A rotary dial is a component of a telephone or a telephone switchboard that implements a signaling technology in telecommunications known as pulse dialing. It is used when initiating a telephone call to transmit the destination telephone number to a telephone exchange.
On the rotary dial, the digits are arranged in a circular layout so that a finger wheel may be rotated with one finger from the position of each digit to a fixed stop position, implemented by the finger stop, which is a mechanical barrier to prevent further rotation. When released at the finger stop, the wheel returns to its home position by spring action at a speed regulated by a governor device. During this return rotation, the dial interrupts the direct electrical current of the telephone line (local loop) a specific number of times for each digit and thereby generates electrical pulses which the telephone exchange decodes into each dialed digit. Each of the ten digits are encoded in sequences of up to ten pulses. For this reason, the method is sometimes called decadic dialling.
The first patent for a rotary dial is due to Almon Brown Strowger (November 29, 1892) as U.S. Patent 486,909, but the commonly known form with holes in the finger wheel was not introduced until ca. 1904. While used in telephone systems of the independent telephone companies, rotary dial service in the Bell System in the United States was not common until the introduction of the Western Electric model 50AL in 1919.
From the 1960s onward, the rotary dial was gradually supplanted by dual-tone multi-frequency push-button dialing, first introduced to the public at the 1962 World's Fair under the trade name "Touch-Tone". Touch-tone technology primarily used a keypad in form of a rectangular array of push-buttons for dialing.