“Give Me Your Digits” – the Evolution of the Telephone
I remember a day, not so long ago, when everyone had ONE phone number. It was sometime in between the movie Wall Street and the TV show “Saved by the Bell”. In our household, we just finished a major debate about the validity and cost-effectiveness of keeping our home phone. This isn’t a new argument as many of our friends are “Cell-Only” friends. Times sure have changed….
Our family has the benefit of having access to a great resource when it comes to the history of telephones; Her name is Aunt Gloria. Aunt Gloria worked for “Ma Bell” for 50 years (and 1 day she likes to throw in). She started working in the 1950’s and can vividly recall what switch boards were like and if you wanted to place a call from Austin to El Paso you had to route through Chicago. The scary thing is that wasn’t all that long ago, but light years in terms of technology evolution. TV’s and Radio’s from that era have certainly come a long way as well, but they still have a place of relevance in our society (although declining).
Home telephones are on the verge of obsolescence. Without a doubt cell phones have had a large affect on this, but taking a look at history you’ll find that telephones, and the numbers themselves, have been evolving too.
Up until the mid-1960’s, telephone numbers all started with 3 letters followed by 4 numbers (the “LLL-NNNN” format) thought to help us with memorization. When you’d call the switch board operator, or “hello girl”, you’d give them a word then the number so they know where you were placing your call (i.e. “TREnton – 3403”) The Russians were the first on record to actual go to the all-numeral approach in 1968 which has now evolved into our current automatic dialing format. The letters required to call certain places remain on our phones and lots of advertisers still take advantage of that via mnemonics that help us remember their business. (call 1-888-BOLOGNA)
While this history lesson is useful and entertaining (Aunt Gloria tells a great story about how she hung up on then President LBJ), it doesn’t help us with our current domestic dilemma. Do we keep our home number or get rid of it? After a couple days of contemplation, a brief trip to the store made our decision for us – we decided to keep it.
While the ability to locate the house for a random 911 emergency was a very important factor, it wasn’t until we went up to the check-out line of a local Randalls grocery that we realized our home phone number is a part of us. We use it at the gas station. We use it to get discounts on toys at Toys R Us. We even use it to work-out. It’s amazing how quickly the phone number has become our defacto replacement for identification. One of our friends actually uses our phone number when going to the store. This change has been happening over the last several years and while it’s true we could switch all those memberships to our cell phone, who wants to go through all that mess? So instead of paying for home phone service, we now view it more like we are paying for “multiple membership identity” service. Think this is crazy? Recollect how often you give out your home phone number to people. Now think of how often you use it to verify membership for some service or signing up for something. Which do you use if for more often? Last year I’d estimate we gave our phone number to 2-3 people and used it over 30 times to sign-up for something, and even that might be a low number. So then next time you go to Home Depot or 7-Eleven, see what the googly-eyed clerk behind the counter reacts when you tell him your number is “Trenton-3403”.
Resources: A short history of the telephone & Aunt Gloria