7

As an engineer, woodworker and model helicopter pilot I often hear the phrase "dialled in" to refer to a thing which has been perfectly set up.

Examples include: a table saw is dialled in when it has a perfectly square fence and a table which is perfectly aligned with the saw blade; a helicopter is dialled in when it is perfectly balanced and has the control input sensitivity "just right" for the pilot.

I was just wondering if anyone knows where the phrase "dialled in" came from? One wild guess is that it comes from the use of a dial indicator to make very small adjustments to achieve a high level of precision.

3
  • Can you give some actual examples of usage?
    – Strawberry
    Dec 4 '20 at 15:10
  • Updated the examples to include "dialled in"
    – donturner
    Dec 4 '20 at 17:00
  • These aren't really examples. An example might be 'Don't touch the table saw; it's dialled in' or 'Wow, these helicopter controls are really dialled in'. Incidentally, while I've occassionally heard the phrase 'dialled in' as in the Scottishism I think meaning 'to be focused and ready' or the Americanism meaning 'to be in agreement', I can't say I've quite heard it used in the way you describe, but I'm in the bubble that is southern England.
    – Strawberry
    Dec 4 '20 at 20:16
14

I'm not sure this idiom comes from a single source. Old radios had a "tuning dial" with an indicator for the frequency of the station that was "tuned in":

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And "rheostats" (variable resistors) often had calibrated dials to permit them to be accurately set (and re-set back to the same point at a later time):

enter image description here

And similar knobs were used (and still are) on purely mechanical devices (eg, a metal lathe in a machine shop):

enter image description here

So, to "dial in" meant to adjust the knob (or knobs, for more complex devices) to achieve a desired setting.

5
  • Neat. And don't forget that telephones too had circular dials that had to be manipulated to form the necessary sequence of digits to "dial" a phone number. (showing my age!)
    – Anton
    Dec 3 '20 at 21:59
  • 3
    @Anton - You mean you didn't pick up the phone and say "Hello Betty, give me Mrs Jones"??
    – Hot Licks
    Dec 3 '20 at 22:09
  • 2
    Chuckle. Scope for a question about the multifarious meanings and usage of "give"?
    – Anton
    Dec 3 '20 at 22:32
  • "Hot Licks" must be a reference to guitar play because, wowza, you are jammin'!
    – vectory
    Dec 8 '20 at 17:50
  • @vectory - Sometimes I scare myself. And you don't want to be around when I feel like singing.
    – Hot Licks
    Dec 8 '20 at 18:51
6

I expect it comes from the use of a dial indicator when setting up mechanical equipment.

You use the dial indicator to measure very small distances. To get your equipment perfectly aligned, you set things up and then adjusted them by the dial indicator to get them "dialled in."

From there I expect it spread through the similarity of control dials to the original dial indicators.


This is similar to the existing answer from Hot Licks, but goes a step further back. Hot Licks refers to adjustment knobs as "dials." Before there were adjustment dials, there were dial indicators.

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