The history of 10 digit phone numbers in the USA

Image: Melanie Tata - Flickr

The birth of telephone numbers and how they evolved throughout the years

Ten-digit numbers have existed for quite some time now; yet few people stop to wonder how they were established and how they evolved over the years.

As we approach a future where ten-digit numbers are likely to become secondary means of communication, if not disappear entirely, Clique revisits their history and how they became so important for communication between human beings.

The telephone: Early days

Although other scientists had previously explored similar ideas, Scottish inventor Alexander Graham Bell is generally credited of having invented what later became one of the most widely used communication technologies, in 1876.

When telephones first came into being in the US, a user would call the phone operator and ask to be directed to the line of the person or service he wished to speak with.

In early days, an ordinary telephone number had four or five digits, but when dealing numbers outside their cities, callers had to talk to an operator and tell him/her the name of the city and number of their call’s receiver.

The invention of ten-digit telephone numbers

By 1910, the US was one of the countries with the highest telephone penetration rates and its different regions had different local numbering systems.

However, the differences between these numbering systems made it hard for users to communicate with each other over long distances. Hence, by the 1940s, the Bell System tried to unify the different existing systems into one, developing what became known as the North American Numbering Plan.

As the name would suggest, the Bell System was initially developed by the Bell Telephone Company, but was later taken over by AT&T.

This new unified system hoped to standardize telephone numbers throughout the US, which would enable direct telephone communication between users anywhere in America, without the need to be directed by a telephone operator.

Bell rolled out the new system gradually, over a relatively long period of time, in order to allow people to adapt to it and come to terms with the fact that they would now need to memorise longer stings of numbers and dial them themselves.

Interestingly, some people even protested against the new numbering system, including a group in San Francisco called the Anti-Digit Dialling League, who thought the Bell system promoted “the cult of technology” and its “creeping numeralism“.

Despite the resistance, in October 1947 the new numbering plan was eventually accepted. The plan divided North America into 86 Numbering Plan Areas (NPAs), each with an assigned area code.

The Bell numbering system produced a ten-digit number for each telephone; including the area code (three digits), followed by a seven-digit subscriber number (which was comprised of three digits relevant for the central office and four digits for the station number).

The first customer call using area codes is said to have been made on November 10, 1951 from Englewood, New Jersey.

By 1967, 129 area codes had been established, also including other areas in America, such as Bermuda, Canada and other nations in the Caribbean.

Over the years, the number of area codes in the US expanded, as did the amount of existing telephone numbers. In 2014, the North American Numbering plan predicted that the existing numbering system should be sufficient until 2044, but might need to be changed after that.

While the amount of ten-digit numbers is still increasing, a new type of tools is also being perfected and is gaining extensive ground within the communication industry.

The likely death of ten-digit telephone numbers

Almost a century after ten-digit telephone numbers came into existence; we are now approaching an entirely new era for communication, governed by a relatively new tool: the internet.

The internet has introduced possibilities for communication that no longer require users to deal numbers; allowing them to contact others and communicate with them both via voice and video, without using their mobile number and from a choice of several devices.

Communication is no longer limited to telephones, but is being extended to all sorts of devices, ranging from tablets, computers and smart watches to even cars or home devices. Specifically, the CPaaS industry and companies like Clique are allowing people to communicate more seamlessly than ever.

We are witnessing a time of radical transformation for the communications industry, as the internet opened a new world of possibilities that is both vast and exciting.Undoubtedly, ten-digit telephone numbers are an essential part of the history of communications.

Yet they are now being cast aside, to leave space for new technologies that allow faster and cheaper communication between people at opposite corners of the globe.

After all, the world is now increasingly connected and options for communication have evolved alongside these connections; in order to allow individuals to communicate instantly, no matter where they are, or whom they are trying to reach.

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