History of U.S. Telephone Numbers

Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone in 1876. In the very early days, people would just call the operator and ask her to connect them with a specific person. Back then, there were few enough telephones for this method to work. A friend of Bell’s, Dr. Moses Greeley Parker of Lowell, Massachusetts, noticed a problem with this method in 1879. There was a measles epidemic — and telephone operators were not immune to the disease. If an operator fell ill, a substitute would have to take over. That substitute would need time to learn all the names of the 200 telephone users in the area. Parker thought memorizing numbers would be easier. Early on, telephone users would be assigned a four-digit number. Four digits allowed for 9,999 possible number combinations, which was great for a small town. A city needed more. So, after 1928 a two- or three-digit exchange code began to be added. Every 9,999 telephone users in an area would be given a specific exchange code. By 1958, all the telephones in the U.S. had a seven-digit number. Early telephones depended on manual switching, which meant the user had to contact the operator first to make their call. Telephones with rotary dials didn’t become widely used until the 1920’s. During this time, AT&T installed dial telephones in people’s houses. They also had people use a mix of numbers and letters as telephone numbers. In their system, the exchange code was represented by two letters and a number. That system lasted until 1958, and it’s a reason why telephone numbers have letters associated with them. After 1958, telephone numbers were strictly numeric. Area codes were first devised in the late 1940s, but they weren’t implemented until several years later. In 1951, New Jersey became the first state to use an area code. Its code was 201. There were under 90 codes at first, and they were assigned by population. Big cities got codes that were the easiest to dial on a rotary phone, like 212 for New York City, while the more rural Kansa got 913.

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