Human Writes: Who knows what a rotary dial phone is?


  • Living
  • Sunday, 23 Jul 2017

Millennials won't have a clue what these things are Photo: Filepic

Every now and then, my kids ask me when they can have a mobile phone. I usually try to fob off the question. “Not anytime soon!” I answer tartly. But I’ve somehow agreed that they can have one in their teens, which is probably sooner than I’d like in my son’s case. He’s far too screen-crazy for my liking, but then he’s also screen-savvy, which very much reflects his generation.

When I told my children that I never had my own phone as a teenager, they looked at me quizzically. Most of the older teens that they know have their own phones; that’s the new normal. And when I told them that, in fact, growing up, my family only had one phone in the house, they looked at me as if I had just told them that I had grown up in a cave.

I remember that rotary dial phone from my childhood well. It was black and bulky, like the old Bakelite phones, and attached to a cable in the wall. When it was kaput, people had to come over to our house and actually have a face-to-face conversation to communicate. In the meantime, we’d go to our neighbours to use their phone.

We never had long phone calls growing up. My father was a surgeon, so we had to keep conversations short in case the hospital needed to call. When they did call, my father would be off in a shot to the General Hospital in Kuala Lumpur, a stone’s throw from our home.

In my early days at The Star, in the 1990s, we still used dial phones where you had to curve your figure around a dial for each number. There was no redial button. It was frustrating calling government servants who were not answering their phones or perpetually busy. My finger actually got tired from dialling. It seems bizarre to think of it now.

It’s amazing how mobile phones have quickly become part of our culture. It wasn’t so very long ago that hardly anyone had one. Consider: the first Apple iPhone was only released a decade ago, creating a stir with its design of mostly screen.

The first mobile phone was produced in 1973. An engineer working for Motorola, Martin Cooper, thought it would be a good idea to have a phone people could carry around with them. His first prototype phone weighed more than a kilo, took 10 hours to charge, and had a battery life of just 35 minutes. In 1983, Motorola’s DynaTAC went on sale for almost US$4,000.

My father was one of the early ones to get a mobile phone in Malaysia, in the late 1990s. He had just retired from government service and gone into private practice, and he needed to stay connected to the hospital. So he bought a Motorola phone for a whopping RM9,000. It was a huge, beastly thing – very solid and heavy. It could take up half a small handbag.

I’m somewhat nostalgic about my first phone, that trusty, user-friendly Nokia, but relish the conveniences of my current Mi phone. The phones of tomorrow will probably make our current phones look clumsy and awkward. I read recently that bendable or foldable phones are not very far away.

Perhaps we might have something like a bracelet that we could just wrap around our forearms when we’re not using them. And we might be able to beam out the screen onto any wall. So our “screen” could be anywhere, any size.

Researchers are working on producing phones that charge better. It is, after all, a little backward to have a phone that you have to charge every day! Among the designs that they’re working on are phones that charge with body movement, body heat, or sunlight, as well as a phone that charges in 30 seconds.

They could definitely make phones more environmentally-friendly as well. The number of phones lying in dumps, leaching toxic materials into the earth, is terrible.

Another technology that is being investigated is having phones read our brains. Really. Every thought that occurs in our brain has an electrical signal. So it is possible. I find that really quite scary.

As it is, the invasion of privacy from social media already feels too much. I really don’t need to be updated on so many details on people’s lives. Aside from my column, I’m not big into personal posts.

And to share all my thoughts? No thanks. I draw the line at keeping that private space closed in my life. My thoughts are about the only thing that are truly mine, and even when they’re not so upbeat, they’re still unmistakably mine, and pleasantly private.


Mangai Balasegaram writes mostly on health, but also delves into anything on being human. She has worked with international public health bodies and has a Masters in public health.

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