What was "rattling the phone" in 1950s England?
July 15, 2021 4:55 PM   Subscribe

In Muriel Spark's Loitering with Intent, set in London in the 1950s, the main character "rattles the phone to gain attention" when she makes a phone call and gets no reply. What does this mean?

Here's the passage (p. 37 in the New Directions edition):
I wanted to telephone to Sir Quentin to tell him where his mother was. There was a phone in my room connected to a switchboard in the basement. I got no reply, which was not unusual, and I rattled to gain attention. The red-faced house-boy, underpaid and bad-tempered, who lived with his wife and children down in those regions, burst into the room shouting at me to stop rattling the phone. Apparently the switchboard was in process of repair and a man was working overtime on it. "The board's asunder," bellowed the boy. I liked the phrase and picked it out for myself from the wreckage of the moment, as was my wont.
What exactly is she doing by "rattling the phone", how would it gain attention, and why is it relevant that the switchboard is in process of repair?
posted by hoist with his own pet aardvark to Technology (8 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
 
Best answer: Repeatedly pressing and releasing the hookswitch would cause the corresponding light on the switchboard to flash on and off, to get the operator’s attention.
posted by mbrubeck at 5:05 PM on July 15, 2021 [17 favorites]


Best answer: When switchboards were still a thing in telephone communications, lifting the phone off the hook would turn on a light at the switchboard operator's panel, signaling that you were ready to make a call. You could tap the hook repeatedly (called "hook flashing") to get someone's attention at the board, which is why in old movies you'll sometimes see a character do a tap-the-hook "hello? hello??" when a call is cut off.
posted by specialagentwebb at 5:07 PM on July 15, 2021 [13 favorites]


Wikipedia: Hook flash
posted by zamboni at 6:06 PM on July 15, 2021 [2 favorites]


which is why in old movies you'll sometimes see a character do a tap-the-hook "hello? hello??" when a call is cut off.
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!!!

It's real, rational phone behavior?!? This is a revelation. I thought it was one of those weird, alternate-reality scriptwriting conventions like when someone "opens a present" they don't tear off the wrapping paper, they lift a separately wrapped lid off a separately wrapped box. Or how whenever anyone picks up a big chef's knife there's a loud "SCHLINNNG!" noise. Because obviously nobody wraps gifts like that and knives don't make noise when they're moved and when you've been hung up on, pressing the hang-up button and yelling "hello?" will not reconnect you.
posted by Don Pepino at 7:54 PM on July 18, 2021


Ok, on a related note, in the 1990s, as a teenager or so, I remember picking up our landline and mimicking/mocking those old timey movie scenes where someone repeatedly taps the hook yelling desperately, "operator, operator!?!" In front of my mom. 2 seconds after hanging up I get a call and it's the operator (I guess?) asking me if I'm okay. I remember my mom yanking the phone away from me and apologizing and assuring the woman I was okay. Anyway, we were both shocked that this was actually a real thing, and even more so in the 1990s.
posted by flamk at 12:41 AM on July 19, 2021 [2 favorites]


More amazingly, it would still work on a BT landline today, flamk, although I doubt the operator would call you back. I'm pretty sure you actually dialled the operator. On exchanges that support pulse dialing (which includes modern landlines, although generally not cable phone providers etc), 1 tap of the receiver hook dials a 1, 2 taps dials 2, etc, and 10 taps dials 0. If you tapped once at the start, briefly paused and then just hammered away quickly without significant breaks, you will have dialled 1 0 0, i.e. the operator.

This phenomenon gave rise to probably the first widely employed phreaking technique. Many earlier pulse dialing public telephones required a coin to activate the dialer, and had a mechanism to end the call when the money ran out. However, they did not isolate the line from the pulses sent by the receiver hook. As a result, the nimble fingered could dial the number from the hook without putting any money in. In addition, the call never having started as far as the coin operated part of the phone was concerned, it was possible to talk for as long as you liked without getting cut off.
posted by howfar at 12:06 PM on July 19, 2021 [1 favorite]


Not sure why I assumed a UK location. I think the operator (or at least enquiries with completion) number in the US was 411 (dunno if it's still the case) which would be just as easy to accidentally pulse dial, and seems slightly more likely if you were mimicking the rhythm of taps in old time movies.
posted by howfar at 12:18 PM on July 19, 2021


I thought it was one of those weird, alternate-reality scriptwriting conventions like when someone "opens a present" they don't tear off the wrapping paper, they lift a separately wrapped lid off a separately wrapped box... Because obviously nobody wraps gifts like that...

I wrap gifts like that.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 10:08 PM on August 4, 2021 [1 favorite]


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