November 10, 1951: The North American Numbering Plan (NANP) allows for the first customer-dialed direct call using area codes. The call was placed from Englewood, New Jersey to Alameda, California. During the early 1900s, the Bell System grew from small local or regional systems. As they grew larger, both by numbers of users and regions covered, it became a chaotic system of many different numbering schemes. It was both inefficient and difficult to make a national system feasible. By the 1940s, Bell System began to create a way to unify the entire country’s numbering system so switchboard operators would not be needed to connect calls between local systems.
The new numbering plan divided North America into regional service areas called National Plan Areas. They were based on states and provinces and each was identified by a three-digit code. The idea was to make it easy for customers to be able to dial numbers without help from operators. The plan called for a ten digit overall number with the first three numbers being the area code. This was followed by the seven digit subscriber number which itself was made up of two parts; a three digit number indicating the telephone exchange or central office and a four digit station or line number. Early on, the numbers were written as two letters and then five numbers with letters indicating the telephone exchange name. The initial plan was completed in 1947 and provided for 152 area codes each able to serve 540 central offices.
On this day, customers could finally dial across country without help. New Jersey received the first area code in the new system – 201. Direct distance dialing (DDD) was slowly offered across the country and by the early 1960s most Bell System customers had converted. As time went on, more areas were included in the NANP. Eventually all of the US and her territories, Canada, Bermuda, and 17 other countries in the Caribbean were included. The British Colonial Office expanded the numbering system to the British West Indies and Bermuda. Not all North American countries participated. Mexico and Central American countries as well as some Caribbean countries did not.
Originally only 86 of the possible 152 codes were used. Because rotary phones actually clicked through the numbers, the areas with the highest populations received the shortest numbers. Therefore, New York City was given 212 which Chicago has 312 and Los Angeles had 213. Four regions were given the then-maximum number of 21 clicks – South Dakota was 605, North Carolina was given 704, South Carolina was 803, and the Maritime Provinces of Canada were 902. Certain rules applied to the numbering system to allow for proper routing. Eventually, to help increase the pool of available numbers, it was deemed necessary to dial 1 to indicate a number was a long-distance number rather than a local exchange.
People used what they called a telephone because they hated being close together and they were scared of being alone. – Chuck Palahniuk
Middle age is when you’re sitting at home on a Saturday night and the telephone rings and you hope it isn’t for you. – Ogden Nash
No, I’m not interested in developing a powerful brain. All I’m after is just a mediocre brain, something like the President of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company. – Alan Turing
The telephone is a good way to talk to people without having to offer them a drink. – Fran Lebowitz
Also on this day: Brought to You by the Letters J and H and the Number 1 – In 1969, Sesame Street come to PBS, bringing along a whole cast of characters.
Winning – In 1928, Notre Dame played Army at Yankee Stadium.
War Criminal – In 1865, Henry Wirz was hanged.
Shut Up – In 2007, two heads of state got into an argument.