Phones have been extremely instrumental in enabling and expanding communication since they were first invented. Today, the proliferation of electronic devices has resulted in a mobile phone penetration of 80% in the U.S. It is hard to imagine anyone who doesn’t use a phone to connect with others. Phones have lifted geographical barriers, made transmission of information instantaneous and connected the world in ways that were difficult to imagine in the previous century.
Phone numbers and the phone operating system in the U.S. have a fascinating history. In this article, we explore how phone numbers have undergone an evolution over the decades, how the phone networks operate and what are some of the fascinating facts about phone numbers you didn’t know.
How phone numbers with digits came into existence?
The first use of telephone numbers was sometime during 1879-1880 in Lowell, Massachusetts. In 1877, President Hayes installed the first telephone of the White House in the telegraph room. The White House phone number was simply “1”. The Treasury Department was the only one that had a direct phone line to the White House at the time of the phone’s installation. It was only a year later that the first telephone exchange in the country was set up in Connecticut. It would be another fifty years before President Hoover would come in and install the first telephone in the Oval Office.
Until the mid-20th century, phone operators who were mostly women directed phone calls to their destinations. Back then phone numbers weren’t all digits. They were alphanumeric addresses containing both numbers and letters. Ever watched a movie based in the 1950s or earlier, with a phone call request made to the operator to reach, say Murray Hill 5 — 9975? That is the format that phone calls took a couple of decades ago.
But this resulted in quite a few misunderstandings because of spoken directions. AT&T recommended a list of abbreviations to counter such confusion — for instance, the same Murray Hill number would be shortened to MU 5 — 9975. But engineers at Bell Systems, with ambitions of expanding the phone network to a national level, concluded in their research that not enough operators could be supplied to meet the expansion. They realized that two things would change the phone number operating system — automation would take over and all-digit phone numbers, without any names or abbreviations, would become the new norm.
Not everyone was in support of such an automated system. A group, called the Anti-Digit Dialing League sprang up in San Francisco, and contained thousands of members at one point. They were against Bell’s recommendation of a digital transition. The case they made was that phone numbers containing all digits would be much harder to remember causing more dialing mistakes and since human operators would be taken out of the equation, it would make the whole process of connecting calls inhuman. In fact, they published a booklet, which reported that nine out every ten voters, in a poll conducted by the SF Chronicle, supported the League’s views.
Advocates of the automated number dialing system had long called for the kind of digital transformation that Bell had come up with for two reasons — it was more practical, and it maintained the caller’s privacy. Human operators in the middle added the friendly touch, but such a system was largely inefficient especially is the phone networks were to be expanded. In fact, the advent of the telephone number, in its alphanumeric form, can be traced back to Lowell in the late 1870s when a measles outbreak struck the town. Doctor Moses Greely Parker, who was a friend of Alexander Graham Bell, observed that if the four phone operators who operated the telephone system were to fall victims to the epidemic, it would end up debilitating the telephone network entirely.
During this time phone numbers starting with 555 came into existence. These numbers were fictitious and used in literature, movies, and television in the US. Dialing such a 555 number would give an error message to the dialer reducing the likelihood of prank and nuisance calls.
How 911 became the emergency phone number in the USA?
Before the 1960s, USA did not have a single, universal number that people could dial and reach out to the police or the fire department in case of an emergency. Every police department in the area had its number. Telephone operators would sometimes have to decide where to direct the caller in case they didn’t know which number they should be requesting. To address the problem created by delays, the National Fire Chief’s Association recommended establishing a national emergency number. But it would be years before such an emergency number would come into existence.
The Federal Communications Commission teamed up with AT&T in 1967 to work on creating a number that the people could use in case of an emergency. 911 emerged as the number of choice since it was short and easy to remember. It was also a number that wasn’t already assigned to any area code, so it would remain unique to the emergency services without causing any confusion. Congress supported this proposal, and the national emergency number came into effect.
How phone numbers are assigned in the NPA?
To begin with, there were just 90 area codes, which were dished out based on the population of a particular area Areas with larger population got codes that were easier to dial on the rotary phone — for instance, the code for New York was 212 while Chicago got the code 312.
Today the phone numbering system in the U.S. is in the hands of a 12-person team that works in Sterling, Virginia — the administrators of The North American Numbering Plan (NANP). The NANP manages phone numbers within the international country code prefixed with +1.
The phone numbers assigned by the NANP are in the following format, NPA — NXX — XXXX where NPA is a three digit numbering plan area also known as the area code NXX identifies the central office or exchange within the NPA XXXX denotes the station with the exchange
The ten-digit phone numbering system in use today is a finite resource. Coupled with Skype and several other phone equivalents more and more phone numbers are needed every day. John Manning, the Senior Director at NANP, however, does not see the decimal-digit numbering system undergoing a change anytime soon.