How a Pandemic Created Telecom As We Know It Today

Phone numbers are something that we take for granted these days.

In 2020, when you want to reach a person and hear their voice there are many options. Back in the 1800s, however, that was not the case. In the tail end of the century there was phone service but it was extremely limited. For example, in 1879 and 1880 when phone service was rolled out in Lowell, MA (a city of over 60,000) there were 200 people with telephones. Yep, not 20,000, not 2,000 but 200.

To make a call the owner of these lines would need to reach an operator who would then in turn literally connect them by removing the line from one jack and moving it to another. As you would expect the system was pretty complicated on top of being new. Do you know that thing that only you can do at your job? That weird thing that is just easier for you to do than explain? Well that was all of telecommunications. In all of Lowell there were four people who understood how to use a switching board.

In 1880 a Doctor named Moses Greeley Parker noted a problem in the system. At the time the country was gripped by a smallpox epidemic. Greely wondered what would happen if all four operators were sick at the same time? If that were to occur the whole of Lowell’s communication would be disrupted for a rather long time. What the city needed was a quicker and more effective way to transfer calls that would make the process easier for operators so more could be trained and faster.

Luckily for everyone the doctor was a friend of Alexander Graham Bell and was interested in telecommunications. And so ol' Moses got to thinking. The good doctor’s invention was the phone number! Up until that point the phone number did not exist…believe it or not.

Although Lowell came up with the idea for phone numbers, what numbers looked like in his system is not one you would recognize. Lowell created the letter and number system of phone numbers – ex. PENnsylvania-6500. By breaking up phone numbers this way it made connecting calls more predictable and logical than something a few people remembered only through routine.

After Greeley’s advancement, if an operator was looking to connect a call they simply needed to look at the board and match the switching station with the number within it. For example, PENslyvania-6500 tells an operator to find – the PENN rate center and then find the numbered circuit to connect.

What rate centers are and how they were determined is a crazy story on its own. Over the decades phone numbers would change further but the initial concept came from a Massachusetts doctor who was looking for ideas to survive a pandemic. Based on that logic you might want to spend some of your time at home thinking similar thoughts in the time of coronavirus because you might just change the history of the world.

Oh and if you are wondering what become of ol Moses Greeley Parker, he invested heavily in telecommunications and became an extremely wealthy man. The doctor also made further developments in telecommunications technology when he discovered the concept of spiraling telephone wire to increase the distance they could send a signal.

Doctor Greeley Parker’s message and legacy lives on through a free lecture series in Lowell and through every phone call made.


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