Phone Area Codes Based on Dialing Speed

June 14, 2013 at 11:59 pm 10 comments

By Chad Upton | Editor

Telephones have been around in some capacity since the mid to late 19th century, depending on who you credit with the invention.

fisher price phone

Early dialing was accomplished by inserting your finger in the rotary disk adjacent to the number you wanted and rotating the dial to the stopping point, then you would remove your finger and the dial would rotate back to its default position. Each number it passed on its way back would induce a pulse — a short variance in current — on the phone line. This pulse communicated the number to the phone system.

Rotary pulse dialing was time consuming, and the larger the numbers used, the longer it would take. Therefore, when area codes were introduced in 1947, the cities with the highest incoming call volume were assigned the lowest area codes, making them faster to dial.

Area code syntax rules have evolved over time, but some of the rules that shaped the first area code still stand. For example, area codes cannot start with a 0 or 1. These are reserved for calling the operator or long distance. Also, the third digit cannot be 1 if the second digit is 1 — these N11 numbers are reserved for special services such as 911. That means the first (and lowest) area code was 212, New York.

Area codes were fully implemented in the United States and Canada by 1966. Although, touch-tone dialing started to replace pulse dialing in 1963 and the low area code approach became less important. Touch-tone dialing is what we still use today — when you push a button on your phone, it sends a tone  (a specific frequency) to the phone system to communicate which number you pressed.

To be clear, cell phones don’t use this method to dial, but they do use this method to interact with automated phone systems, “Press 1 to speak with someone in billing” — BEEP.

Of course, phone numbers and area codes matter less and less as texting becomes more popular, and texting itself is evolving into mobile messaging that relies on an email address or other proprietary identifier.

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sources: wikipedia (area codes, north american numbering plan, history of telephone)

Entry filed under: Demystified, History and Origins. Tags: , , .

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10 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Stanley Oppenheim  |  June 15, 2013 at 8:33 pm

    Mr Upton,

    Interesting article however a few errors. You correctly stated that the areas with high inbound telephone traffic were assigned the area codes with the fewest pulses. Your error was stating 201 for New Jersey had the fewest. In fact 2 =2 pulses, 0=10 pulses and 1 = 1 pulse totaling 13 pulses. Additionally the population of New Jersey in 1947 did not qualify it as a high volume inbound call area. The actual winner of that contest was New York City with its 212 area code, totaling only 5 pulses. One additional correction. TouchTone dialing was introduced at the New York Worlds Fair in 1964 and subsequently to the rest of the country, not in 1963.

    Interesting article, cute illustration.

    • 2. Chad Upton  |  July 16, 2013 at 8:49 pm

      Thank you for the feedback and information. I updated the area code information accordingly, although it looks like touch tone was introduced to the public in 1963 and the patent was granted to AT&T as early as 1962 — so I left that part as is.

  • 3. wendy  |  June 16, 2013 at 7:36 am

    The pace was awesome then and I miss those good old days! We had a rotary phone and a party line so we often had to wait for the people who shared the line to get off the phone; sometimes they listened into our calls and sometimes we listened into theirs. Why, you might ask, to which my reply- we could; we had the time in those days; it was free fun and sometimes if we caught them in the act by way of their giggles and carrying on in the background, they owed us a ride on their amazing backyard trolly, known today as a zip line!

    • 4. wendy  |  June 16, 2013 at 7:41 am

      p.s. I have more not exactly to do with your post on area codes but rotary phones and the stratospheric 60’s: we also called most numbers by way of the last 4 digits being a word, so you also had to figure those letters out to make the call!
      Time, time, time, was on our side, yes it was:)

  • 5. Kevin Joseph Judge  |  July 24, 2013 at 11:48 pm

    Mr. Upton, you have to delete this article. It is insanely wrong. That is not how a rotary telephone worked. Where in the world did you get the idea that you “rotate the dial until your finger matched the number you wanted”?

    The way it actually worked is quite the first inserted your finger in the hole for the number and THEN rotated the phone clockwise as far as it could go before releasing.

    That also makes the premise of your article completely wrong because low numbers took longer to dial that high numbers because they had further to rotate back into position.

    As someone who grew up using rotary phones I find it bizarre that you could get a simple task so wrong, and then draw an such odd conclusion based on your incorrect premise.

    • 6. Kevin Judge  |  July 25, 2013 at 2:13 pm

      I just want to correct one thing about my comment, except for the 0, the low numbers were at the top of the rotary and would be faster in returning to position. However, the description of how it worked is still completely inaccurate. You didn’t rotate the dial to the number, you inserted your finger in the hole for the number and THEN rotated.

      • 7. Chad Upton  |  July 26, 2013 at 12:24 am

        Yes, you’re absolutely right. It’s been over 20 years since I last used a rotary dial so I should have fact checked my description — I believe I was thinking about how it works “under the hood” while writing the usage instructions and somehow my brain combined the two into an erroneous description of how the user interacts with it. Since just that one sentence was wrong I fixed that instead of deleting the whole article. Thanks for the feedback.

  • 8. David  |  July 25, 2013 at 9:24 am

    thank you for sharing this knowledge I had a hunch NY was the fastest minute I read your headline. Makes sense. Thank you again! I love this kind of know hows…

  • 9. Joe  |  August 27, 2013 at 1:02 pm

    Was 911 devised by the logic that it had to be an initially hard number to accidentally dial hence the 9 but had to be fast to complete hence the 1’s???

  • 10. Robert  |  December 20, 2013 at 9:20 pm

    dialing actually broke the circuit based on the number you dialed, seven breaks for number 7. These were made using contacts inside the telephone set. Touchtone dialing uses two frequencies for each number known as DTMF, The number 1 sent out 2 freq, while the number 2 sent out 2 different freq. and so on.. You could dial a number on a rotary phone using only the zero if you stopped and started at the right point as the dial rotated.


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