Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Exchanging Numbers

and my number is
Beechwood 45789
You can call me up and have a date
Any old time

I was in a fast food joint the other day for lunch. The Muzak in the background was a string of 50's Rock and Roll oldies to go with the Faux-Diner decor. The song that caught my ear was "BEechwood 4-5789" by the Marvelettes. (If you are a little older, maybe the song of choice is PEnnsylvania 6-5000). The song somehow triggered memories of my early childhood days when our own telephone number in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan started with the exchange named MElrose. That got me to wondering about exchange names: where they came from, how they were derived, how unique they might be.

My first stop was Wikipedia, which was somewhat helpful. In the early days, phone system switching (e.g., connecting the caller with the receiver) was handled through operators using patch cords to literally plug the two phone lines together. With automatic switching equipment, most local calls could be completed without an operator. A geographic area would be covered by a telephone exchange that might cover up to 10,000 numbers. When more people subscribed to the phone system, the limitation in the number of unique, short (four or five digit) numbers became a problem. Hence, a group of subscribers in one physical exchange were given an exchange name (such as MElrose) that made it easier to remember than a longer, seven digit phone number. Instead of seven digits, the subscriber's number was the exchange name plus five digits (BEechwood 4-5789) the "B" stood for 2 and the "E" for 3, hence 234-5789. Using exchange names greatly expanded the number of available phone numbers. (Our more modern equivalent was the addition of area codes and we seem to keep needing to subdivide areas into more area codes for just the same problem: not enough unique phone numbers.) The exchange names also were selected to be phonetically clear on otherwise low audio quality lines. "No, no, I said MELROSE not MILHOUSE" (This brings to mind the ever-present cellphone conversation, "Can you hear me now....?")

Most of the exchange names went the way of the old black dial telephone in the 60's and 70's. But like so many other technology memorabilia, there is a group of people out there working hard to assemble a huge database of old exchange names for towns and cities all over the country. I learned from this database that my home town had two exchanges: MElrose-2 and MElrose-5. That would seem about right for a town of 15,000 people. Check out your own town here. This group is even trying to get people to back-convert current numbers to an old exchange name. The telphone prefix for my current address starts with 941. Hmmm...WIlson, WIndsor? How about something more current like "WIi" for the game machine?

Now if I could just get that stupid Marvelettes song out of my head.

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