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"Give me LI-berty or take the blinking phone out."
February 23, 2014 6:34 AM   Subscribe

"In the mid-20th century, in response to the United States’ rapidly expanding telephone network, executives at the Bell System introduced a new way of dialing the phone. Until then, for the most part, it was human operators — mostly women — who had directed calls to their destinations." The new system, which eliminated letters from phone numbers and set the stage for an automated national (and eventually international) dialing system. was met with a minor rebellion against "creeping numeralism." The Atlantic examines "Our Numbered Days: The Evolution of the Area Code."

The Orange Crate Art blog has excerpts from the Anti-Digit Dialing League's 10-page pamphlet Phones are for People.

From the Atlantic article:
"...we didn’t know it at the time, but now it seems that the atomization of area codes was a prelude to the microtargeting that fuels political campaigns and advertising: it refined our perceptions of who people are. When I grew up in the San Fernando Valley, it and all the rest of L.A. was 213. You had to travel a long way to get out of 213, which might have subtly enforced the fallacy that L.A. was actually a coherent city rather than a mere patchwork. Sure, there were always ZIP codes to differentiate fancy neighborhoods from nondescript ones, but a phone number was and is part of an introduction—it’s a calling card in itself, not merely numbers on your actual calling card. You give people your phone number if you like them, not your ZIP code."
posted by zarq (99 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite

 
The Atlantic piece brings up something I learned years ago, that the North American Numbering Plan can be used to create a good (if low-res) population map of 1950 North America, as the area codes were designed so that the most people would have the shortest dial times:
When it came to creating the area codes for the country, the engineers also made their plans with maximum efficiencies in mind. New York, the most densely populated area of the nation, got 212—2-1-2 containing the lowest number of clicks possible on the rotary phone. Los Angeles got 213—the second-lowest—while Chicago got 312, and Detroit got 313. Anchorage, Alaska, on the other hand, got 907, which required 26 clicks from the person doing the dialing.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 6:57 AM on February 23 [26 favorites]


My parents still sometimes complain about the change from the old system to the ten digit dialing, and how much easier it was as a mnemonic to remember word+short number than it is to remember a long number.

Like the article hints at, with cell phones and moving from place to place makes area codes seem a bit arbitrary: Is keeping an old number just a convenience, or a statement of identity with another place?
posted by Dip Flash at 7:01 AM on February 23 [2 favorites]


The Telephone Exchange Number Project. I love having a historically local number for our (heh) landline, KEnwood 7-xxyy

I have some stationery from the university library system somewhere that has the old number on it...
posted by avocet at 7:03 AM on February 23 [2 favorites]


I remember when we got all these lenticular rulers in grade school regarding the area code split and the introduction of ten-digit dialing.
posted by avocet at 7:09 AM on February 23 [1 favorite]


My parents still sometimes complain about the change from the old system to the ten digit dialing, and how much easier it was as a mnemonic to remember word+short number than it is to remember a long number.

I dunno. I grew up during the word+digits era (FLeetwood-6) and, yes, it was very easy to spout-off my phone number that way. But, re-learning it as 356 was no big deal for any of us. It's just what you get used to. I mean, even in the word+digit days, you still had to convert the word into which numerals on the dial they equated to when dialing. It's, really, an inefficient process.
posted by Thorzdad at 7:09 AM on February 23


There's definitely a strong local identification with the 412 area code here in Pittsburgh. There's a clothing line of 412 fashion, a band name Formula 412, a blog of local goings on called The 412 and Wiz Khalifa even has 412 tattooed on his chest. I'm sure that people would be unhappy if it changed.
posted by octothorpe at 7:10 AM on February 23 [1 favorite]


Growing up in Maine in the 1970s, my town only had one exchange, so everybody gave their phone number as a five digit number (X-XXXX), never mind the alphabetical mnemonic.
posted by briank at 7:15 AM on February 23 [6 favorites]


I'm with briank. In my small town in the 1970s, you only had to dial five digits if you were calling locally. The bank at which my dad worked had the primo number: 5-5555.

Now I'm not even sure why numbers are necessary. I mean, I know they're necessary on the back end, for the phone companies, but it seems like there should be a way for everybody to get a unique ID that they could give out (like an email address or whatever) that people could "dial" in order to connect.
posted by nushustu at 7:22 AM on February 23 [2 favorites]


And all this in the name of efficiency! Engineers have a terrible intellectual weakness. ‘If it fits the machine,’ they say, ‘then it ought to fit people.’

He may be anti-digit, but he has a point.
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:27 AM on February 23 [6 favorites]


Anyone else old enough to remember, when sending mail within the same town or city, all you had to do is write the word "city" under the street address or box number?
posted by Thorzdad at 7:29 AM on February 23 [2 favorites]


I'll give up my GYro-zero when they pry my rotary phone out of my recalcitrant hands.
posted by sonascope at 7:31 AM on February 23 [2 favorites]


nushustu: "Now I'm not even sure why numbers are necessary. I mean, I know they're necessary on the back end, for the phone companies, but it seems like there should be a way for everybody to get a unique ID that they could give out (like an email address or whatever) that people could "dial" in order to connect."

How often do you actually "dial" a number these days? Most of the time I just click on the contact to call someone; by this time I barely remember my wife's phone number. In fact, I don't know any other numbers than my own and my wife's. I dont' even know my son's number or either of my sisters'.
posted by octothorpe at 7:36 AM on February 23 [1 favorite]


How often do you actually "dial" a number these days?

This is just one more weapon that SkyNet will use against us.
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:38 AM on February 23 [2 favorites]


(I'm wrong, the library stationery just has "Toronto 5, Canada" on it.)
posted by avocet at 7:39 AM on February 23 [2 favorites]


octothorpe makes a great point. Nowadays I only know numbers that are the same as they were before I had a cell phone. My dad's and grandparents' land lines, my mom's cell. I could probably recall my dad's office number in a pinch, but they moved offices years ago.

More on topic, when I was a kid in the 80s, my hometown had three possible "exchanges". I still get a little nostalgic when I meet someone with an 876, an 879, or an 851 in their number.
posted by Sara C. at 7:40 AM on February 23 [2 favorites]


and Wiz Khalifa even has 412 tattooed on his chest

I've seen a bunch of big, bold area code tattoos, on necks, arms, and backs mostly, which I am sure the engineers who invented the system never imagined.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:46 AM on February 23 [4 favorites]


The modern inability to memorize phone numbers comes into harsh focus the moment there's a family medical emergency when you don't have your cell phone and you suddenly need to reach a lot of people RIGHT NOW.
posted by sonascope at 7:48 AM on February 23 [3 favorites]


STate 31821

The only number I've ever had (other than my current number) that I remember... and that's from about 1955...

Yep, it was easier to remember... of course, there were no such things as speed dial or "contacts" that made it possible to actually NEVER remember ANY number any longer than it took to enter it that first time.
posted by HuronBob at 7:48 AM on February 23


Yeah, there's definitely an identification of Toronto with 416. (And much made of the 416 (urban)/905 (almost all of Southern Ontario) demographic and voting patterns). 416 split into 416 and 647 (and I think there's a third on the way?), part of 905 has been split into 905/289 though I can't remember the geographic extent of that split. 647 is the same geographic area as 416.

To the point where I'm actually vaguely grumpy a lot of the time when I remember my cell starts with 647.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 7:51 AM on February 23 [1 favorite]


sonascope: "The modern inability to memorize phone numbers comes into harsh focus the moment there's a family medical emergency when you don't have your cell phone and you suddenly need to reach a lot of people RIGHT NOW."

How would I be calling people without my cell phone?
posted by octothorpe at 7:57 AM on February 23 [1 favorite]


Because it's sitting in the car that's currently crumpled around a tree, maybe. For example.

(Hope that's not hitting too close to home, sonascope)
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 7:59 AM on February 23 [2 favorites]


Federated VOIP offers a way forward for voice communication: Among other things, you can just point your client at something that looks like an e-mail address, and suddenly you've got a voice (or even video) communication channel that doesn't require any centralized service besides DNS (and possibly participation in the centralized SSL certificate racket). Also a typical VOIP audio stream has much higher quality than the digital cellphones we've all learned to tolerate (albeit often with higher latency).
posted by jepler at 8:01 AM on February 23


And, we'll never again have numbers like:

Beechwood 4-5789
Bigelow 6-200
Lonesome 7-7203
Echo Valley 2-6809
Pennsylvania 6-5000
posted by HuronBob at 8:05 AM on February 23 [4 favorites]


This prompted me to look up my old phone number from when I was growing up. Anybody know if there is a way to request a phone number, like if I wanted that to be my cell phone number now?
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:06 AM on February 23


The modern inability to memorize phone numbers comes into harsh focus the moment there's a family medical emergency when you don't have your cell phone and you suddenly need to reach a lot of people RIGHT NOW.

On the other hand, if you're close to any phone, which is likely to be a smart phone, (or a computer) you've access your "contact" list online. I would suggest that, in this day and age, you probably have better access to contact information that back in the day when you had the numbers you memorized and the numbers in your "address book" (IF it was available, but it's probably sitting next to the phone in the hallway at home).

I believe we're probably better off now than we were back then.
posted by HuronBob at 8:09 AM on February 23


Anybody know if there is a way to request a phone number, like if I wanted that to be my cell phone number now.

Sure, you can request a phone number, as long as it's not in use. First you might want to try dialing it and see someone already has it.
posted by HuronBob at 8:10 AM on February 23 [1 favorite]


Born in '62. Still remember the apartment complex near our house had a sign out front that had the phone number prefix as "DEerfield 4."

(Area code 201, BTW)
posted by ZenMasterThis at 8:11 AM on February 23


Call your cell provider. At least here, they have blocks of numbers assigned to them and you can choose within that block. If another provider 'owns' the number I'm not really sure what you'd do, as I don't know how number portability works in the USA.

A million years ago, a then-boyfriend had the same name as me. When we were setting up our landline, we actually got (areacode) FUN DANS as our phone number, heh.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 8:11 AM on February 23 [5 favorites]


Whoa. I just Googled "Deerfield-4" "boonton" and this came up.

Part of a site titled "Telecom Digest and Archives." Cool.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 8:19 AM on February 23


feckless fecal fear mongering: "Call your cell provider. At least here, they have blocks of numbers assigned to them and you can choose within that block. If another provider 'owns' the number I'm not really sure what you'd do, as I don't know how number portability works in the USA.

A million years ago, a then-boyfriend had the same name as me. When we were setting up our landline, we actually got (areacode) FUN DANS as our phone number, heh.
"

or 3 TOE COP
posted by double block and bleed at 8:20 AM on February 23 [7 favorites]


I combatted the remember my number issue with my young children by teaching them my cell number to the tune of an old hotel jingle I remember from my childhood (One Eight Hundred, Five Two Eight, One Two Three Four - Best Western!). I actually had a sibling call me randomly (pre smart phone days) as I was making a long drive to ask for the phone number of any hotel chain (no phone book in their phone booth) and I started singing the jingles as they came to me.

For my internetty friends, I got a google number that spells out my google email address with a short number: 000-04T-ILDE. I still have to give most of them the number because words confuse them, for some reason.

phonespell.org for all your number cyphering needs.
posted by tilde at 8:29 AM on February 23 [1 favorite]


One caution on calling your cell provider to get a new number in your block (I have done this). Between the time I got the number I "liked", I moved and I got a second cell phone. I tried to get one similar to mine in the same block. They (ATT) wouldn't give it to me until I said "Oh, wait, my zip code is actually 12345, not 12356". Then because the cell phone zip code was in the assigned block area, they could give me a similar phone number. So now I have "800-528-1234" and "800-528-3579" which appeases my sense of order.
posted by tilde at 8:34 AM on February 23


There is a sign on a utility box near my house that says "In case of emergency, call ZEnith 3-4845" and lists the name of a gas company that no longer exists. I have no idea what to do if it catches fire.
posted by miyabo at 8:34 AM on February 23 [4 favorites]


Don't forget the meaning that some ending digits can have. I one had the phone number 262-9994. It was great, because any time I gave it out I felt compelled to add "That number again, 262-9994. Call now. Operators are standing by." and everyone admitted that it just sounded right.
posted by benito.strauss at 8:37 AM on February 23 [3 favorites]


Remembering numbers isn't so hard as long as you use the default computer voice for your voicemail or say your number in a unique way. I know a few peoples' numbers this way. That assumes that you actually call people and get their voicemails, which isn't a given.
posted by bleep at 8:39 AM on February 23


Anyone here grow up in Cleveland?? Phone number for a local aluminum siding company was given as GArfield 1-2323 until easily the early '90s

I still remember the jingle of how they sang it.
posted by chasles at 8:41 AM on February 23


I mean, even in the word+digit days, you still had to convert the word into which numerals on the dial they equated to when dialing. It's, really, an inefficient process.

I think what my parents actually miss is the operator era, when "dialing" meant picking up the phone and saying word-number, or even just someone's name. Without the operator, then ten digit numbers make more sense.
posted by Dip Flash at 8:49 AM on February 23


Google voice lets you pick your number. I'm THE-PALOOKA because THE-ASSHOLE was taken.
posted by vapidave at 8:58 AM on February 23 [3 favorites]


As a young adult in Chicago I moved roughly once a year, and so had to keep getting new telephone service. The customer service reps used to stay on the phone with me rattling off available phone numbers with my first name as the first or last four digits, as I vetted them for suitable name + 3-letter word or 3 letter word + name combinations. Very easy to share my numbers back then.
posted by davejay at 9:03 AM on February 23


i grew up in the gladstone prefix of (213). so far as i'm aware, there was no disraeli prefix.

it's nice to have a phone number that spells something. when i moved to oregon, i went to the phone office, all the -0000 and -x000 numbers were taken, so my next choice (also taken) was -3825. if you're talking to a child, this spells "duck".
posted by bruce at 9:04 AM on February 23


Everyone of a certain age from Chicagoland knows that the number for Boushelle's Rug Cleaning is (was?) "Hudson three two seven hundred".
posted by double block and bleed at 9:04 AM on February 23 [3 favorites]


jenny, don't change your number

i wanna make you mine

jenny, i've got your number

tomcat 7-5309.
posted by bruce at 9:12 AM on February 23 [1 favorite]


My wife's number growing up was 322-5555. She got a lot of prank calls.
posted by double block and bleed at 9:12 AM on February 23


Her father specifically asked for that number in 1965 to make it easy for his future children to remember.

My father in law was big on planning ahead.
posted by double block and bleed at 9:17 AM on February 23 [3 favorites]


Several islands in Casco Bay, near Portland Maine, have a 766 prefix — so for a long while people on the islands would just say the last four digits to each other. The recent advent of cable ("digital") phone, and mobile numbers, brought in unpredictable new prefixes which has since eroded that nicety.

In other news, the person responsible for the numerical conversion died just about a year ago at age 94: John E. Karlin (NYT obit):
“One day I was at a cocktail party and I saw some people over in the corner,” Mr. Karlin recalled in a 2003 lecture. “They were obviously looking at me and talking about me. Finally a lady from this group came over and said, ‘Are you the John Karlin who is responsible for all-number dialing?’ ”

Mr. Karlin drew himself up with quiet pride.

“Yes, I am,” he replied.

“How does it feel,” his inquisitor asked, “to be the most hated man in America?”
posted by Jubal Kessler at 9:18 AM on February 23 [10 favorites]


Exploding the Phone, a recent book tracing the history of phone hackers, gives a lot of backstory on the evolution of the phone system in order to better explain how these kids did what they did. It should have more than enough phone minutiae for me, but really all it did was make me even more curious to learn more.
posted by Slack-a-gogo at 9:49 AM on February 23 [4 favorites]


I don't know about you but I'm sick of having to type in someone's IP address every time I send them an email message. And it's going to get a lot worse under IPv6!

Some fools have dreamt of a scheme that would allow you to use some kinds of words instead of numbers and automatically translate them, but we know that's a technical impossibility because if the Bell system and its successors were never able to do it then nothing like it can ever be done. Ever.
posted by George_Spiggott at 10:06 AM on February 23 [1 favorite]


Numeric area codes have no romance and meaning? Not so, in the 416 to the 905.
posted by bicyclefish at 10:27 AM on February 23


I still have all the numbers memorize... We, too, had the 5 digit trick. In the 90s they split our area code (414) into two (414/920) Milwaukee kept 414, we got 920.

66712
66738
66736
66538
66531
66420
39426
39527

Those are all numbers I can remember off the top of my head going to family friends and personal friends.

For whatever reason, while I don't have perfect numerical memory, but occasionally I remember certain strings (I have my drivers license number memorized, for example).

It's so strange to think how times have changed in terms of phone numbers and using phones since I was a kid, and that was only the 80s.

Interestingly, I never knew the names correlated to the numbers until this post, which is pretty damn cool to learn :)
posted by symbioid at 10:33 AM on February 23


GEdney-6-9786. My birth phone, in Brooklyn,4 NY (4 being a zone as it was pre-zip-codes.)
posted by Obscure Reference at 11:42 AM on February 23


Ludacris weighs in (NSFW, immature); and 626 is a serious downgrade from 818.
posted by kurumi at 12:44 PM on February 23


There is a sign on a utility box near my house that says "In case of emergency, call ZEnith 3-4845" and lists the name of a gas company that no longer exists. I have no idea what to do if it catches fire.

Run.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 12:46 PM on February 23 [6 favorites]


A handy map of where Ludacris claims to have hoes.
posted by birdherder at 12:47 PM on February 23 [4 favorites]


Oh, wait, my zip code is actually 12345

You live at the GE plant in Schenectady, NY?
posted by mikelieman at 1:03 PM on February 23 [7 favorites]


Allan Sherman's protest song from 1963.
posted by DanSachs at 1:35 PM on February 23 [1 favorite]


This subject is topical:

US phone companies to explore replacing all phone numbers with IP addresses.
posted by eye of newt at 1:37 PM on February 23


Rotary dialing, person-to-person calls, party lines, 10-xxx, time and date numbers, being forced to rent all equipment and not being allowed to connect non-official devices to the network, phone company stores at the mall (that weren't selling cell phones), ... What are some more weird telephone-related things that were common but have become obsolete?
posted by Rhomboid at 2:11 PM on February 23 [1 favorite]


One obsolete thing that I was just talking with my wife about is how much you used to have to worry about long-distance calls. You'd have to wait until the right evening hour to get the discount rate (and different carriers had different hours) but even then sometimes you'd get screwed because of in-state "local long-distance" that was often many times more expensive than actual long distance.
posted by octothorpe at 2:32 PM on February 23 [4 favorites]


Answering machines. A separate Caller-ID box next to the phone. Having a landline.
posted by kiltedtaco at 2:40 PM on February 23 [2 favorites]


Now I'm not even sure why numbers are necessary. I mean, I know they're necessary on the back end, for the phone companies, but it seems like there should be a way for everybody to get a unique ID that they could give out (like an email address or whatever) that people could "dial" in order to connect.

You've pretty much precisely described a phone number.
posted by Hatashran at 2:41 PM on February 23 [6 favorites]


San Francisco, apparently, is moving to 10-digit dialing. I'll grant that we need a new area code, but I'm annoyed that even people calling within 415 will have to dial all ten digits, because-- I don't know-- they don't want to prejudice people against the new area code?

What's irritating is that many people won't care, since they're using cell phones with address books, but everyone who does care will still be calling 95% within 415 (i.e. older people and small businesses who are used to dialing other older people and businesses who've had the same phone number for decades). So leave the seven-digit dialing alone, for their (my) sake.
posted by alexei at 2:43 PM on February 23


Oh, god, yeah, long distance calling.

In middle school I went to a Gifted And Talented summer program on the campus of the local community college. I made a bunch of nerdy new friends, but since the program served students from the surrounding 3-4 parishes, a lot of my new friends lived in places that were outside the local calling zone.

And we're talking towns that were under 50 miles away, places that would have been a half-hour drive apart, in the same area code. Those friends in all those nearby towns might as well have been living across the country for all the ability I had to connect with them when we weren't face to face on the community college campus.

Also: when we got our first PC with a modem installed, internet time was carefully rationed because all the dial-in numbers (for either Prodigy or the various BBSes) were all long-distance. I used to love weekends at my grandparents' house, because they lived in New Orleans and had a local dial-in number to AOL. When you look forward to using the internet at your grandparents' house, you know it's bad.
posted by Sara C. at 2:52 PM on February 23 [6 favorites]


I'm 37, not exactly a senior citizen or anything, yet I can remember four-digit dialing. My mom grew up in a rural area of upstate NY along the Canadian border, and when I would go up to visit as a kid, as long as you were dialing within your own exchange, you would simply dial the last four digits. If you were calling to another exchange within your own area code, you'd have to dial it as a full 10-digit number, as if you were dialing long distance. And yes, this was with rotary phones -- touch tones came to that are around the same time as they phased in 7-digit dialing.

I don't remember exactly when it changed over, but I'm thinking sometime late 1980s or early 1990s.
posted by tonycpsu at 2:56 PM on February 23 [1 favorite]


Is there a way to look up the names of old exchanges? I know of some from major cities, but is there a list out there of every named exchange in the US?

It just occurred to me that my hometown had so many 87x-xxxx numbers because the local exchange at some point must have been 87. Looking at a phone, the letter combinations associated with 8 and 7 don't lend themselves to any local place name I can think of.

I'd love to know how people in my town gave out phone numbers back in the day.
posted by Sara C. at 3:11 PM on February 23


Deep googling revealed this database, but sadly there are no entries for Louisiana.
posted by Sara C. at 3:19 PM on February 23


The same link also leads to this list of Bell System standardized exchange names.
posted by Sara C. at 3:21 PM on February 23


How would I be calling people without my cell phone?

• You're calling from a borrowed cell phone because your car's on fire.
• You're calling from a borrowed cell phone because your house is on fire.
• You rode to the hospital in the ambulance with your family member, out of your mind in the moment, leaving your keys and cell phone on the kitchen counter, and suddenly are called upon to execute a DNR. QUICK—CALL YOUR SIBLINGS. Er—

There are all sorts of scenarios. Your battery is dead. You've just been washed down a gully by a broken dam. You've just been mugged while you're going to visit a friend in NYC and some nice lady is letting you make a call, but you've barely even left the bus stop and your friend was going to give you directions when you got there.

In my day, I had to remember dozens of numbers, most of which I still remember, long after those people have moved away, died, or otherwise stopped using those numbers. These days, I add new numbers to my contacts, but I manually dial them most of the time because I may not always have my phone. Until phones are surgically implanted or everyone is required to have cloud-synched "smart" phones, this is possible. A little be-prepared goes a long way and skills don't need to be discarded just because people suddenly think they're laughably obsolete.
posted by sonascope at 3:47 PM on February 23 [4 favorites]


Oh, and I almost forgot: being able to slam the handset down on the cradle in anger and making the mechanical bell chime, but not having to worry about breaking it because it was made out of some kind of tough-as-fuck black bakelite shit. (I guess you can still sort of approximate that today with pay phones.)
posted by Rhomboid at 3:56 PM on February 23 [4 favorites]


Everyone where I live gives their phone numbers with just the last four digits because this island and two others next to ours all have the same area code and prefix. We do have to dial all ten digits now. Unfortunately, it's only possible to get a local number through the ILEC (Incumbent something something Carrier). That includes cell phones. If you get a cell phone through any other carrier you get a number that is long distance to dial from here.

Elsewhere, my parents still have GRanite 9-0001. And they still have their old wall-mounted rotary phone. I always knew it as 479-0001, but I looked up which exchange they were in the old days, and it was indeed the GRanite exchange. When I was growing up they still had a party-line shared by others on the street. It was the days of BBSs and I really wanted a modem but it was illegal to hook up third-party equipment to a party-line -- you had to lease your phone from the phone company. I eventually convinced them to get a dedicated phone line.
posted by Emanuel at 3:57 PM on February 23


we actually got (areacode) FUN DANS as our phone number, heh.

35 years ago, my father was a reporter for the Boston Globe. Once, for a story, he called the man who had the (617) number NICE GUY and asked him if he knew what his number spelled. He didn't.
posted by Melismata at 4:33 PM on February 23


In my remote location, we still essentially have four digit dialing. Everyone has the same prefix so we just mention the last four when exchanging numbers with locals. Makes it much easier to remember various family numbers since the number-remembering-part of my brain was sacrificed to demons when I bought my first cell phone years ago.
posted by honestcoyote at 4:38 PM on February 23


Until phones are surgically implanted or everyone is required to have cloud-synched "smart" phones, this is possible. A little be-prepared goes a long way and skills don't need to be discarded just because people suddenly think they're laughably obsolete.

Maybe if you're able to memorize numbers but my brain just doesn't work that way. I've never been able to remember numbers and used to have to keep even my mother's number written down.
posted by octothorpe at 4:38 PM on February 23


I used to spend summers in Maine, and I still remember when we had to switch from 4 digit dialling to 7 digit. It was even longer before people announced 7 digits when giving phone numbers.
posted by jeather at 6:09 PM on February 23


The modern inability to memorize phone numbers comes into harsh focus the moment there's a family medical emergency when you don't have your cell phone and you suddenly need to reach a lot of people RIGHT NOW.

Some years ago I got a new cell right before I was heading off on a work trip and did not bother to transfer any numbers from the old one. On the final day of the trip, there was a sudden an unexpected death in the family, and I realized I knew almost no one's number to call and talk to them to find out more info or to talk about it. I ended up doing most of my emotional unloading on a friend who had not moved in twenty years so I still new her number from the pre-cell phone era.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 6:52 PM on February 23 [1 favorite]


You live at the GE plant in Schenectady, NY?

In one of those "zip codes=truth" moments, the zip code for O'Hare International Airport is 60666.
posted by eriko at 7:34 PM on February 23 [2 favorites]


Alexei, it's called an overlay. Here in the 310/424 we've had it for a few years now. It is indeed it's own little piece of telephone hell.
posted by SLC Mom at 8:35 PM on February 23


Ok, I just spent two hours trying to find what the mnemonic was for the town where I grew up, and I have to report what that code was:

There wasn't one. I found a telephone directory from 1961. In it, all numbers in town are just four digits, a few have an additional 2 or 3 in front. To call neighboring towns, you had to know the right two-digit code for that town (if possible at all, some you had to call the operator). The neighboring towns used the code "35" for my town.

Next year, 1962. All phone numbers are suddenly seven digits, 352-xxx, 353, or 354. It looks like everyone got assigned a first digit (2,3,4) if they didn't already have one (the four-digiters didn't just get lumped into a single digit). Neighboring towns that can be dialed have seven digits, those that can't be dialed directly still have a name listed.

This was on an independent phone company, so it probably is somewhat disconnected from how the bell system would have done things. I thought that it's a sufficiently fascinating story that I everyone would want to know. You can tell all your friends about this tomorrow and they'll be impressed.
posted by kiltedtaco at 8:56 PM on February 23 [3 favorites]


The new system, which eliminated letters from phone numbers and set the stage for an automated national (and eventually international) dialing system. was met with a minor rebellion against "creeping numeralism."

I'm dating myself here, but well into the 1980s, letters were still in use in Manhattan. My mother's office number was PL3-8581. The two-letter codes gave you a geographic clue as to the location you were calling and were tied to the physical telephone exchange: PL was for Plaza, around the Plaza Hotel. So, you could dial 753-8581, or you could still press 0 for the operator, get a nice woman saying "Operator, how may I help you?" and ask for Plaza 3 8 5 8 1.

Good luck with that these days.
posted by DarlingBri at 10:35 PM on February 23 [1 favorite]


Yeah, I was surprised at how much evidence of the letters/named exchanges was still around in New York even in the 2000's. I used to have a t-shirt from Sammy's Famous Roumanian Steakhouse that had the letter phone number on it, despite the fact that it couldn't have been printed before about 1995.
posted by Sara C. at 11:05 PM on February 23


Since most phones are actually "dialed" — that is, the actual transmission of digits into the phone system — by electronics (often software) rather than simple switches, it seems like the open vs. closed dial plan issue (and the slow, creeping transition towards a closed plan) ought to be moot.

E.g., if I live in an area with mandatory 10-digit dialing even for local numbers, as many places now are, but I have a modern cordless phone (or a cellphone) where I can pre-enter the number and then hit "Call" to actually dial it, it ought to be pretty straightforward to program the phone with the area code and exchange. Then, if I only enter four numbers, it could prepend both the area code and exchange before actually dialing. If I enter seven, it prepends just the area code. And if you entered the full ten, then it would dial those, overriding the local defaults. (Dialing 1 as the first digit, since it's the long-distance access code, would automatically mean you were going to dial all ten.)

That would let the phone companies have the (supposed) advantages of a closed numbering plan, but still simulate an open plan to users. You'd be able to call your neighbor's landline or the pizza shop down the road with only four or seven digits, but other numbers wouldn't get any longer. It seems like a win-win.

I'm pretty sure you should be able do this with a VOIP ATA just by modifying the "dial plan" parameter, although I've never managed to do it successfully on mine.

Of course, none of that matters when you're dialing from an address book and aren't entering a phone number, but for the times when people are (and I still do it quite a bit), it seems like an easy way to make things a bit easier.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:15 PM on February 23


Google voice lets you pick your number. I'm THE-PALOOKA because THE-ASSHOLE was taken.
posted by vapidave


I managed to snag (birth year)-BUTTS, albeit in a different area code than I'm in. It's the only reason I still have an account with google for anything.
posted by mcrandello at 11:27 PM on February 23 [1 favorite]


Huron Bob: Pennsylvania 6-5000

That's a good one. The song is by Glen Miller. And it refers to a hotel that Miller's band used to play at: Hotel Pennsylvania. It still exists and so does its famous phone number. It's across the street from Madison Square Garden… and appropriately, Penn Station.
posted by readyfreddy at 12:58 AM on February 24


This FPP calls to me...
posted by TWinbrook8 at 2:38 AM on February 24 [1 favorite]


Regarding the alphabetical dialling, it's kinda been the complete opposite here in Australia. Everyone's phone was supplied by Telecom (now Telstra), and they didn't have letters on the keys. So phone "numbers" with letters in them was strictly a thing we saw in movies or TV. Now that we can buy handsets and landline phones from whoever, the alpha-numbers are quite popular for businesses. ie - 13-CABS for ... a cab. Although I still find it just as easy to remember 13-2227.

We also had suburb-based prefixes, so anyone who lived in my suburb had a 221-xxxx number.

In the early nineties (I think), they moved from 2-digit area codes for capital cities, and 3 digit area codes for rural areas, to 2-digit state-based area codes, but added an extra digit to the front of our local numbers to bring the total up to 10 characters. At first they just added a 9 to the front of everyone's local number, and my mind at the time didn't see the point. But now we are getting 8's and I've even seen a couple of 7's.

But these days, all the contacts in my phone have the full international format. So it's like 12 numbers.
posted by Diag at 2:44 AM on February 24


Maybe they were a thing only in the area where I grew up but I have a landline (and subsequently, with the advent of number portability, mobile phone) number that was known as a "metro" number. In north Texas, 214 and 817 might as well have been on the opposite sides of the country for all the calling people did between them. GTE (Generally Takes Everything, "General Telephone Exchange," the precursor to Verizon) and Southwestern HellBell hated each other with the burning fires of seven suns. They had the local telephone market in DFW split between them and damn did they charge each other for local inter-connect. Just calling between my hometown suburb, served by GTE, and the touches-the-city-limits suburb next door, served by SWBell, would cost a fortune if done before 8PM.

Apparently somebody decided to "solve" (read: charge more for) this with metro numbers. The idea was that anyone in the metro area, from Wichita Falls east to Greenville, could call these numbers as a local call and any line with these types of numbers could call out as a local call. They only had a few prefixes in each area code that worked like this, so I have an 817 mobile number even though I didn't live in Fort Worth until 10 years after getting the number. The phone book (that soggy mess in the corner of your porch, to you kids) even had metro exchanges listed in bold with a notation to "contact your local Business Sales Office for more information."

Another anecdote: I grew up with 214-somedigits as our phone number but we lived well outside Dallas. When 972 came along, it originally wasn't an overlay so everybody outside of the Interstate 635/LBJ loop that had a 214 number was changed to 972. My dad was quite pissed because he'd had that exact same number his entire adult life; he almost paid GTE $30/month to keep the 214 as a "vanity" number before mom talked some sense into him. Today, the 214 version of my childhood telephone number goes to a rather infamous used car lot.
posted by fireoyster at 5:21 AM on February 24


There was an ad when I was a kid for Greenwood 7 - 5312. I have no idea what it was for but I still remember the #.

Whenever I get a new phone # it takes me months to remember it and I have to keep it written down to give to people.
posted by interplanetjanet at 6:06 AM on February 24


interplanetjanet: "Whenever I get a new phone # it takes me months to remember it and I have to keep it written down to give to people."

Get a new phone number? But why?
posted by fireoyster at 6:12 AM on February 24


Luckily I haven't had to get a new personal # for a long time. But what if I get a new job!
posted by interplanetjanet at 6:24 AM on February 24


it's kinda been the complete opposite here in Australia.

My favourite thing about Australian numbers - mobile phone numbers have their own prefix. Any number that starts with 04 is a cell phone (barring number porting jiggery-pokery.)
posted by zamboni at 6:25 AM on February 24


interplanetjanet: "There was an ad when I was a kid for Greenwood 7 - 5312. I have no idea what it was for but I still remember the #."

Were you in Philadelphia?

The telephone number of WFIL's Call For Action line was GReenwood 7-5312.
posted by zarq at 9:22 AM on February 24


I was very happy that my cell# is a palindrome. It makes remembering it so much easier.

Back in the day, with a few exceptions, I remembered the pattern of typing or dialing a number better than the numbers themselves. It lead to a few odd incidents where I had to mime dialing in order to tell someone a number. I have a feeling that the name+number would have messed me up, because I regularly mix up names that start with the same letter.
posted by Karmakaze at 9:31 AM on February 24 [1 favorite]


I've described that as "I don't know the number, but my fingers do".

(I feel approximately the same way about computer passwords. The few times where I've accidentally typed a password into a non-password field and instead of '*****' I actually see it written out, I have to look at for a few seconds thinking "what the hell is that?". I'm just not used to actually seeing them.)
posted by benito.strauss at 1:50 PM on February 24


Call for Action! that was it. I spent many years wondering what sort of action it was.
posted by interplanetjanet at 2:20 PM on February 24


On the topic of calling: I've called my cousins from my grandmother's house by dialling 1 plus their 7 digit number, I've had the phones set up where the phone rings at two homes (pre cell phone days); to call the other house you call your own phone number, hang up, wait for it to ring. One place I worked still had a WATS number.

Things that aren't around anymore

- hardwired phone lines in the silly round things to the wall (rj45 now)
- maybe rotary dial converters (converts rotary beats to digital tones)
- pulse/tone switches (push button phones that worked on rotary networks)
- decreased but not totally gone, 10-10-10 dialing (still prevalent on reducing phone kiosks since they aren't booths anymore)
- party lines (never used one)


I currently live in some kind of "mixed" county that only has one area code; some numbers you have to dial the 10 digit for, some 7. And depending on if your number has been ported to a VOIP service, you might have to change what you dial and what is dialed to you. I knew this was happening so I sidestepped the issue by not changing from my "old" cell number - everyone here is 10 digits to me.
posted by tilde at 3:54 PM on February 24


Phones designed to only accept 1, 0, or 2 in the third position on an 11 digit call (area codes used to be restricted to having those digits in the middle). I don't know if 0 & 1 were restricted from the second & third digits on the prefix, but I know I see them there now when I didn't used to.
posted by tilde at 4:07 PM on February 24


fireoyster: "Maybe they were a thing only in the area where I grew up but I have a landline (and subsequently, with the advent of number portability, mobile phone) number that was known as a "metro" number."

My cell phone was like that when I first got it, because my carrier was out of numbers otherwise. Of course, it didn't charge long distance, so it was only the incoming that mattered. It would even reverse bill Bell payphones, so my destitute friends could call me even if they didn't have a dime to their name. A couple of years later, that handy service ended and payphones went up to a quarter and quickly started being replaced by COCOTs (a payphone owned by the customer rather than the phone company) or removed entirely.

tilde: "Phones designed to only accept 1, 0, or 2 in the third position on an 11 digit call (area codes used to be restricted to having those digits in the middle). I don't know if 0 & 1 were restricted from the second & third digits on the prefix, but I know I see them there now when I didn't used to."

Yes, until the mid-90s, exchange codes were required to have 2-9 as the middle digit, supposedly so the switch could tell whether you were dialing a foreign area code and thus how many digits to wait for.
posted by wierdo at 6:29 PM on February 24


I'm over 40 years old, highly technically literate and have never directly dialed an international call outside of North America. The shameful truth? I don't know how. The last time I made one was in the late 80s or early 90s station-to-station via an operator. I have no idea what digits I would have to dial. If I needed to call England or Uzbekistan, I'd have to Google it.
posted by double block and bleed at 7:39 PM on February 24


International is easy enough from home, sitting down in a familiar place with a cup of tea and a phone number clearly written or typed out in front of you.

International is impossible while standing in a cramped loud International Call Center in some far-flung city on a continent you're only passingly familiar with where you don't speak the local language.

And god help you if the number you're trying to dial is your bank.
posted by Sara C. at 8:01 PM on February 24 [2 favorites]


Yeah, no kidding, Sara C. Though we tried from a payphone we couldn't read. Ended up going to a pay as you go internet place and using hotmail to communicate back home.
posted by tilde at 3:37 AM on February 25


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