Who remembers PEnnsylvania 6-5000? That’s the number of the Hotel Pennsylvania and is claimed to not only be the oldest continuing phone number in New York City, but also the most famous telephone number of all time, featured in the 1940 song “Pennsylvania 6-5000” by the Glenn Miller Orchestra, requested in the film “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” and the inspiration for the pun title “TRansylvania 6-5000,” which was used in a Bugs Bunny cartoon and a full-length, live action film.
Then there is DRake 7-6324. That’s not a famous number, but it was my home phone number and was the way I learned my phone number. It was only later, when I was in elementary school, that it was impressed upon me that when I printed my number on forms, that I should use the numbers that corresponded to the first two letters D and R – 3 and 7 – when I wrote it out: 377-6324.
Years later, when I was out on my own and the Atlanta area got too big for its britches, the phone company decided that in order to maintain enough phone numbers for everybody, that we needed to start adding our area codes to the numbers – 404-377-6324. Today, school children learn their phones with the area code attached, like it has always been there.
What brought these numbers to mind was a presentation made at the Archives last week in which Phil Harris presented the archives with a Stromberg-Carlson XY switch like the ones used by the Thomaston Telephone Company when it was changed over from local operator to dial. Mr. Harris was one of the installers. 2012 is the 60th anniversary of the change from local operator to dial.
Before 1952, the Thomaston Phone Company was still using live operators sitting at a switchboard. To make a call, you would pick up the receiver and there would be an operator on the line waiting to place your call for you. After the change, you would dial the number yourself.
Thinking about being taught to use words and numbers to remember my phone number got me wondering when it all started. According to privateline.com, telephone companies started installing dial telephones in the mid to late 1920’s. Rather than using all numbers, AT&T decided to use letters and numbers, thinking that using word abbreviations like Drake would prevent misdialing by customers who were not used to using dial telephones. The assumption was that customers could dial four or five numbers correctly, but not six or seven, so they added the letters.
That went on for almost 40 years. Finally, human-factor studies found that there were no need for letters in the dialing sequence, since by 1958, people were used to dialing. Still the letters remained in at least partial usage until the early 1970’s.
I guess now we know what the bigwigs at the phone companies thought of us ignorant folk. I’ll admit, I sometimes have trouble dialing the 10 numbers we now have to dial to place a call, but it is not from not being able to remember the numbers, but more from my fingers moving faster than my brain and getting the numbers out of sequence.
Of course, it is also interesting to remember that 61 years ago, we were still using manual operators and telephone calls transmitted over phone lines, and today most everyone has a wireless cellphone they carry around with them. How “quickly” times have changed.