These days, telephone numbers are just…numbers. A sequence of digits which, when entered into your phone correctly, should bring you in contact with the owner of number who should be the person you want to speak to. Simple, isn’t it? And yet, some of us may remember a time, perhaps not too long ago, when a telephone-number didn’t start with a number, but rather a series of letters or a word. Welcome to nostalgic and at times, confusing world of alphanumeric telephone numbers.
The telephone was invented in the 1870s, but it wasn’t until the early 1900s that its use really took off, once all the little kinks and kooks had been worked out, transforming this newfangled contraption into a practical communication-device. In the early days of telephone-usage, numbers were small – 1, 2, 3 or 4 digits long. It was easy for telephone switchboard operators to connect the leads left and right and remember everything. As time went by, however, and as more people started being hooked up to the machine which gradually entered popular culture being called the ‘bell’ or ‘pipe’ (such as ‘give me a bell!’ or ‘tell me over the pipe!’, which I suspect is a holdover from the days of old-fashioned speaking-tubes), numbers needed to be longer and longer to accomadate the extra customers. And with telephone-usage growing in big cities, it was obvious that one main switchboard wasn’t enough to handle everything.
A page from a telephone directory for Canning, Nova Scotia, Canada, in 1958. Note how the numbers are set out and how they’re listed. Here, the exchange-name is ‘JUniper’. Mr. Arthur Caldwell’s number, (top left) is JUniper 2-3404, or 582-3404.
To overcome this, extra telephone-exchanges were set up to cope with the traffic. Each one was given a different name and number so that more telephone numbers could be assigned and used. For example, the number 49312 could only ever be assigned to one person, but with multiple exchanges, you could have REdbrook-49312 and perhaps SYcamore-49312, allowing people to use the same number without messing up the telephone-lines.
As numbers grew longer and longer and more exchange switchboards were set up to handle them, each exchange was given a number to identify it by. Exchanges were given special names so that people could remember them easier. The names were determined by the numbers which identified a specific telephone-exchange. For example an exchange assigned the ID numbers ‘944’, would spell out ‘WHI’ on a lettered telephone dial. A word starting with those three letters would then be assigned as that exchange’s name. This is a real example, by the way. The exchange-name is ‘Whitehall’, which is a suburb in London.
By the way…if you’ve ever wondered why telephones today HAVE those letter designations:
etc etc etc…It’s a leftover from the days of alphanumeric phone-numbers, when people needed to know which letters were covered by which numbers, so that they could be assured of dialling the correct telephone exchange switchboard.
A typical rotary telephone-dial of the period, showing which letters were covered by which numbers. ‘0’ was used to contact the switchboard operator. The original number for this phone was OLympic 4-6753, or 654-6753.
The amount of letters at the start of the exchange-name which stood for the exchange’s ID-number, varied from country to country, and even from city to city within a country! The number of letters was usually the first two or first three in any given exchange-name. In the United Kingdom, three letters followed by four numbers (3L-4N) was the rule. So ‘Whitehall 1212’ would be “WHItehall 1212”, or 944-1212.
In the United States, by comparison, phone-numbers followed the 2L-5N (two letters, five numbers) rule. This meant that the first two letters of the exchange-name stood for numbers. Notable exceptions to this rule were cities of New York, Philidelphia, Boston and Chicago, which followed the British example of 3L-4N. This brought up exchange-names like ‘PENnsylvania’, ‘TREmont’ and ‘ELDorado’. Since the rest of the country did 2L-5N, this could create some understandable confusion to people who weren’t from the US. East Coast. Eventually, these cities conformed with the rest of the nation, altering their phone-numbers so that instead of the above, they had numbers like: ‘PEnnsylvania 65000’ or ‘ELdorado 51234, to avoid confusion.
If you’re wondering why I’m typing the exchanges like ‘LAMbeth’ or ‘KLondike’…this is how they were actually printed, ‘back in the day…’. The capital letters in the exchange-name told you which numbers to dial to get the exchange, by reading the capitalised letters and dialling the corresponding numbers on your phone-dial (which had numbers assigned to specific groups of letters).
A typical telephone-exchange switchboard, ca. 1943. When you count how many leads and cables and sockets there are, it’s no wonder people wanted short numbers so that you didn’t clutter everything up!
The end of Alphanumeric Telephone Numbers.
Alphanumeric phone numbers began to die out in the 1960s-1970s when it was recognised that there were more telephone-numbers than exchanges to handle them and in the 1960s and 70s, communications companies started switching to all-digit numbers, the kind we know today. Few people today still use alphanumeric phone numbers and even fewer people would understand them. If you had to suddenly leave from a coffee with a friend and you told him to call you back on ‘CAstle-38742’, he probably wouldn’t have a damn clue what you were saying! Eh…incidently, that’s 223-8742. Today, the numbers remain as an interesting bit of cultural and telephonic history, if nothing more.
Alphanumeric telephone numbers used in this Article:
WHItehall-1212: This was the number for New Scotland Yard, London, England. 944-1212. The number has changed slightly over the years, but as of 2009, it still ends in ‘1212’. An old 1950s British radio program dealing with the cases of Scotland Yard, was called ‘Whitehall 1212’.
DEAnsgate-3414: This was the number for Kendals department store in Manchester, England. That’s 332-3414.
ELDorado-1234: This was the (fictional) phone-number of the office of Richard Diamond, the famous NYC private detective, the main character of a highly popular 1950s radio show (see ‘The Golden Age of Radio, below). Sticking to the 3L-4N format, this would be 353-1234.
PEnnsylvania-65000: Originally ‘PENnsylvania-5000’, it was changed to PEnnsylvania-65000 when New York switched to the 2L-5N format. This number remains the oldest, continuously-used phone-number in New York City. Issued in 1919, it has belonged to the Hotel Pennsylvania in central Manhattan for the past 90 years! Dialling that number today (736-5000) still gets you the Hotel Pennsylvania, just as it did 60-odd years ago when Glenn Miller wrote his song! It’s usually spoken or written as ‘Pennsylvania six, five thousand’, because ‘Pennsylvania sixty-five thousand’ sounds a bit silly, doesn’t it?
The current header for the Hotel Pennsylvania’s website. Note the phone-number on the bottom right: 736-5000.
CAstle 3-8742: I admit I made this number up on the spot. Whether or not it ever really existed, I’ve no idea!