For generations now, our lives have been surrounded by numbers. We use numbers for everything. For example, the social security number identifies who we are, our license numbers tell people what we can do, and our scores in school announce to the world what we know and how well we know it. In addition to all of that, we have bank account numbers, credit card numbers, employee numbers and the list goes on. Without numbers the world would move at a very different pace.
Even how we connect with the world is managed by numbers. One of the most important numbers we have is our phone number. If you’re like most people, you have several numbers that people use to connect with you. You have a land line and a smart phone or two so that whether you’re at home or you’re out, people can always reach you.
However, it may surprise some people to know that phone numbers have not always been such a major part of people’s lives. They have evolved over time just like every other kind of technology.
A Short History of Phone Numbers:
When the telephone was first introduced to the world in 1876 there was no need for a phone number. After all, there were only two telephones in existence at the time. However, by 1910 the number of telephone sets across the country had quickly climbed to more than 7 million. Picking up the phone and asking the “hello girl” to ring up Barbara in Chicago wasn’t so easy anymore. They needed a more practical system that would allow people to make calls without getting confused.
The first phone numbers were only four digits long and with it you could call anyone within your area. In more heavily populated areas the numbers were given five digits but it was still pretty simple. You called the hello girl and gave her the number you wanted to call. If you wanted to call someone in another city, you simply told the hello girl the name of the city and gave her the phone number.
The 7-Digit Number:
But as the telephone became more popular it was soon realized that the four digit number was not going to be enough. They debated on moving up to a seven digit number but feared that it would be much too long for people to memorize so they fashioned a plan to have a longer phone number but instead of numbers they would make the first three digits letters. So when you called the hello girl you would give an alphanumeric number that might sound a little strange today. If your number was MUR-4578 you would give a word to the letters so you would tell the hello girl, “I want Murray – 4578 please,” and she would ring you up.
This continued on for a while but soon they began to realize they were running out of letters so they decided to only use the first two digits for letters and give each phone a five digit number. It wasn’t until 1968 that everyone went completely to seven-digit phone numbers for everyone.
The Birth of the Area Code:
It wasn’t until the early 50s that things began to change again. Up until that point, phone numbers weren’t technically phone numbers but were alpha-numeric addresses. The reason for this was because connections relied entirely on human operators. However, around that time things were beginning to become automated. Rather than speaking with an operator (previously the hello girl) you would dial a number that was designated to a specific area of the country. Then dial the number of the person you wanted to call in that area. All of this was done through automation.
The official roll out of area codes came in 1951 with the nation divided into 100 different “areas.” The first official phone call using the area code was made from Englewood, Ohio to Alameda, California with great fanfare. Even the media picked this up as a glimpse of the future of technology.
This worked well for the most part but people soon realized that phone companies could and did charge a premium (long distance charge) for calling anyplace outside of their own area code and make a profit. If you wanted to move to a new location you would automatically be required to change and get a new number.
Other Changes to Phone Numbers:
Over the years, phone numbers continued to change at a pretty rapid rate. We eventually got an emergency number that could automatically connect us to police, fire, ambulance services without having to explain a problem to an operator. When cell phones were introduced the simplicity of calling changed once again. And as the popularity of the cellular phone spread around the globe, international calling also became easier.
As time passed, more and more changes were added to phone numbers. It became apparent that more numbers were needed, more area codes were needed, and basically more of everything was needed.
Today, we see phone numbers change very little. At one time, you were required to change your number every time you moved but today you can take your number with you, area code and all. In fact, there are some phone numbers you can actually buy. The most expensive phone number ever purchased was bought by a New York City limousine service. They paid a whopping $2.7 million for the privilege of having people call them.
There is no question that our lives are governed by numbers. And when it comes to the countless numbers we use to stay in touch with the rest of the world we can fully expect to see more changes in the future. The telephone was one of man’s greatest technological inventions but it has had to evolve over time and with it the numbers we use to connect with it. So as more people are getting connected around the world, phone numbers will have to adapt even more to the telephone’s ever increasing popularity as well.