originally published July 8, 2013
Yesterday my mother commented that she has had the same phone number for 37 years. That’s nearly four decades and the bulk of my younger years using the same seven-digit code (or seven-tone melody) to unlock a conversation with my mother. When my son asked for her number a couple months back so he could thank her for his birthday gift (which he no doubt spent wisely, on Lego and fireworks), I was surprised that he didn’t know it. Then it occurred to me.
Phone numbers are now disposable.
They are a one-time ticket, punched into someone’s iPhone then crumpled up and tossed. Now if he feels the need to call my mom, my son need only tap her name in his contact list. There is no seven-tone melody, no contemplating what word her phone number might spell out, no memorization required. My children have never spoken to an operator, never counted out the taps of a pulse dial, and never known the phalangical workout of swooping around a rotary telephone dial.
They certainly don’t know the history of how these numbers came to be.
There was a time when picking up a phone would connect you to an operator, who would then take care of the messy business of connecting you to someone else. If your call was long-distance, the operator at your exchange (which is like a central office) would have to route you through another operator. It was complicated, messy, and involved a lot of wires.
Then along came W.G. Blauvelt, the sharp-minded AT&T employee who thought each exchange should be assigned a name, and that name could become a part of each phone number. This was 1917, back when automatic dialing had yet to become the norm. A standardized arrangement of 24 letters overtop the numbers on a dial (with Q and Z left off, because fuck those letters) was implemented. This also allowed people to discover that the last four digits of their number might spell ‘POOP’.
Major cities eventually adopted the 2L-5N system, meaning a phone number would consist of the first two letters of the exchange’s name, followed by the five digit number. That’s why old-timey phone directories would feature names like FAirfax 3-8329 or BAldwin 5-2343.
The problem was, after WWII when everyone was dropping a phone line into their homes, the system was in danger of running out of phone numbers. Some of the digit letter-groups contained no vowels and thus couldn’t produce a memorable exchange name. For example, no exchange could begin with 9-5, because you can’t form an exchange name out of W-X-Y followed by J-K-L.
The solution, which began its roll-out in 1962, was to go with an all-number system, with area codes divvying up the continent. This seems logical and well-reasoned, which naturally means that it met with furious opposition. In San Francisco, a group calling themselves the Anti-Digit Dialing League was formed to protest the removal of their phone numbers’ precious first names. The scourge was called ‘creeping numeralism’, and people fought it across the country. One protestor in Santa Rosa declared “Give me LIberty or take the blinking phone out!”
It was ugly.
It took AT&T about two decades to phase the entire continent into an all-numbers system. In 1978 the final exchange names were removed in New York City, and Philadelphia’s phone directory still had named exchanges in its directory as late as 1983. This was back when people fought new technology rather than embracing it.
One exchange that made a rather public transition to number form was the infamous KLondike 5 exchange. We all know this one.
The use of ‘555’ in fiction started around the same time AT&T began phasing out exchange names in 1962. Movies and shows that took place in the past adopted KLondike 5 or KLamath 5. This was to prevent people from actually trying out the numbers they saw on the screen. Some early masking attempts used exchange names like QUincy or ZEbra, since ‘Q’ and ‘Z’ were the forsaken letters that didn’t land a spot on the telephone dial.
That’s not to say ‘555’ hasn’t shown up in real life too. Dialing 1-xxx-555-1212 in North America will connect you to that area code’s directory assistance. Yes, there are still actual operators out there somewhere, though I suspect you’d have to navigate a complicated voice-recognition computer system to get to them now. 555-1313 was a pay-per-use Canadian reverse look-up service introduced in the 1990’s, back before websites offered the service for free.
And of course, ‘555’ has always been a standard exchange in Australia.
Far Side cartoonist Gary Larson found this out the hard way, when he published a comic that featured a 555 number for making prank calls to Satan. The guy who owned that number in Australia was deluged with obnoxious calls, and sued Larson for defamation. The lawsuit was disconnected by the judge.
The need for 555 to be scattered around the world of fiction became famously important after an obscure band named Tommy Tutone scored a #1 hit in 1981 with the song “867-5309 (Jenny)”. Songwriter Alex Call claims he made the number up and liked the way it sounded. Those who had that number in various regions around the world had to drop it after being flooded with calls for Jenny. A few more enterprising companies sought out the abandoned numbers for themselves, since having such an easy-to-remember number would be good for business. If they were really swift, they’d hire a receptionist named Jenny.
The 555 phenomenon appears to be on its way out, as people in area codes around the continent have been getting actual 555 phone numbers. At this point, only 555-0100 through 555-0199 are specifically reserved for fictitious use.
When Jim Carrey checks his pager in the film Bruce Almighty, God’s phone number is revealed to be 776-2323, an unassigned number in Buffalo, where the film is set. But people – probably mostly stupid people – called that number locally all over the country, asking for God. This may have confused a few people in Sanford, North Carolina, where that number would actually dial up a church. The number was changed to a 555 in the DVD edition.
But we live in a cynical age, and dropping 555 into your movie is going to chip away at the viewer’s suspension of disbelief. That’s why a company called Fictional Telecom has specifically reserved a number of phone numbers in area codes all over the world. They’ll even reserve a unique number for you, so long as it isn’t already in use.
Universal Studios did their own pre-planning, booking the number 212-664-7665 for use in any Universal production. The number pops up in Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, Munich, The Adjustment Bureau and Definitely, Maybe.
That’s a smart approach. But it’s still easier just to tap a name on a smartphone screen.