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It was all a mistake? In January, 1958, Wichita Falls, Texas was the first American city to institute true number calling, that is, seven numerical digits without letters or names. Although it took more than fifteen years to implement throughout the Bell System, ANC, or all number calling, would finally replace the system of letters and numbers begun forty years before at the advent of automatic dialing.
AT&T's operating companies started installing dial telephones in the mid to late 1920s. Customers could now dial numbers themselves, instead of having an operator place them as before. Rather than use all digits to indicate a telephone number, AT&T hit upon a hybrid system of letters and numbers. Instead of a number like 351-1017, the Bell System referred to it by a name like ELgin 1-1017, ELliot 1-1017, or ELmwood 1-1017. Something like that. The two letters and a number indicated a customer's switching office or exchange, the last four digits the actual customer's number. But why use letters?
The Bell System thought abbreviations would prevent misdialing, a mnemonic device to help callers unaccustomed to using dial telephones. AT&T's William G. Blauvelt designed a dial with the letters and numbers we use today, one without a Q or Z, one without letters for the digits 1 and 0. The assumption was, therefore, that customers could dial four or five numbers correctly but not six or seven. And that somehow they needed letters as well.
I've never understood, though, why PEnsylvania 6-5000 should be easier to remember or dial than 436-5000. Yet for forty years the most bizarre exchange names flooded the country and the entire telephone system was based on this riot of numbers and letters. It's with some satisfaction I note that AT&T's Joel and Schindler, in A History of Engineering and Science in the Bell System: Switching Technology (1925 -- 1975), in discussing the Texas trial above, state contritely that "later human-factors studies showed there was no need for letters in the dialing sequence." Whoops! They went on to say that people in 1958 were now used to dialing, quite unlike forty years before. Four decades of practice were needed before people could dial another two or three digits?
Bell System followed the lead of many Independents who were using numbered and lettered dials before AT&T. Bell's regional operating companies may have assumed that letters and numbers were necessary because they were being used, not because they were actually needed. Tradition or sloth set in afterwards and made exchange numbers accepted, unquestioned practice.
The first telephone numbers weren't numbers, they were names. The name of your company or you as an individual. That was too confusing to build a telephone system on since many people in a town might share the same name. Starting in 1879, then, scarcely three years after the telephone was invented, the switch to assigning a customer a number began, with a four digit code being typical. Calls were not dialed by the customer, indeed, there were no dial telephones yet. All calls were connected manually by an operator at a switchboard. But dial telephones would come along.
Let's look at how telephone numbers have been arranged recently, before we look at the numbered and letter scheme of old. Four digit codes allowed 9,999 possible telephone numbers. Plenty for a small town but hardly enough for a big city. What to do? For every block of 9,999 telephone numbers you assign a two or three digit code ahead of it, to designate the telephone switch, just as the four digit code identifies the subscriber. We call the two and then three digit code the prefix or exchange number.
So, if my number was 1017 in one part of town my prefix might be 203, hence 203-1017. Another customer having the same
number in another part of town would get another prefix number, say, 481, for 481-1017.
The numbers 1 and 0 aren't used for prefixes since so many other things are keyed into those digits. Like dialing 1 before placing a long distance call and dialing 0 before
connecting to an operator.
As I said before, the Bell System first designated prefixes with letters, not numbers. In the beginning these two letter abbreviations described the area the switch building or central office was located in. Like ELm for an Elm street locale or FRanklin for an exchange on Franklin street. But this sensical method didn't last long as the few central office codes ran out. The problem was there were only so many easily pronounced names, ones where the first two letters of the word wouldn't be confused with other letters. Exchanges were later named for landmarks, famous families, city neighborhoods, and so on. After World War II some two letter prefixes had a number added on to them to extend their usefulness. Something like PLaza1-1017. That gave more prefix possibilities.
People eventually knew exchange names belonged to certain parts of the city and made associations and assumptions based on your telephone number. Did you live in downtown San Francisco? Or were you out by Golden Gate Park? Or near the Marina? Your telephone number gave a clue. All number dialing wiped out all these names and the memories that went them, much angst ensued, and countless editorials mourned their loss. Witness this lament from New York City: