For many people, the rotary dial telephone is the quintessential image of telephone communication. Despite the prevalence of smartphones worldwide and the fact that rotary phones have been phased out since the 1960s, the retro aesthetic of the finger wheel and the curved handset receiver resting in the cradle remains a lasting symbol of telephones to this day.
Rotary phones were the first telephones to be widely used in households. They were popular throughout the majority of the 20th century before being replaced by push-button phones and then touchscreen technology.
Although rotary phones are still in use, the UK is switching all landlines to a new digital system in 2025, which may mean that some older handsets are no longer compatible with the main phone system in the country. You can find out whether your phone will still work by calling your network provider.
We are going to take a look at rotary phones, what they are, when they were invented, where you can buy one, and how they work.
A rotary phone - sometimes called a 'spin dial phone' - is a telephone that uses a round dial and a finger wheel that is rotated to dial the numbers. From the inception of the telephone in the late 19th century to the 1970s, the rotary phone was the standard model used in telephone communications until it was replaced with the push-button technology that is still used today.
Although they are no longer in popular use, you can still buy antique rotary phones as well as new rotary phones that are designed to have a retro aesthetic.
So let's jump in and find out if old rotary phones still work.
As long as they aren't broken, rotary phones do still work!
Many of the rotary phones that are still in use are old phones from the 20th century, but you can buy new ones that are designed to have a retro aesthetic.
Old rotary phones that aren't damaged should still work. Although they use an older technological system of simple circuits, mics, and speakerphones, the old phone system that traditional rotary phones use is still in place.
Most phone wiring systems within modern houses still support the old system, so as long as can connect your rotary phone to the phone plug system in your house, it should still work.
However, when the UK phone system switches from analogue to digital in 2025, some older phones may no longer work. Call your network provider to find out more about the switch and whether your phone will work or not.
Rotary phones get their names because the dial on the face of the phone that you use to input the number you wish to call rotates as you push the wheel.
The digits are arranged in a circular layout in numerical order, with 0 sitting closest to the metal finger stopper and 9 being the furthest away. As you spin the dial, it rotates an internal mechanism that then relays a signal to the phone operator and informs them of the number you are dialing.
This is a simplified explanation, so let's now take a closer look at how rotary phones.
Traditionally, phones were connected to a central telephone office by copper wires. The central office is there to connect calls from one line to another.
When your phone was not in use, it was hooked to the central office, and the wires in your phone and the office's phone formed an open circuit.
When you picked up the handset and your phone was off the hook, the circuit was closed, and the central office would then connect your line to the switching equipment.
Then, each time you turned and released the dial, a mechanism within the phone sent a series of pulses to the switchboard to relay the phone numbers you were dialing.
The switchboard would then connect your phone line to the line you wanted to contact and set up a closed circuit between the two lines.
Using a rotary telephone can be confusing if you have never done it before. The leap from push-button technology to touch screen was much more logical than from rotary phone dial to push-button.
So let's take a look at how to use them.
- Begin by removing the receiver from the cradle. Most landline phones don't work unless the receiver is lifted, so you won't be able to dial until you do so.
- Place the receiver by your ear and listen for the dial tone. This tells you that the phone is connected.
- Next, you need to dial the number you want to call. To do this, you insert your finger into the hole above the number you need.
- You then drag your finger around the dial until you reach the metal stopper and can't pull it any further. The whole dial should rotate when you do this.
- Then repeat steps 3 and 4 for all the digits in the phone number you need to call.
- Once you have finished dialing, you just speak and listen using the receiver as you would with any other phone.
Retro fans will be glad to hear that you can still find rotary phones for sale at major retailers. As we saw earlier, you can get both antique models made in the 20th century (or even earlier) and new designs that are given an antiquated aesthetic for fashion purposes.
You can get new rotary phones from all the main electrical, homeware, and online retailers, including Argos, Amazon, and Currys. You can also buy second-hand models from antique shops and fairs, as well as online retailers such as eBay.
A new model can cost you between £10 and £100, while some antique rotary phones could cost upwards of £300 depending on their use and history.
Since the invention of telephone communication by Alexander Graham Bell in 1876, there have been radical changes to telephones and how we interact with them.
The first rotary patent for a rotary dial was filed in 1891 by Almo Brown Strowger of the US. And then the first rotary dial phone appeared in Indiana in 1892. These early rotary dials used a finger plate instead of holes.
By 1919, big companies in the US, such as The American Bell phone company, started producing rotary dial phones to be sold for public use.
On a rotary dial phone, low numbers, such as 2, can be dialed quicker than high numbers, such as 9, because the dial has less distance to rotate before reaching the stopper. So, in 1947, when US area codes were introduced, large cities that were likely to experience a lot more phone calls than smaller ones were given lower area codes. For example, the lowest area code is 212 and is used for New York City as it is the largest city in the US.
By the 1950s, rotary phones were commonplace in US and UK households and were now made from plastic rather than metal.
Then, in 1962 at the Seattle World Fair, the first modern push-button phone - sometimes called a 'touch-tone telephone' - was displayed. A year later, US president John F. Kennedy used a push-button telephone in the Oval Office. Later that year, the first electronic push-button phone system was made commercially available by Bell Telephone to customers in Pittsburgh.
The phone was called the 'Western Electric 1500' and had ten buttons. It was then replaced a few years later by the 'Western Electric 2500,' which had 12 buttons due to the addition of star and hash keys.
Despite debuting in 1963, rotary dial telephones were still far more common than push-button phones for many years. Sales for push-button phones increased during the 1970s, and by the 1980s, they had become more commonplace.
Push-button phones then remained the norm until the early 2000s when smartphone technology was made widely available, and the digital touchscreen became the norm.
In the present day, push-button phones are still used in offices and for landlines (though this is increasingly less common), but the touchscreen pad is the most widely used dial for mobile phones.
In 2025, the system that underpins landlines in the UK is shifting to digital technology in place of the analogue technology created in the 1980s. The new system will ensure that our phone lines are built to match the demands of the modern world and will create a more effective and efficient phone system.
Everyone with a landline will be affected, but most people won't notice as it will happen automatically within the internal systems rather than within households.
Most phones will still work in the new system, and households are unlikely to notice any changes. However, if you have a very old telephone, such as a traditional rotary phone, it may not be compatible with the new system. If this is the case, you will have to buy a new handset.
You can call your phone network provider to find out more about the switch to digital and whether or not your phone will work within the new system.
Rotary phones were once the standard model used in telephone communications. Although they have been replaced by push-button and touchscreen smartphones, the rotary dial phone remains popular with retro lovers.
The old models still work in most households, as many homes are connected to the old networks rotary phones require. However, some phones will not be compatible with the new digital phone system that will be implemented in all landline telephones in 2025.