312: evolution of the area code

map1947 area code

In Singapore we changed from a 7-digit telephony system to a 8-digit one by adding the number “6” in front of phone numbers. Every number started with either 6, for landlines, or 9 for mobile phones. Since Singapore is such a small country, there was never a need to assign area codes.

This is not the case in the United States, where area codes are the subject of cultural envy. I myself was concerned that I should get a 312-number when I moved to Chicago, instead of any 773 or 872 or 708. (For a while I wondered if the many real estate agents I got to know while looking for a new apartment were actually from out of town, since none of them spotted a 312 in their phone numbers.)

What difference does it make? A number is a number. But the area code is more just than a number of practical value; instead they’ve evolved to possess a level of cultural cache. Pitbull is not just “Mr. Worldwide”, but also “Mr. 305“. Area codes is also a historical view of the most important, populous cities of the past – New York’s 212, Chicago’s 312, Los Angeles 213, Detroit’s 313 – these cities needed the least number of clicks on the rotary phone, as opposed to getting in touch with someone in Anchorage, Alaska, with a 907 number.

Of course, rotary clicks don’t matter quite as much today, but area codes remain a symbol of city pride, a symbol proudly spotted by its owner like a sports team or alma mater affiliation.

“It feels to me a little bit like a screen name,” says Philip Lapsley, the author of Exploding the Phone: The Untold Story of the Teenagers and Outlaws Who Hacked Ma Bell. Long ago divested of its original role, the three-digit code now functions as a kind of shared social media handle, a collective identity. It’s no longer something to be remembered—we have our phones for that—but is instead something to be talked about. I meet someone at a party. We exchange numbers. “Oh, 510!” I might say. “I was in Oakland a few weeks ago!”

via The Atlantic. As an added bonus, have a listen of the 99% Invisible podcast about the inventor of the Strowger Switch, which eliminated the need for a human operator to connect you to the person you were dialing. Its inventor (originally working as an undertaker) was motivated to invent an automatic switching system after learning that his competitor’s wife works as a telephone switchboard operator and has been diverting business calls meant for him to her husband. Success is the best revenge.