?

Edit: the exception being as Mitheral pointed out, when a regional system would override it for things like earthquakes.
posted by mrzarquon at 8:05 PM on August 4 [4 favorites]


I had forgotten about the off-the-hook sound until FencingGal mentioned it, so since I had to go listen to it, I share with the class as well.

Annoying doesn't even begin to describe it.

(Also, nthing that phones could ring forever, and that it was polite to let it ring 10 times in general.)
posted by current resident at 8:21 PM on August 4 [1 favorite]


> In 1991, only luddites and old folks were still resisting answering machines.

And, y'know, poor people. Not everyone prioritized buying another gadget to give them something that didn't feel was necessary.

The culture and expectations around phone use varied quite a bit at the time, and is of course very different from today.
posted by desuetude at 9:34 PM on August 4 [3 favorites]


Since the OP didn't state where they are or their story is set, I'm going to state unequivocally from personal first-hand knowledge of official technical documentation that the maximum ring duration was ~90 seconds

Which is what it was in Australia.
posted by Pinback at 10:10 PM on August 4 [3 favorites]


Pinback, yeah and didn't it make some stutter-y sound after that? I remember it changing to a different tone and that's when you gave up.
posted by kitten magic at 10:55 PM on August 4


I think there were a maybe 3 reasons for a lack of ring timeout: the first one was historical. The 1990s era automatic (and probably digital) exchanges took over from the days of operator-connected calls. At that earlier point, the operator's patience would be the time-limiting factor so there was not really a need to put in a time out.

The second reason is to do with call queuing. Some smaller businesses would not have had the kind of PBX that could answer callers and put them on hold - so they would just leave an incoming calls ringing until they had time to attend to it. That might be several minutes.

And finally there was the issue of managing situations where many people were trying to call a single number. I believe that if person A was attempting to call number X and getting a ringing signal - then person B, C and so on would get a busy signal - and have to re-dial in the hope of getting connected. The idea of putting people into a call queue at the exchange level was something that could happen in some cases by the 1990s - but the method of just not having a queue at all also served as a simple solution.

A side note, to say that turning off the sound of an incoming ring (at least here in the UK) was quite hard. You couldn't unplug a phone and there were limits to your ability to turn the bell sound down or off. So callers would be fairly confident that their incoming call would be sending an alert to anybody in the vicinity.
posted by rongorongo at 11:21 PM on August 4 [1 favorite]


Centuries ago ( it seems at least that long) I worked for Northwest Bell in the business office. We were advised to give up after 10 rings, and to give that advice to any customers who wondered how long to ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring. I would type in an ellipsis but someone has twittered them into infamy.
posted by Cranberry at 11:42 PM on August 4


kitten magic: Busy tone mostly (425Hz, 0.375 secs on / 0.375 secs off, repeated) IIRC, though in a few cases I know of NU (Number Unavailable) tone - same as busy tone, except with every second beep attenuated by 10dB - was used, and that may have been more widespread than I personally know of.
> "The 1990s era automatic (and probably digital) exchanges took over from the days of operator-connected calls. At that earlier point, the operator's patience would be the time-limiting factor so there was not really a need to put in a time out.
The US must have been more technically backwards than I suspected. In Australia, city and regional switching was pretty much all automatic by the mid-late 60's, with only international, interstate, and some very small rural destinations requiring operator connection. A few places lasted through to the early 80's, and I think the last operator-connected exchange was at Wanaaring, NSW (population 100-odd) - which was finally automated in 1991.
posted by Pinback at 11:48 PM on August 4 [1 favorite]


(Oops, that should be "congestion tone", not NU tone…)
posted by Pinback at 11:55 PM on August 4


Manual switching persisted in the US, barely, into the 90s. There were lots of little phone companies that basically served single towns/communities that were slow to upgrade/be bought out.

Also the cost of running lines in rural areas was high for little (IE business) payback. I was still on a, by that time rare, party line in 1994 in BC, Canada.
posted by Mitheral at 11:57 PM on August 4


As recently as 2010 I called a landline number in the UK from my landline UK phone and it rang for two hours before I finally gave up on it.
posted by biffa at 1:46 AM on August 5


I clearly remember calling a help line for something I needed help with and after 20-30 minutes I got a phone company recording along the lines of "You call can not go through. Please hang up and try again." This was very early 90s.

You got those messages when the line you called (or, the entire exchange) was overloaded. This often happened during times of increased use, like during a severe weather event or disaster. A help line could easily become overloaded simply from lots of people calling at once.
posted by Thorzdad at 3:46 AM on August 5


In 1991, only luddites and old folks were still resisting answering machines.

This is not universally true, and in addition to desuetude's excellent point, I suspect it was also regionally dependent. In 1991, my middle-class parents were not particularly old nor were they at all luddites, and we did not have an answering machine. A few of my friends' families did, but most were like ours and just did not feel the need. This was the U.S. South, in an area with several adjacent large towns, so neither really urban nor rural (but if I had to pick one, skewing towards the latter).
posted by solotoro at 5:09 AM on August 5 [3 favorites]


BTW, I think the standard was 10 rings per minute.
posted by SemiSalt at 7:08 AM on August 5


Another anec-data point - the "let it ring 10-12 times" was because, with only one phone (with a cord to the wall), folks needed time to get to their phone - especially if they were out in the yard, in the basement, etc. I remember scrambling to answer the phone only to get there just as the 10th ring finished. We always said: "If it's important, they'll call back."
posted by dbmcd at 7:54 AM on August 5


We didn't have an answering machine until the summer of 94. I know that because I went to college that summer and we got them for my dorm room and the house. We were a regular old middle class family with an Apple IIc (so definitely not luddites).

We still have a POTS line with an answering machine. We still use it to screen calls. When I'm calling home, I do the whole "George, pick up if your there" when the machine switched on.
posted by kathrynm at 9:04 AM on August 5


You’d have to turn off the answering machine, though. Otherwise, it would just keep recording the conversation.

Taking the cable out of the phone jack worked too.
posted by brujita at 12:11 PM on August 5


The 1990s era automatic (and probably digital) exchanges took over from the days of operator-connected calls.
In a medium-sized (100,000 people) US metro area, we had automated exchanges in the 50’s. They were certainly digital but they were electromechanical, not what we’d think of as a computer. Operators handled long distance, collect, information, and stuff like that, but just dialed calls had no operator intervention (according to a cousin who worked as an operator back then, and I didn’t check the recollection, so maybe the time is wrong). But there was definitely a long period of non-computer automated switching. That’s why phones had dials—the switch would count the impulses to make each part of the connection.
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 8:27 PM on August 6 [1 favorite]


Just to update my post, I spent a little time talking to friend and reading online, and automated exchanges have been around since like 1920. So there was quite a long time in some locations between "number, please" and computer-controlled switches.

Here is an AT&T film about stepping switches from 1951. It is pretty interesting if you've ever wondered how the phone system used to work in the United States. I think that it was very similar in the U.K., though I'm sure the wires were on the other side of the frame or something. This is the era when "tracing a call" involved sending a guy out into the building to follow from switch to switch.
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 5:14 PM on August 8


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