The 411 on Area Codes

212 is New York, while the relatively close Boston got 617.  213?  Across the country, to Los Angeles.   How’s this happen?

Rotary phoneThe answer is pictured at the right.  It’s all because of the rotary phone.

Before 1951, long distance phone calls required an operator’s assistance.  On November 10, 1951, that ended, as the mayor of Englewood, New Jersey dialed, directly, the major of Alameda, California.  (The call took 18 seconds to connect.)  In order to get to that point, however, the phone system infrastructure required overhaul; specifically, the addition of a routing system.  Enter area codes.

Until recently, all area codes had either a “1” or a “0” as the middle number.  This allowed for local calls to be dialed without the area code, as the switching software would recognize a long distance call by the second digit — local exchanges never had a 0 or 1 in that spot — and avoid confusion.  But the etymology of specific area codes is more complicated.  While ZIP codes are roughly geographic (there’s a map for that) though, area codes clearly aren’t, as New York (originally only 212) isn’t near Los Angeles (213) and Detroit (313) abuts neither Chicago (312) nor St. Louis (314). 

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8 thoughts on “The 411 on Area Codes”

  1. Nowadays, the switching system allows for “overlays” which means that a geographic area can have more than one area code, i.e., Atlanta has a mixture of 404,770 and 678.
    When area codes were first devised, not much thought was given to population growth, causing potential problems of running out of numbers (seven digit local numbers plus a three digit long distance area code). The solution was to require all calls to be ten digits (in some areas a leading 1 is necessary). That’s why even calling your next door neighbor needs the area code…
    And yes, we will eventually go to eleven and twelve digits.

  2. Creating new area codes makes little sense these days. Adding an area code only doubles the amount of phone numbers. My thought is to add a digit somewhere, giving 10 times the amount of numbers instead of only 2 times. I wouldn’t mind making numbers 11 digits like this 555-555-55555. That 5th digit at the end would go from the current 10,000 phone numbers for an exchange to 100,000. Also a household could keep their current old landline number and simply add a 0 at the end. All of our cell phones could be the same but end in 1, 2, 3, etc. For example: (home) 555-555-55550, (my cell) 555-555-55551, (my wife’s cell) 555-555-55552, etc.

    I don’t have a texting plan, so I have free texting apps that use 10 digit phone numbers. I also have a couple VoIP numbers on my phone. So just on my one iPhone, I have about 4 or 5 phone numbers. Our iPod touch also has a couple of phone numbers for the same uses. Doubling area codes can’t keep up with the way numbers are being used up.

    But mostly it’s just aggravating to remember what area code to dial with all these new overlays. We’re getting one here next April and I’m not looking forward to it.

    • Dang, that makes a lot of sense Scott. I especially like the last part about all your numbers would be similar except for the last digit.

    • That is one idea that is being considered. As always, the resistant folks don’t like to have another digit to remember…You would have thought that the world was ending when everyone had to start using more than six digits back in the day.

  3. I don’t think it is expanding population that is the culprit in the shortage of phone numbers — it is more changes in the way phone numbers are used. Mobile numbers, Fax numbers, and the use of direct-dial extensions in large businesses instead of internal switchboards.
    We’ve already vastly expanded the available pool of numbers by allowing 10 states instead of 2 for the second digit of the area code, and by releasing the remaining 2 states to make 10 for the second digit of the exchange. And in reality we already all have 11-digit phone numbers with a leading 1 (or 0 for operator assisted) which leaves 8 more digits to use there as well.
    The UK seems to have no trouble with 7-digit local numbers for London and 6-digit phone numbers for other areas, or some city-town codes being 5 digits and others 4. This opens lots of other possibilities, because 12345678 is a distinguishable number from 012345678, and they could be assigned to different subscribers.

  4. I’d noticed the pattern in zip codes before but I had been wondering about the area codes so thanks 🙂 i remember growing up in WI with 404 and when I was young milwaukee was “eating up too many numbers” and took the area code leaving us with 920.

  5. Isn’t there research that says 10 digits is the longest string the brain can easily remember? Or maybe that’s seven, actually. I want to think that phone numbers were made 7 digits just for that reason. But I could be way wrong.

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