In the beginning, there were telephones, but no telephone numbers. Calls were placed by operators, who connected people by name.
Then came numbers, but the first phone numbers were short -- "5" could be a person's complete telephonic address. Or "27." Or "326." The growth in the number of digits matched the growing number of phones. Eventually, phone numbers in the largest cities reached seven digits, expressed as a combination of two letters and five numbers, such as LO 4-5678.
Then came area codes.
They were three catchy digits: 310. 202. 414. They identified where a person was from and, in a sense, were dependable, as permanent as a street address. But thanks to the demand for new phone numbers, area codes -- and the rules for using them -- are changing.
In Manhattan, people argue over who will keep 212. In Maryland, neighbors could soon have two different area codes. In Chicago, city offices have one area code, public schools another. Local calls that used to require seven numbers will soon require 10, and some area codes aren't as memorable -- they don't look like area codes.
Area codes were the mid-century innovation that made it possible for consumers to dial long distance themselves. The three-digit code, dialed in front of a phone number, routed the call to the proper region of the country. And the first area codes had a sort of logic, even elegance:
Each code had a 0 or 1 as the middle digit. Those with a 0 in the middle denoted states with only one area code. Codes with a 1 in the middle were states with more than one.
The first and last numbers of the area codes were assigned based on the number of calls the region was expected to get. Numbers requiring shorter spins on a rotary dial phone -- New York's 212, Los Angeles' 213 -- were assigned to more frequently called cities.
And numbers that resembled each other -- such as Oregon's 503 and Florida's 305 -- were spread far apart on the map.
Because it was near Bell headquarters and had easily adapted equipment, Englewood, N.J., was chosen as the test city for area codes. Customer instruction started long before the service date of Nov. 10, 1951. Callers were taught the new dialing technique through newspaper articles and movie shorts.
What was the new technique? "To reach a distance telephone," read a guide distributed to Englewood customers, "all you need do is first dial the Area Code, and then the desired telephone number. Be sure to enter the Area Code for distant points in the address book with the telephone number."
The New York Times fanned the flames of anticipation before the first test. "The vine-like network of this small community's telephone plant will grow tomorrow like an atomic age descendant of Jack the Giant Killer's beanstalk," the paper promised on Nov. 9, 1951.
The next day, with 100 guests watching, Englewood Mayor M. Leslie Denning dialed 415-LA-3-9727.
Seventeen seconds later, Mayor Frank P. Osborn of Alameda, Calif., answered the phone.
Bell engineers declared the call a "historic first in communications."
The original area codes -- there were 144 usable combinations -- were expected to last for many more years than they have. Each code offered close to 8 million usable phone numbers -- but that has proved to be too few. Cellular phones, faxes, computer modems and second lines all have contributed to the number drought. In 1993, when 610 was assigned to southeastern Pennsylvania, the area code bank was depleted.
Responsibility for implementing a solution fell to the people at Bellcore, the research arm of the regional phone companies and the organization responsible for administering the North American Numbering Plan. The solution was to begin using area codes with middle digits from 2 to 9, creating a pool of 640 additional codes. Since January 1995, more than 50 of them have been assigned for use.
Bellcore officials say one consideration in choosing new area code combinations is finding numbers that don't conflict with telephone number prefixes or neighboring area codes.
"It's not terribly scientific," says Doug Hescox, a California code administrator. "There's a pool of numbers we can choose from, and we're getting down to where there's no nice, neat numbers left."
The result, across the country, is area code angst. People complain that numbers such as Missouri's 573 are "unattractive" and hard to remember. Others complain that changing a longtime number is akin to a forced change of identity.
"The old saw in New Jersey was that if you knew somebody's area code, you could guess his accent, his sports team and whether he calls a long sandwich a hero or a sub," says Kenneth Branson, manager of media relations for Bellcore. "But in a few years we'll have six area codes, and this is not a large state."
Then there are cities, such as Chicago, that have more than one code. "773, 630, 708, 847, 312," read a Dewar's billboard in that city. "Can anyone else use a drink?"