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Director's Column

PLSJC Director Alan Hall writes a weekly column discussing library and community news, history, and other interesting subjects.

Telephone numbers

By Alan Hall, Director, PLSJ
Publish Date - Sunday, June 4, 2006




Telephone numbers were being discussed around the library, the result of a reference question that someone asked.


If you are over 50 years old, you will likely remember when telephone numbers had two letters in front of the numbers.


That is the great part of working in a library, when these questions come up in conversation; the answer is at your fingertips.


The first telephone numbers were names of people.  Ask for a person, and the telephone operator would connect you.


In 1879 with the telephone barely three years old, a four-number system was started.


People's names were too confusing as more people acquired a telephone for their home.  This helped the operator "plug in" the call to the correct circuit.


Four numbers could not provide enough different numbers for long, and quickly the names of neighborhoods were added to identify which area had those four numbers.


The Bell System began using "dialed calling" in 1921.  William G. Blauvelt of A T & T had devised a system in 1917 to divide the alphabet into three groups of letters for each opening of the telephone dial.


Q and Z were not used, and even today most telephone button pads use the Blauvelt system for lettering.


Dialing swept the nation in the 1930s, with the first two letters of the name added to five numerals to produce a 7-digit telephone number.


The phone company assumed that people couldn't remember 7 numbers, so they established the 2-5 system, 2 letters and 5 numbers.


New York City was the first to use the 2-5 system, and across the nation names and words were used to help remember the 2 letters.


After World War II, dialing was nationwide, and the "number please" staff of local telephone companies was disappearing with direct dial equipment.


The 2-5 system was the standard of the telephone industry, to the point that the Bell System established in 1955 official "exchange names" to be used for the 2 letters in front of the 5 numerals.


Steubenville was assigned ATlantic for its 282 and 283 exchanges, with Atlantic being the first recommended word on the 1955 list.


The 264 exchange was given the word AMherst, also the first on the list under its category on the Bell System recommended list.


The 2-letter system was short-lived, as Wichita Falls, Texas in 1958 became the first American city to drop the letters and use 7 numbers for telephones.


Pittsburgh and Cincinnati began conversion to numbers in 1962.


The last announcement of elimination of letters in phone numbers came in 1978 when Philadelphia and Seattle lost their telephone names.


The final phone book printing the letter codes came off the press in 1981.


The Bell System had barely ended use of the Blauvelt lettering system when businesses requested that they be allowed to select phone numbers that spelled something on the telephone number pad.


That was followed by systems that used the letters to spell a name in a voice mail system, requiring the letters to appear on the number pad.


Area codes have allowed telephone numbers to expand with the ever-increasing demand for numbers.


What will the future bring with telephone numbers?


There remains a large segment of the population that still refers to entering a telephone number as "dialing."