History & Fun Facts about Telephone Numbers

Alexander Graham Bell, a famous Scottish inventor is acknowledged as the person who has spoken the first words by telephone on March 10, 1876. He actually invented the telephone by accident when he was experimenting with the telegraph and suddenly discovered that the human voice could be easily transmitted from one location to another over a wire. The telegraph was the main way of long-distance communication back in the time, and Bell attempted to improve the telegraph system which in turn led to the creation of the telephone. So, Bell is also the world’s first person to successfully place a phone call, and he didn’t even have to dial anything because at that time there were only two telephone sets in the world. The first phone call was from Bell to his assistant who was sitting just next door, and his words were: “Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you.”

In 1879, just three years after the invention of the telephone, the switch to assigning a customer a phone number began, and they were four-digit codes. Calls were not dialed by the customers themselves because there were no dial telephones yet, instead all calls were connected manually by an operator. So, telephone numbers had four digits, but some big cities used five-digit numbers. In order to reach a person that is living outside the city, you would have to tell the operator the location and the number of the person you want to call. In the 1910s, telephone switches took the place of the operators  (mostly women) who made connections manually. In the beginning of the First World War, the United States had more than 100 automatic telephone switches, Germany had 7, and Great Britain had 2 telephone switches.

The first telephone numbers actually used to be with letters, because people believed that seven-digit numbers were hard to memorize. So, Americans replaced the first three digits with letters who usually identified the geographical region of the phone number and served to make the phone number more memorable. Before the 1950s, some cities used three letters and four numbers, and others had two letters and three numbers. However, this system didn’t last long for various reasons, including the fact that telling someone letters that sounded like other letters, resulted in people getting the wrong number. Another important reason was because they couldn’t make as many combinations with the letters, as they could do by using the digits. But a few years later, they had to add even more digits to the phone numbers with the introduction of area codes.

As the telephone system advanced throughout the years, phone numbers eventually moved to all digits. Engineers created a seven-digit system to have even more possible number combinations. The first three digits would correspond to a certain phone service provider, while the last four digits would remain as the personal calling code. This made telephone numbers easier to distinguish and remember. However, with the amount of phone numbers being created daily, seven digits was soon not enough to handle the demand, which leads us to the creation of area codes. Three more digits were added to the front of the phone number, and these three digits were called “area codes”. The North American Numbering Plan consists of twenty five distinct geographic regions in twenty countries mostly in North America.  In 1947, the territories of each member of NANP were assigned a three-digit area code, prefixed to each telephone number that is provided in that service area. Some areas even have multiple area codes in an overlay plan. For example, 510 is the area code that covers the East Bay in California, but it’s overlay area code 341 serves the same region. 

Want to know even more about the telephone and telephone numbers? We’ve compiled a list of some of the most interesting facts about phone numbers you probably didn’t know:

– Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone by accident and the famous first words spoken through a telephone were:  “Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you.”

–  In 1877, the first outdoor telephone cables in the United States were built and they were stretching only three miles. 

– In 1878, people were able to exchange telephone calls through an exchange system, although they didn’t have direct lines.

– Back in the time, you would have to call an operator and ask to be connected with someone and the telephone numbers had letters and digits. But in 1879, Dr. Moses Greeley Parker, a friend of Alexander Graham Bell, was the first person who questioned this system and suggested that it would be better for numbers to consist of digits instead of letters.

– In the 1880s, telephone service was no longer just for local calls, so people were finally able to make long-distance phone calls that were wired through metallic circuitry.

– Almon Brown Strowger is the man that invented the first automatic telephone exchange in 1891 and the system was later patented and became renowned as the Strowger switch. He thought that he was losing customers and that operators were conspiring to direct his customers to his competition. 

– Telephones grew rapidly, from just two sets in 1876 to 11 million phones by 1915, only in the United States.

– The first area codes were created in 1947 by AT&T and Bell Laboratories. The system was called the North American Numbering Plan and is still used today. 

– The priciest phone number in the world was 666-6666 – it was sold at a charity event in Qatar for $207 Million. The second most expensive number is 888-8888 and it was sold for $280,000.