# Why are the numbers on a caculator and phone reversed?

Asked by aisyna (963) August 4th, 2008

the numbers on a phone go 123 from top to bottom but the numbers on a caculator go from bottom to top

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Ha! Well you see, that is a simple answer….
/looks at phone…
dear god, your right. My world is collapsing. I never noticed that…

jtvoar16 (2171)

well, I’ll be goddamned.

poofandmook (17277)

As far as I know, it can be traced back to rotary phones. The layout that calculators use, with the numbers ascending from the bottom up, was used way before touchtone phones came around. When touchtone phones were introduced, people were transitioning from rotary phones. On rotary phones, the smallest numbers are at the top, and the largest are at the bottom. Granted, 1 is at the top right instead of the top left, but it is at the top. It was easier for people to transition if the smaller numbers stayed on top.

Furthermore, letters were assigned to different numbers on phones way before texting came around for ease of remembering commercial numbers. It would be somewhat awkward and confusing to have the letters ascending as the numbers descend.

lefteh (9424)

Good point lefteh. I believe that to be the reason. It would be weird to have 8=ABC and 1=WXYZ

Something else to consider is the tone of “0” Having to read the numbers, 0,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1 would be disoreanting to the public, and it seems natural to us 0 as the single repersentation of needing help.

jtvoar16 (2171)

I think it is because the numbers on a phone correspond to letters, and thus the layout is in alphabetical order. Back in the olden days, prefixes were in letters. This is before area codes. My childhood phone number was FRontier 2— 5730. Next prefix I had was GLencourt. That was changed to straight numbers around the time area codes came onto the scene, if I recall correctly. One used the first two letters and those were on the phone. FR=37. GL=45. It made them easier to remember, as people were transitioning from just 4 or 5 numbers.

Calculators were preceded by adding machines. The numbers were set up in a more mathematical pattern, so that you could be trained to key them rapidly. Our first adding machine wasn’t even electric. Like the original typewriters (where one had to manually return the carriage) one had to pull down a handle on the right side to print the numbers and then total them. We still have my dad’s.

Seesul (2960)

AstroChuck asked this a few weeks ago…

eambos (8899)

Ah, so he did.
The conclusion there seemed to be what we’ve come up with here: the order of the letters and numbers should correspond.

lefteh (9424)

Actually, the phone keypad arrangement appears to have resulted from a 1960 Bell Labs study to find the most user-friendly layout.

Harp (19166)

I should add that no mention is made in the study of the “alphabetical” consideration. They seemed to be looking at speed and frequency of errors. This quote from the study addresses the calculator layout: “Notice that the arrangement frequently found in ten-key adding machines (arrangement I-A, Fig. 3) was not the best of the first three arrangements
compared.”

Harp (19166)

Eh, I’d highly doubt that all credit is due to that study.
This link mentions several theories. Both of ours are mentioned.

lefteh (9424)

You know it just doesn’t seem logical that they didn’t have to take alphabetization into consideration. The letters were already set and being used on the rotary dial when the transition was made. How else would they have put them in alphabetical order except how they ended up doing it? They would have to follow the reading pattern of left to right, or it would have been highly confusing. Remember, back then, when you dialed a phone number, you always used the two letters. I didn’t even know what my original phone number translated into numerically until I looked back on it and translated it. I never even thought of it, and no one gave out all numbers in a phone number at that phone.

You didn’t use an area code, to call long distance, you had to use the operator. Smaller town, such as my Gramma lived in in the south, didn’t even use the prefix until after they transitioned into numbers. They still had party lines. She had a four digit number, that’s it.

On the other thread, someone mentioned the speed of the ten key operators. That makes sense as well, but I still can’t figure out how they would have made it any differently and had it been what is now termed “user friendly”.

Seesul (2960)

the english language is also read from top to bottom so what would be the point of reversing it on the caculator?

aisyna (963)

I don’t know- read the study; it’s pretty compelling. I’m sure the fact that the optimum result of the study happened to not pose any problems vis a vis the alphabet was a nice boon, but that doesn’t seem to have been a prime consideration. I guess that if “arrangement 1A” had proven best, some awkward decisions would have had to be made.

Harp (19166)

I don’t know that the “alphabetical order” theory really jives.

Yes, English speakers read from top-left to bottom-right. But if folks can use a calculator with the numbers running from left-to-right, bottom-to-top, then I can’t see why any one would be confused by corresponding letters doing the same. (That is, 2=ABC, 3=DEF, just like today.)

Same goes for the placement of the zero. If the phone numbers were arranged like a calculator, the zero could still remain at the bottom… just like a calculator already does.

A usability study makes sense to a point. But they’re often suspect. Fig. 3 shows six grouped arrangements. Group I, item I-C was shown to have “significantly shorter keying time” as well as a “significantly lower error rate”... but they’re push buttons arranged similar to a rotary phone (the gap twisted about 90 degrees clockwise and numbers reversed order)!!!

Anyway, not to be cynical. This is an interesting Q. I just not convinced we nailed the answer perfectly yet.

It does make sense that Bell Labs would have a more than casual influence over telephone push button design.

robmandu (21293)

Yeah, as a reminder to the <35 set, Bell telephones were the only telephones when pushbutton was introduced (I’m not sure if that’s common knowledge anymore).

Harp (19166)

Well, Harp, GTE (now Verizon) was in limited areas and came out with them shortly thereafter. Most people don’t realize that there actually was another phone company other than Ma Bell. They had different styles of phones as well, the most unusual being the Ericophone. We have the residual of that company where I live now and we had it in Honolulu as well.

@rob: you have a point, and I’m pondering it now but don’t have time to figure out what I want to say clearly yet. I want to take the time to read that study when I have more time and see if I come to the same conclusion first. What I’m mulling around right now is that Math and Reading are two different cognitive experiences. We are used to jumbling numbers around and basic calculations like addition, when taken in depth, require learning the skill to take in numbers that way, while alphabetizing is different. Our brains are trained to read left to right, top to bottom, thus when seeking out the alphabet, we find that easier because it is one of the first skills that we learn.

It is a major accomplishment to learn a qwerty keyboard later on, takes a lot of practice and not all can do it. That’s why you have people that are more skilled at Math than Verbal and vice versa. It takes different parts of the brain.

I’m not totally disagreeing with you, you’ve peaked my curiosity and I just have to think on it a while.

Seesul (2960)
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