The History of the Phone Number


You remember when your mom told you that you were one in a million? Well, far be it from us to say that your mother underestimated you, but you’re really one in several billion – at least in cell phone terms. Seriously. There are over 6 billion cell phone subscriptions in the world, and your phone number singles you out – identifying you in a sea full of digits.

When you think about it, your phone number really is a part of your identity. It’s how your friends communicate with you, how you affirm that the girl or boy you met last night was into you. In fact, society has put such an importance on phone numbers that they sit beside our names and job titles on business cards. So, we’re going to take a trip through time and look at how phone numbers came to be and how they’ve evolved into the some of the most important digits of our lives.

Long ago, before Republic Wireless existed (can you even imagine?!), there was no such thing as a phone number. When you wanted to get a hold of someone you had to call an operator and request to be patched through to a particular line. This was the accepted model until a measles epidemic broke out in a town called Lowell, MA. A buddy of Alexander Graham Bell, Dr. Moses Greeley Parker, lived in Lowell during the epidemic and saw an alarming issue: If the Lowell’s operators caught the bug, then the town’s communication system would’ve broken down and been in shambles. Soon everybody realized: “Hey this guy is onto something” and, BOOM! Phone numbers were born.

Dr. Moses Greeley Parker

For those of you that were equally as intrigued as I was about this Dr. Greeley Parker guy, here’s some trivia for ya:  The doc got his medical degree from Harvard Medical School. After med school, he joined the Army where he held several important positions as a doctor in the Civil War. One of his military accomplishments was the creation and supervision of a 4,000 bed military hospital. After the war, Dr. Greeley Parker set up his practice in Lowell, MA. He was the first to photograph tubercular bacillus. He was also the first to photograph electric currents and show that they take the form of spirals. The whole spiral thing led to the realization that if telephone wires were spiraled, the message could be sent over longer distances. Since he and Graham Bell were tight, he was able to make some investments in telephony and amassed a wealth. His will established Parker Lecture Series that educates Lowellians to this day – their website is actually where I got most of this information.

Okay, okay. Back to phone numbers now…

The version of the phone number, or exchange name, that Dr. Greeley Parker is credited for evolved into a mnemonic system (a mix of words and numbers), once telephone subscribers increased. I could try to explain it myself, but I’ll let Wikipedia do that for me:  “In the past, the first two or three digits could be represented by a mnemonic exchange name, e.g., 869-1234 was formerly TOwnsend 9-1234, and before that (in some localities) might have been TOWnsend 1234 (only the capital letters and numbers being dialed) or it could have been TOwnsend 1234 (86-1234)”.  Kinda cool, right?

Fast forward several decades, and phone numbers grew from a mnemonic system to the 10 digit phone numbers we know and use today – created for easier memorization. Fast forward even more to 2015, and our parent company, Bandwidth, is in the business of providing phone numbers. And we’re talking a lot of phone numbers…like, 35 million of them. With that kind of inventory, Bandwidth became the sixth largest telephone number provider in the country! That isn’t just a fun fact to tell at a bar, it’s how Republic is able to empower most of you to be the master of your number(s). It’s also where we got ideas for nifty projects like RingTo, another Bandwidth company.

Screenshot_2015-01-26-12-08-08We think that if your cellular identity is your phone number, you should be able to choose your own. The neat thing about owning your phone number is that you can take it anywhere, making your cellular identity no longer tied to just what phone you have or which carrier you’re on.

We allow our members to choose their own number for the same reason we offer no contract plans, a 30-day money-back guarantee or the mid-billing cycle plan change – we believe that no one should dictate your cellular experience but you.

With our sights set on the future, it’s not often we look back on the past, but we owe a bit of gratitude to Dr. Greeley Parker. Without him, there may have never been a phone number to own, or Republic Wireless.

We hope you enjoyed our first blog in our new “TMI” series. If there are other aspects about the mobile industry or Republic Wireless in general you’d like to know, let us hear from you in the comments below. If we can legally answer, we’ll make the next feature all about it!

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3 thoughts on “The History of the Phone Number”

    1. Heeyyy! Tevya! You’re one of our favorites from over on Google +. Thanks for stopping by! 🙂

      And yeah – with Google Wallet, and NFC door locks looming on the horizon, we may just have to.

  1. Great lesson, I’d kind of like to know more about the radio bands that make up the wifi and mobile signal so that might be a good idea for the next article. This blog is really cool.

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