View Full Version : Less than 7-digit phone numbers?

12-16-2002, 12:42 PM
(Not counting the area codes which are manditory to dial in some areas today - even for local calls.) Going back in the history of the telephone, were there ever less than 7-digit phone numbers? Granted, my parents recall when the first 3 digits were the first three letters of a Proper Noun representing some geographic area. Often, it was expressed as the whole word, like BRX-5555 would be Bronx 5555, for an example (which I made up, so don't quote me.) Sometimes, you hear this on old TV shows.

But, going further back, how many digits were necessary? And,
was it a big deal when the number of digits you had to dial (and remember) increased? - Jinx

12-16-2002, 12:53 PM
Numbering eras in the United States for the Bell System:

* First telephone numbers (1877) are just names
* Depending on exchange size, two, three or four digit numbers assigned to subscribers,
* Two letter prefix codes assigned to four digit numbers (Circa 1928 to 1958). AT&T's operating companies started installing dial telephones in the mid to late 1920s. The Bell System thought abbreviations would prevent misdialing, a mnemonic device to help callers unaccustomed to using dial telephones. Famous example in the Glenn Miller song "PEnnsylvania 6500".
* In larger cities three letter prefix codes assigned to four digit numbers (Post WWII)
* Seven digit, all number dialing begins phase in. (1958)

12-16-2002, 01:08 PM
When I was a kid in Albuquerque (1950s) everybody had 5 digit phone numbers. I'm not sure how you called someone outside town (I wasn't allowed to do it) but I think you had to go through the operator.

Sometime in the mid-1950s they added a two-letter alpha prefix to bring the numbers up to 7. The alpha code was the same for all numbers with the same first digit, in fact numbers starting with both 5 and 6 had the prefix ALpine and numbers starting with both 3 and 4 had the prefix CHapel. This was probably necessary before you could direct-dial anybody.

Sometime in the 1960s they converted the alpha prefixes to numbers and added a lot of new exchanges.

Now, of course, lots of merchants have gone to all-alpha dialling so that they can get their company name or slogan or product as their phone number.

For a long time (into the 1980s, I think) there were a few small communities where you would only dial 4 or 5 numbers to get another phone in the community. I don't know if those are all gone now.

12-16-2002, 01:09 PM
As recently as 1992 (maybe into early 1993), it was only necessary to dial 5 digits to make a local phone call in several rural west Texas communities. For instance, when I made a call within Alpine (TX), I only dialed 7-xxxx. People calling me from outside the local area, however, did have to dial the full number (plus area code): 915-837-xxxx.

12-16-2002, 01:19 PM
I grew up in a small town rural Louisiana and it was only necessary to dial 4 digits if you were calling locally. This lasted until 1985 or so. Technically, there was a prefix of 697 but that was only used if someone was calling you from out of town.

12-16-2002, 01:24 PM
Ditto. When I lived in Kentucky in the mid-70s it was only necessary to dial the last 4 or 5 numbers to reach someone in your own exchange. If you were dialing someone in another exchange, you had to dial all 7 numbers.

A couple of years later the phone company upgraded its system and added touch tone. At that time it became necessary to dial all 7 digits for all local calls.

Spectre of Pithecanthropus
12-16-2002, 01:26 PM
I'm old enough that I first memorized my family's number as CRestview 5-xxxx, but we always had to dial 7 numbers calling in or calling out. I also remember innumerable TV commercials telling you to dial "RIchmond 9 - xxxx", or to call "ZEnith - xxxxx", for which you obviously needed to go through the operator since there's no Z on the dial.

My parents still live in the same house, and have the same number.

12-16-2002, 01:44 PM
Up until a few years ago, phone numbers in Panama had a maximum of 6 digits, and more remote areas had fewer. Now it's all been standardized at 7.

12-16-2002, 01:58 PM
I remember a Pacific Bell auctioning off some three-digit phone numbers a few years ago. I never heard what became of it. They were expecting to get several million dollars for the truncated numbers.

12-16-2002, 01:59 PM
When I was growing up, the town next to us still hadn't installed dialing (the phone didn't even have a dial). You picked up the phone and told the operator the number.

The interesting thing was that the exchange had the last four digits ending in 1 or 0. Thus it was perfectly possible to pick up the phone and say "477 please" and get 0477.

Dialing in, you got the operator and told them the number.

This ended about 1960 or so.

12-16-2002, 02:24 PM
Likewise in Iowa. When I was a kid, and up until about 12 years ago, in my home town one only had to dial 5 numbers. There was only one exchange and all the 4 digit sections started with a 2, 5 or 7. To dial out of town, but in area code, you had to dial 1 then the seven digit number. Now even in my home town you have to dial all 7 digits.

12-16-2002, 02:24 PM
In Stockholm I had an 8-digit telephone number, down the country where I am now, its 5-digits.

12-16-2002, 02:26 PM
As to whether it was a big deal or not, my grandmother thought it was. When she could no longer dial 4 or 5 digits for local numbers in her small town she bitched about it endlessly.

A uniform seven digit dial plan came in partially to support DDD (direct distance dialing). Some offices can still be configured to allow dialing of short numbers while still allowing direct dial of longer ones. Usually, you can't do it - you require too many numbers to be able to avoid short numbers which would conflict with the leading digits of seven digit numbers (this is why places that CAN do it are typically rural with a small number of subscribers).

Many places experienced the switchover at the same as getting DDD, no longer requiring operator assistance for long distance. I think my grandmother would have been perfectly happy to continue using the operator to call outside her local area and be able to yack with somebody across town using a shorter number.

12-16-2002, 02:44 PM
My wife grew up in Leeds, Alabama. She was born in 1940 and remembers calling her grandmother. She would pick up the phone and say "7J" and the operator would make the connection. :)

Before the 1960's, the only way to make a long-distance call was to dial the operator. It was a good idea to know the number at the other end, not because it would cost anything to find out but because it was more like you probably wouldn't get through. :eek:

12-16-2002, 02:51 PM
I'm assuming you mean in the US, but still. My parent's phone number in Cuba in 1976 was 2158.

12-16-2002, 04:04 PM
The number of digits required is really a factor of what kind of 'switching machine' you are connected to, and what kind of network you are dialing into. Thusly, when dialing someone in your office or building, you may only have to dial a few digits--the machine, or centrex only needs that much info to route your call. When calling out to the world, the machine ('step-by-step', 'crossbar' '5ESS', etc) that is collecting your digits needs more info to send the call to wherever it's going.

Hari Seldon
12-16-2002, 04:11 PM
My grandmother's phone number in Philadelphia was, during WWII (as far back as I recall) SHE-3277. (Stood for Sherbrooke, which was actually what that section of west Philly was called) and later "changed" to SH3-3277. They added Sh7 and doubtless others. Later, it would have "changed" again to 743. My understanding was that originally telephone exchanges could handle 4 digit numbers was that the largest plugboard that one person could handle was 100 by 100. And that is quite a stretch even so since those telephone plugs were big and even if you packed them as tight as possible, I am sure you couldn't space them closer than about 1/2" so that 100 by 100 was over 4' by 4'.
Later on with automatic switching, this didn't matter, but the pattern was set. Sometime next year, I will have to get used to 10 digit dialing.

BTW, after 40 years of all number dialing, I find I can no longer handle dialing by letters. So if some hotellier tells me that their number is holiday, I want to know what is that in numbers.

12-16-2002, 04:15 PM
Northfield, MN (home of my alma mater) had 5-digit dialing up to about my senior year (ca. 1990). The town had two exchanges, 663 and 645, so all you needed to dial was 3-xxxx or 5-xxxx.

For more than you ever wanted to know: The Telephone Exchange Name Project (http://ourwebhome.com/TENP/TENproject.html)j.

12-16-2002, 04:29 PM
When I was growing up, our phone number was 2573-R, and my grandparents was 5280. You asked the operator for the number you wanted.

Direct dialing, and seven-digit numbers, came in in the mid-1960s. There were a few small-town local exchanges that converted around that time where you only needed to dial the four digit subscriber number within the local exchange.

12-16-2002, 04:56 PM
Manhattan, MT had five-digit dialing within the exchange up until at least 1990 (which is when we moved.) I also know, from an old newspaper I found, that the (often-dropped) "28" at the beginning of those numbers used to be "AT", but I never figured out what the "AT" stood for.

The University of Minnesota has (unless they've changed it very recently) five-digit dialing for all on-campus numbers. I suspect that that was a slightly different deal there, though, since you had to dial 8 before all off-campus numbers, and incoming numbers had a different ring depending on if they were coming from on- or off-campus. The telephone system there was more like a huge company's than a small town's.

Nobody else I went to college had even heard of five-digit dialing for an entire town! I wonder if any towns like that still exist, too.

12-16-2002, 05:35 PM
Here, in Sydney, Au, my phone number used to be 6 digits. Most of my friends in the same area had 7 digits at this time, I am not sure why we were so special. Then about 1988 we moved on to the standard (at the time) 7 digits. They simply made us put a 9 between the first and second original digits. Then a few years ago the whole country moved to 8 digit phone numbers, but in doing so, they removed most of the area codes. I believe there are now only 7 area codes for the entire country. One for each state.

My boss at the time of the change, lived in area code 046, and his number was 555-555. They simply changed his number to 4655-5555. If you needed an example :)

Arnold Winkelried
12-16-2002, 07:09 PM
In Switzerland, from 1970 to about 1990, phone numbers varied in length from 5 to 7 digits (with a 3-digit area code) until they wear all standardized to seven digits.

12-16-2002, 08:42 PM
Buffalo, New York was supposedly one of the last major cities in the United States to transition from six digit to seven digit telephone numbers. Growing up, the early 1960s-era black Western Electric rental dial phone had a New York Bell printed label with a six digit variant of our phone number at the time, reading "AREA CODE 716 / TF-9796"

I believe that up until the mid-1990s, in El Paso, Texas, it was possible to dial six digit numbers Juarez numbers directly, without prefixes or the Mexico country code. El Paso numbers had seven digits, and the numbering system was coordinated so two digit exchanges in Juarez were different than the first two digits of any El Paso number.

In some metropolitan areas that span two states, until recently it was often possible to dial phone numbers in the other area code without using that area code. A call from Kansas City, Missouri across the street to Prairie Village, Kansas just took seven digits.

Folks in New York City seemed to hold on to alphanumeric numbers for a long time. On the NYC cable channels, many local ads announced numbers like "212-Murray Hill-3-4573," even into the late 1980s.

12-17-2002, 08:46 AM
I know people with 3-digit-numbers. My Girlfriend has 4-digit number, my parents have 5 and I have a 6-digit number. All of us living in the same area (with the same area code).

12-20-2002, 05:34 AM
In the tiny town of Choteau in Montana, up until 1994 you could dial the last 4 numbers of anyone in town, and get them.

This finally changed with a new phone company took over the local network.

Interestingly enough, the entire state of Montana has the same area code *406).

12-20-2002, 05:56 AM
granted I'm not from America so it doesn't really apply, but our first phone number when I was a kid (early 70s) was '306'.

12-20-2002, 07:35 AM
During the 1940s, we had to go through the operator to place any call at all. IIRC, around 1950 we went to rotary dial phones and everyone had a four digit number. Ours was 4941. Soon thereafter, we moved to Dallas and I had to learn six digit numbers.

12-20-2002, 08:10 AM
Originally posted by Walloon
Famous example in the Glenn Miller song "PEnnsylvania 6500".

A very, very slight nitpick...

The name of the song is actually "Pennsylvania 6-5000" -- a full seven digits. And, today, it's still the number of the Hotel Pennsylvania accross the street from Penn Station in NYC.

Michael Ellis
12-20-2002, 08:14 AM
UC Santa Cruz still has five digit dialing on for on-campus phone calls.

12-20-2002, 08:26 AM
I had some friends who lived in a very small village here in the UK who, until sometime around the late eighties/early nineties had a three digit number - of course there was an area code to reach it from outside, but you could call locally with just the 3 digit numbers.

12-20-2002, 08:32 AM
(I should mention that numbers in most other areas were 5 or 6 digits, plus an area code.

There used to be local and national area codes too; to reach a Southampton number from a nearby town, you merely needed to prefix it with 9 - to get the same number from further afield, you'd have to use 0703.

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