Why Do Numbers Go Up on Phones, But Down on Calculators?

“Jess” (who clearly has too much time on her hands) wrote to ask why on phones the numbers go up, while on calculators they go down.

Jess, the reason that’s so is because just after Alexander Graham Cracker invented the phone, he realized that people were going to be, in his words, “just too blang-danggit excited” about using it. “I already wish I hadn’t invented the infernal thing,” he wrote to a friend. “I can’t even get that moron Watson to stop ‘phoning’ me—from the next room!” A philosopher at heart, Cracker arranged the numbers on the phone as he did to remind people that though they may start at the top—though they may think of themselves, first and foremost, as No. 1—they’ll inevitably come back around to the nothingness symbolized by the number zero.

“No one’ll get it,” Cracker complained in a letter to his last friend who hadn’t moved without leaving a forwarding address. “Everyone’ll just think I put the numbers in the same stupid order they always see them in. How I loathe people. I’m glad I gave them a way to mindlessly chatter away so much of their stupid lives.” In another attempt to make a bold and arresting statement about the ultimate futility of life, Cracker later invented the hula-hoop. He died a terribly frustrated man.

The reason numbers on calculators are placed in the manner opposite phone numbers, Jess, is because calculators were invented in China following the American invention and widespread use of the telephone. And as any Westerner who has ever heard Chinese music knows, the Chinese love to do things in the opposite way of Westerners. Chinese people used to love knives and forks, for instance—until they found out that Westerners did, too. They then right away switched to “chopsticks” (chop being the Chinese word for “impossible to use”), a decision they’ve of course been regretting ever since. So differently do the Chinese do things than Westerners that at first all Chinese calculators came equipped with letters on their buttons, instead of numbers. Realizing that such a device would have limited uses in performing mathematical calculations, Chinese manufacturers reluctantly made the change. But not until at least making sure that the numbers on calculators were laid out in the manner opposite those of American phones.

Although today the Chinese still enjoy doing things in a manner opposite that of Westerners, the differences between the two cultures are narrowing, so that the actual expressions of their “opposing” ways are producing effects increasingly similar. An American in China who as yet might not swoon to classical Chinese music, for instance, is still going to be pretty darn sure what he’s looking at when he comes across a giant Mart-Wal.

Related post o’ mine: Do People Get Stoned at Work?

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