Monday, August 30, 2010


Dial telephones

I was listening to the radio program Science Friday last week[1], and I noted something I’ve noted before: their phone number is 989-8255. That fact is certainly unremarkable to most people. I remark on it because the phone number I grew up with, in Florida, was 989-8582, which is amusingly close to that, albeit with a different area code.

One notable thing about my childhood phone number was how awful it was back then. In days of pulse-dial telephones,[2] it took forever to call it. You’d dial 9, tick-tick-tick-tick-tick-tick-tick-tick-tick. You’d dial 8, tick-tick-tick-tick-tick-tick-tick-tick. You’d dial 9, tick-tick-tick-tick-tick-tick-tick-tick-tick. You’d dial 8, tick-tick-tick-tick-tick-tick-tick-tick.

I think you could grow a new finger faster.

Area codes, back in the day of dial phones and mechanical switching, were set up as three-digit numbers with a 0 or 1 in the middle — and phone numbers never had a 0 or 1 as the second digit, so the switching system could distinguish an area code that way. The best area codes — that is, the ones that were quickest to dial — went to the major metropolitan areas. New York City, 212; Los Angeles, 213; Chicago, 312; and so on. Places that didn’t matter, like Alaska (907) and Hawaii (808), got the crappy codes.

But now, none of it makes any difference. Calling any number is just like calling any other. And, of course, with computerized switching, there’s no longer a need to reserve special digits, so both area codes and phone numbers can have any digit in the second place.

But, man, calling home in the old days. 9, tick-tick-tick-tick-tick-tick-tick-tick-tick. 8, tick-tick-tick-tick-tick-tick-tick-tick. ...

[1] On which day it was is left as an exercise for the reader.

[2] Touch Tone, which was once an AT&T trademark for what’s known as DTMF (dual-tone multi-frequency signaling), was introduced in the mid-1960s, but wasn’t widely available until the ’70s. Even as recently as the early 1980s, AT&T charged an extra monthly fee for Touch Tone service.


jd2718 said...

I remember noticing that Istanbul was 212 and Ankara 312... same idea, golden codes to privileged cities...

My friend had 231-1403, and we marveled at how unclicky it was...


Brent said...

According to the AT&T timeline for 1951: Determined to build a better system, an AT&T Engineering Department team investigated using a single set of short codes to divide North America into unique calling areas. The team?s L. K. Palmer and W. H. Nunn concluded that a three-digit code - 2-to-9 as the first digit, the second number always 1 or 0 - produced a set of unique area codes with room for growth. Back then, a local phone number started with an exchange name followed by numbers, such as "Murray Hill 5." Since there were no letters above 1 or 0 on the dial, no phone numbers used a 1 or 0 in the first two pulls of the dial. Thus, equipment could distinguish long distance from local calls.

The team assigned area codes with a middle digit of 1 to states needing multiple area codes and area codes with a middle digit of 0 to the rest. Operators memorized area codes. To make the system work, local numbers, which varied in length, began changing to a single pattern - two letters and five numbers, as used in the largest cities. All long-distance calls would be 10 digits.

Shortly after operators began using area codes, AT&T tested its new system, with help from the mayors. Englewood (area code 201) called Alameda (area code 415). The trial being a success, AT&T rolled out Direct Distance Dialing across America. Ninety area codes in 1951 grew to 135 in 1991. In recent years, cellular phones, fax machines, modems, and local service competition ignited explosive area-code growth. The last code available in the original scheme - 610 - entered service in Pennsylvania in 1994. Codes with second digits other than 0 or 1 came into use. Today, there are 251 area codes...and counting!