Dial Lettering


Lettering on dials

Many people will be surprised how many number and letter arrangements have been used on telephone dials and keypads in Britain. This section attempts to resolve them all.

Number-only dials are the most common dials used in Britain; some dials had letters but by no means the majority. Normal dials have the digits 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0, arranged anti-clockwise. An alternative arrangement 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 0 was used in New Zealand and because dials were made for that country in the same British factories as ‘British’ dials, it was inevitable that export dials would end up on British phones now and again (users were puzzled why all digits they dialled were wrong except 5 and 0).  A large batch of telephones with New Zealand dials was delivered to British Rail by Pye-TMC in the 1970s and these phones also turned up on Post Office dials from time to time.

For lettered dials at least four schemes are noted. The first was that used in the USA and proposed for the Western Electric Panel exchange in London; the digit 6 carried letters MNO. In the event, it was never used here because the ATM Director system was selected in preference to Panel and the opportunity was taken to move the letter O to the zero digit. Both France and Britain believed the letter O and digit 0 were likely to be confused. Thus whilst the Americans stuck with MNO against the figure 6, we and the French moved the letter O to zero to reduce potential confusion.

This scheme was maintained by the BPO right up until the time when international direct dialling was planned and it was also adopted for London Transport’s private telephone network, which also used letter codes. 

            1          2          3          4          5          6          7          8          9          0

                     ABC    DEF     GHI     JKL      MN     PRS     TUV    WXY     O

The letter Q did not appear on this dial but it was used in France where an exchange in Paris went by the name ROQuette; the letter Q was located on the digit zero. To allow unrestricted  international dialling this letter was adopted here as well and old dials were exchanged gradually for new dials with the letter Q.

An entirely separate arrangement of letters was used in Germany before the war and this appeared on some telephones exported by the T & N company to their UK customer, the British Home & Office Telephone Company. The letters were not used here for dialling.

1    2    3    4    5    6    7    8    9    0

A   B   C   D    E   F    G   H    J    K

Yet another arrangement was found on dials (BPO No. 12) used to send up train descriptions in power signal boxes of British Railways (Western Region). These dials were not used for telephone calls but collectors may encounter these dials.

1    2    3    4    5    6    7    8    9    0

A   B   C   F    H    J    T    V   X   Z

One last  arrangement is found on BPO No. 10 dials supplied by Siemens Bros. on telephones exported to the Manitoba Telephone System in Canada. These are the only dials carrying the letter Q in North America and it appears that codes employing Q were never introduced.

            1          2          3          4          5          6          7          8          9          0

                    ABC    DEF     GHI     JKL      MNO   PRS     TUV    WXY    QZ

Significant quantities of telephones equivalent to the Tele. 706 were exported to the USA (Telephone Rentals had a subsidiary in New York) and Canada and these too carried the North American letter arrangement (as above but with the letter Q omitted).

Two locations in Britain had exchange names included on the dial, Guernsey and Brighton.

Dials in Brighton were lettered thus:-

2          Brighton

3          Hove

4          Portslade

5          Preston

6          Rottingdean

7          Southwick

0          Operator

This is the scheme at Guernsey:-

2          Central

3          St Martin

4          St Sampson

5          Catel

6          St Peter

To complete the story we must also consider letter arrangements used subsequently on push-button telephones in Britain.

Letter dialling had been abolished in Britain when all-figure numbering replaced letter codes in the late 1960s (they persisted a little longer on London Transport’s system). In the 1980s a growing number of phones made for the American market trickled into Britain, bringing with them the US letter scheme (with MNO on digit 6). BT also supplied phones with these letters with its SL-X PABX.

The American passion for toll-free numbers that spelled words was copied to  an extent in France, where letters appeared on push button phones supplied by France TÚlÚcom. These had the letters Q and Z on digit 0 and the same layout appeared on many mobile phones supplied by European manufacturers such as Nokia.

            1          2          3          4          5          6          7          8          9          0

                     ABC    DEF     GHI     JKL      MN     PRS     TUV    WXY   QZ

Just as pan-European standardisation looked imminent, the Americans moved the goalposts and added the letters Q and Z to different letters Q to 7 and Z to 9 and shifted letter O to digit 6. Subsequently this has become an international recommendation.

            1          2          3          4          5          6          7          8          9            0

                      ABC    DEF     GHI     JKL    MNO   PQRS   TUV   WXYZ

 

Click here for a picture of GEC supplied labels

 

 
 
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Last revised: May 06, 2011

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