History of the Telephone Number: Early Years

On March 10, 1876, when Alexander Graham Bell made his famous first telephone call, uttering, "Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you," to his assistant, there was no need for telephone numbers or exchanges; only two telephones existed in the world that time.

But Bell's invention quickly took off. Initially, telephones were rented to users, who hired someone else to connect them. Then, Bell and WU Company instituted a subscription service with calls being placed through an operator at a central office or switchboard. At that time, subscribers' names were used when making a call.

The first phone numbers were instituted in Lowell, Massachusetts, in late 1879 and early 1880. During a measles epidemic, the local physician, Dr. Moses Greeley Parker, an early supporter of the telephone, became concerned that the disease would befall the town's four operators, shutting down the phone service. He determined that new operators could be trained faster if they learned numbers rather than names.

Initially, phone numbers might be only one, two, or three digits, but that quickly became untenable as phone usage spread among users. Because that time it was believed that phone numbers longer than four or five digits would be too difficult to remember, phone exchanges combined letters and digits. Beginning in the 1920s, major U.S. cities, such as New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago, initially used three letters and four numbers, which eventually shifted to the 2L-5N (two letters, five numbers) system. The letters were associated with a name, such as HEmlock 5-6789 or TUlip 9-3539.

In those pre-digital days, an exchange was wired at a physical location, so exchanges were associated with a specific location within a town or city. The letters were grouped on the telephone dial, with the exception of 1 and 0 (0 being reserved to call the operator); therefore, the first two digits could never contain a 1 or a 0. Certain combinations, such as 57 and 97, were problematic, as they contained no vowels to use to make a word. In 1955, AT&T released a list of suggested exchange names based on studies showing they were the most likely to be understood when spoken.

One of the most famous telephone exchanges, PEnnsylvania 6-5000, belongs to the Hotel Pennsylvania in New York City. Now written as (212) 736-5000, it is the oldest continuously assigned phone number in New York City, and possibly the world.

About the series: "History of the Telephone" is for those businesses and individuals who are interested in a vanity number and the benefits one may provide. A vanity number, such as the ones found at PhoneNumberGuy.com, makes it easy for potential and current clients to remember you. You can find the perfect vanity number for you in nearly every U.S. area code at PhoneNumberGuy.com.

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