'Call Northside 777': Remember the old names in phone numbers?

February 5, 2014 

Q. Recently, I was searching YouTube for some Jimmy Stewart "Call Northside 777" clips when it occurred to me: How did they develop the names associated with the alphabet equivalents for the first two digits in the old-style phone numbers? I remember back in the 1960s that our Alton home phone was "HOward" (for the letters H and O, or 4 and 6) and then the other five numbers.

-- J.B., of Millstadt

A. Reminds me of the current Jack in the Box commercial in which the 20-something gal asks Jack if his wristwatch had been invented "a long time ago" -- in the 1980s. Nowadays, kids think you're ancient when you start waxing poetically about rotary-dial phones and numbers that started with words.

But I still think those old metro-east exchanges like ADams and LEnox and GRover gave phone numbers an added warmth and memorability. I mean, would Elizabeth Taylor have won an Oscar if her phone service number had been 288 instead of BUtterfield 8? Would Glenn Miller have had a smash hit with "736-5000"? Even the Partridge Family sang of calling Echo Valley 2-6809.

Alas, Ma Bell began phasing out those quaint names as early as 1958, and by the mid-'80s they were a communications museum curiosity piece. Here's a history of their rise and fall:

For a very brief time in the earliest days of the telephone, those fortunate enough to have Mr. Bell's new invention would have made a call by ringing an operator and asking to be connected to a name, whether of a company or individual. You probably realize the chaos this could cause, so in about 1880 customers started to get three- and four-digit numbers.

But as telephone use exploded in larger cities, this plan, too, quickly outlived its usefulness, so a new scheme was devised: Blocks of 10,000 numbers (0000-9999) were parceled out to various areas of a city. Then, each area received a three-number prefix to make each block of numbers unique. These prefixes became known as exchange numbers.

But apparently back then the phone company felt that a string of seven numbers might be too hard to remember, so it came up with the mnemonic device of naming each exchange. AT&T's William G. Blauvelt designed a dial with the letters and numbers we see today, one without the Q and Z and with no letters for 1 and 0. The idea was to keep people from dialing wrong numbers, so the phone company devised words for the letters associated with the first numbers. Some places used two while others like New York, for example, followed the British example of all three (PENsylvania).

At first, the prefixes and corresponding names often were chosen to describe the area in which that particular telephone switching office was located -- maybe ELm or FRanklin for the names of nearby streets. But this, too, had limited usefulness so the subject matter expanded to landmarks, famous families, city neighborhoods, etc.

These names weren't chosen willy-nilly, either; they all went through rigorous testing, according to Michigan Bell's Ray Babcock in an old copy of a company publication. Company officials in various cities compiled a master list of words that started with the roughly 500 two-letter combinations. The list was then sent to the American Telephone and Telegraph's home office in New York.

"Once a word has been worked out, it still must pass some tests," Babbage noted. "First it is read to 300 telephone operators who write down what they think they hear. The word that comes through with the fewest mistakes is saved for further consideration. Even then, the word may end up in the waste basket. It may be doomed if it is the name of a city, a state or has only a local fame or application."

(Before the master list was compiled, some city and state names were used, but this created confusion when operators started connecting long-distance calls and confused the city that the call was going to with the exchange name.)

From the master list, Babcock would submit the names to a committee of supervisors, who would determine whether there might be unfavorable public reaction or perhaps give one business unfair advantage over another. The committee would send its top two choices to upper management, which would then select the new exchange name.

Others, however, must have thought the extra time it took to find those two letters on the dial outweighed its memorability advantage. Already in January 1958, Wichita Falls, Texas, instituted all-number dialing. The WAlnuts, LOcusts, SPruces and PInes had become so much dead wood. By roughly 1985 they had disappeared, leaving Gen-Xers to dance to Tommy Tutone's "867-5309/Jenny" _ even though businesses still can request numbers that can be turned into things like GO-CARDS.

If you'd like to see the old master list and other related historical memorabilia, go to the Telephone Exchange Name Project at www.ourwebhome.com/TENP/TENproject.html.

Today's trivia

What is reportedly the oldest, continuously used telephone number in New York City?

Answer to Wednesday's trivia: If you and your friends drained a keg in college, you would have drunk 151/2 gallons of beer.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or rschlueter@bnd.com or call 618-239-2465.

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