Given the density of people all around you with their ears stuffed into their cell phones, it's hard to believe that at one time people scoffed at the telephone as a "novelty" and unnecessary. As I dialed my mom's ten digit phone number, and then her voice mail extension when she wasn't in, I came to ask myself a question: why all the numbers? I endeavored to find the answer to just this question, and believe you me, the wacky world of modern telephony is just full of odd quirks that makes any story worth reading.
When Alexander Graham Bell and his competitors first gave rise to the telephone business, they didn't envision its ubiquity and distance. They saw it as a useful item for town businesses to contact the markets, and for patients to call their doctors, and other such mundane chores. The first phones had no dialing system. Instead, you merely picked up the phone and were connected to an operator. You would request to speak to so-and-so, and the operator - from memory! - would switch the lines and connect them. People such as Thomas Edison had suggested a numbering system early on, but they were rebuffed by people, who felt that any sort of identification by number was depersonifying and rude.
This all changed in 1880, on one cold November morning in Lowell, Massachusetts. One Doctor James Parker was making his rounds across the town, it having recently been struck by a bout of measles. He was shocked to find that all four of the town's telephone operators were stricken and unable to attend work. Businesses suffered, and their temporary substitutes were nefariously slow. Dr. Parker saw this as a shortcoming. He instituted a phone number system then and there. Each individual switch at the operator center was numbered, and a directory was published - the world's first phone book. By 1890, the idea was so well-thought that "Number, please?" became one of the country's most popular phrases.
Since these numbers had no real value - they were merely a code for the operator to physically plug a switch into - people had single-digit numbers in the 19th century. (Bell Telephone Company was given Boston's "1" switch.) It wasn't until an automatic dialing system was installed in Terre Haute, Indiana in 1892 that the need for a standardized numbering system came to be. At first, it was four digits, and then five. Finally, by 1908, the system had a seven digit system, with 0 being reserved for the operator and 1 reserved for long distance operators. It was around this time they came up with the two-letter coding system to make local numbers easier to remember. Terms like "MUrray Hill" (68) and "KLondike" (55) became commonplace in telephone lingo.
In 1947, AT&T, Bell's long-distance service provider, began doling out exchanges for areas of America. People could dial "212" and get a New York operator, or "213" for Los Angeles. These numbers were logistical: on an old rotary dial, it was easier to dial "213" than "976." All in all, 87 exchanges were created. This system remained intact until 1995, when AT&T expanded their area codes again, allowing numbers other than 1 and 0 into the middle area code number. Currently, there are over 800 million phone numbers in the United States alone. In other news, prank callers everywhere are curious as to whether your refrigerator is running.
Recently, George Miller's paper "The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information" shed a bit more light on why a phone number works as well as it does. Essentially, our brain is only capable of handling 7 bits of information at a time (plus or minus two). Our short term memory is wired for the local exchange, it would seem.
Most famous number of all time? 867-5309 has a good case, but I'm pretty sure it's 911, which is apparently some sort of joke in everyone's town.