Telephone keypad

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A telephone keypad using the ITU E 1.161 International Standard, as used for text messaging.

A telephone keypad is a keypad that appears on a "Touch Tone" telephone. It was standardised when the dual-tone multi-frequency system in the new push-button telephone was introduced in the 1960s, which gradually replaced the rotary dial.[1] The invention of the keypad is attributed to John E. Karlin, an industrial psychologist at Bell Labs. The contemporary keypad is laid out in a 4×3 grid, although the original DTMF system in the new keypad had an additional column for four now-defunct menu selector keys (see Autovon). Most keypads have a "" key (called star or asterisk) on the bottom left and a "#" (called hash, pound, or other names) on the bottom right.

Key frequency[edit]

When used to dial a telephone number, pressing a single key will produce a dual-tone multi-frequency signaling pitch consisting of two simultaneous pure tone sinusoidal frequencies. The row in which the key appears determines the low frequency, and the column determines the high frequency. For example, pressing the '1' key will result in a sound composed of both a 697 and a 1209 hertz (Hz) tone.

DTMF keypad frequencies (with sound clips)
1209 Hz 1336 Hz 1477 Hz 1633 Hz
697 Hz 1 2 3 A
770 Hz 4 5 6 B
852 Hz 7 8 9 C
941 Hz 0 # D

Layout and characters[edit]

Phone with letters on its rotary dial (1950s, UK)

The layout of the digits is different from that commonly appearing on calculators and numeric keypads. This layout was chosen after extensive human factors testing from Bell Labs.[2][3] At the time (late 1950s), mechanical calculators were not widespread, and few people had experience with them.[4] (Indeed, calculators were only just starting to settle on a common layout; a 1955 paper says "Of the several calculating devices we have been able to look at... Two other calculators have keysets resembling [the layout that would become the most common layout].... Most other calculators have their keys reading upward in vertical rows of ten,"[3] while a 1960 paper just five years later refers to today's common calculator layout as "the arrangement frequently found in ten-key adding machines".[2]) In any case, Bell Labs' testing found that the telephone layout used today, with 1-3 on the top, was slightly faster than the calculator layout with 1-3 on the bottom; however, it's not apparent whether the two layouts were ever compared directly against each other. One advantage to the telephone layout is that the same letter associations from rotary dial phones appears in alphabetic ordering reading from top to bottom, although it's not clear whether this was considered as a factor in choosing the now-standard layout.

GPO 726 Phone from 1967

The "" is called the "star key" or "asterisk key". (Technically it should always have six points, as shown here, but it's conventionally typed on computers with the plain asterisk " * ", which usually has five points in sans-serif typefaces.) "#" is called the "number sign", "pound key", "hash key", hex key, "octothorpe", "gate" or "square", depending on one's nationality or personal preference. (The Greek symbols alpha and omega had been planned originally.[5]) These can be used for special functions. For example, in the UK, users can order a 7.30am alarm call from a British Telecom telephone exchange by dialling: *55*0730#.[6]

Most of the keys also bear letters according to the following system:

A standard telephone keypad.
Number Letter
0 none (in some telephones, "OPERATOR" or "OPER")
1 none (in some older telephones, QZ)
7 PQRS (in older telephones, PRS)
9 WXYZ (in older telephones, WXY)

These letters have had several auxiliary uses. Originally, they referred to exchanges. In the mid-20th century United States, before the advent of All-Number Calling, numbers were seven digits long including a two-digit prefix which was expressed as the letters rather than numbers e.g.; KL5-5445. The UK telephone numbering system used a similar two-letter code after the initial zero to form the first part of the subscriber trunk dialling code for that region – for example, Aylesbury was assigned 0AY6 which translated into 0296. (The majority of these original numbers have remained, particularly in the rural areas, and are currently still in service. The modern equivalent of 0AY6, namely 01296, still refers to Aylesbury.)

The letters have also been used, mainly in the United States, as a way of remembering telephone numbers easily. For example, an interior decorator might license the phone number 1-800-724-6837 but advertise it as the more memorable phoneword 1-800-PAINTER. Sometimes businesses advertise a number with a mnemonic word having more letters than there are digits in the phone number. Usually, this means that the caller just stops dialing at 7 digits after the area code or that the numbers are ignored by the switchboard.

In recent times, the letters on the keys are needed also for entering text on mobile phones, for text messaging, entering names in the phone book, mobile apps, mobile browser, etc. To compensate for the smaller keys, mobile phones use systems like multi-tap and predictive text.

On old phones, with a "Call Exchange button", this is equivalent to the "R" line break recall button.

Letter mapping[edit]

Mobile phone keypad with latin and japanese letters.

When designing or selecting a new phone, publishing or using phonewords, one should be aware that there have been multiple standards for the mapping of letters (characters) to numbers (keypad layouts, as with keyboard layout) on telephone keypads over the years.

The system used in Denmark[not in citation given] was different from that used in the U.K., which was different from the U.S. and Australia.[7] The use of alphanumeric codes for exchanges was abandoned in Europe when international direct dialling was introduced in the 1960s, because, for example, dialling VIC 8900 on a Danish telephone would result in a different number to dialling it on a British telephone. At the same time letters were no longer put on the dials of new telephones.

Letters did not re-appear on phones in Europe until the introduction of mobile phones, and the layout followed the new international standard ITU E.161/ISO 9995-8. The ITU established an international standard (ITU E.161) in the mid-1990s, and that should be the layout used for any new devices.[8] There is a standard, ETSI ES 202 130, that covers European languages and other languages used in Europe, published by the independent ETSI organisation in 2003[9] and updated in 2007.[10] Work describing some principles of the standard is available.[11]

Since many newer smartphones, such as the Palm Treo and BlackBerry, have full alphanumeric keyboards instead of the traditional telephone keypads, the user must execute additional steps to dial a number containing convenience letters. On certain BlackBerry devices, a user can press the Alt key, followed by the desired letter, and the device will generate the appropriate DTMF tone.[12]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Engineering Pathway – Bell Telephone introduces push button telephone – by Alice Agogino – November 18th, 2009
  2. ^ a b Deininger, R. L. (1960-02-16). "Human Factors Engineering Studies of the Design and Use of Pushbutton Telephone Sets". Bell System Technical Journal. 39 (4): 995–1012. doi:10.1002/j.1538-7305.1960.tb04447.x. 
  3. ^ a b Lutz, Mary Champion; Chapanis, Alphonse (October 1955). "Expected Locations of Digits and Letters on Ten-Button Keysets". Journal of Applied Psychology. 39 (5): 314–317. doi:10.1037/h0048722. 
  4. ^ Brady Haran (producer), Sarah Wiseman (interviewee) (2013-08-29). Phone Numbers - Numberphile. Retrieved 2016-05-11. 
  5. ^ Koten, John F., " *# ", WSJ.Money Magazine, Issue 5, p. 22 (Spring 2014). The asterisk and hashtag were likely first suggested by John A. “Jack” Koten (1929-2014), a corporate communications specialist with Bell Labs in Chicago, reasoning that the new keys would be easier to explain to a public already familiar with typewriter symbols.
  6. ^
  7. ^ Phone Key Pads
  8. ^ E.161 : Arrangement of digits, letters and symbols on telephones and other devices that can be used for gaining access to a telephone network
  9. ^ ETSI (2003-10-29), ETSI ES 202 130 Ver. 1.1.1: Human Factors (HF); User Interfaces; Character repertoires, ordering rules and assignments to the 12-key telephone keypad, ETSI, retrieved 2011-11-03 
  10. ^ ETSI (2007-09-06), ETSI ES 202 130 Ver. 2.1.2: Human Factors (HF); User Interfaces; Character repertoires, orderings and assignments to the 12-key telephone keypad (for European languages and other languages used in Europe), ETSI 
  11. ^ Böcker, Martin; von Niman, Bruno; Larsson, Karl Ivar (2006-09-01), "Increasing text-entry usability in mobile devices for languages used in Europe", Interactions, 13 (5): 30, CiteSeerX accessible, doi:10.1145/1151314.1151336, ISSN 1072-5520 
  12. ^ Blackberry Tips, PC World, October 2005.