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John E. Karlin, Father Of Human-Compatible Digit Dialing, Passed Away At 94

Oftentimes, we take the design of many products for granted. However, as often, there is a long history of research and diligent study that had led to such a design. Such was the case with the earliest all-digit-dialing phones. John E. Karlin was a man who was critical in coining the most elegant and workable design that now seem so obvious.


John E. Karlin

John E. Karlin was a gifted man with accomplishments in more than one fields. He studied psychology, philosophy and music during his bachelors and also played as a professional violinist for some time. He then earned a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago and joined Bell Labs in 1945.

It was here that he was destined to reshape the way industrial design was conceived. Equipped with his study of psychology as well technology, Karlin decided he wanted to work on phone acoustics.

Back in those years, a number of industrial conundrums had reared their head. The vendors didn’t know what size the phone should be, how the keys should be arrayed and other similar details. Karlin, being an industrial psychologist, decided he can find the most optimal way of digit-dialing by finding the right design for the product. That, he did and went on to determine the shape as well size of the buttons that may be arrayed on a push-dialing phone.

This research is what lead him to the design with 1-2-3 arrayed on the top row, 4-5-6 on the second row and so on. The design that John. E Karlin and his subordinates conceived proved to be a wild success. And it then translated into the touch-pad design of many other products. Even today, we see the very same array of keys as conceived by him to be a part of ATM machines.

One of his colleagues commented about him, “He was the one who introduced the notion that behavioral sciences could answer some questions about telephone design.” By every means, that was a genius’ stroke since no one had thought of that before. Karlin decided to study human psychology to determine which industrial designs were more compatible with the very human nature. It is no wonder, thus, that the keypad design he came up with has continued through decades, right into our digital age.

Although his accomplishments are huge and his contributions to the arena of communications are innumerable, John E. Karlin seemed little fond of being in the limelight. And sadly, very few of us knew about him as he recently passed away at the age of 94.

Courtesy: NYT

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