Call Me, Maybe . . .

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The first place in the WORLD to use phone numbers was Lowell, Massachusetts. Really.

What does your phone number have to do with the measles? Everything.

In 1879, with a measles epidemic looming over Lowell, Dr. Moses Greeley Parker was growing increasingly concerned.  Clearly, he feared for the well-being of the scores of people, young and old, sure to be afflicted by the highly-contagious virus, left suffering from high fever and unsightly rashes. Not so much.

ImageDr. Parker was preoccupied with his ability to order a pizza. Okay . . . that is not true; unfortunately there was no pizza delivery in 1879 (three cheers for modern times).  But, the doctor was concerned about the city’s phone system. What would happen if the four boys who worked as operators at the Lowell telephone exchange at 36 Central St. came down with the illness?

At that time, there were 200 telephone subscribers in Lowell. In order for one to call another, he would tell the operator the name of the person or business with whom he wished to connect; the four operators were the only people who knew which jacks to plug into which holes to correctly connect calls; if the four boys fell ill, the city’s telephone system would be paralyzed.

Parker, an eye and ear specialist who practiced at St. John’s Hospital, was also an early enthusiast and financial backer of Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone.

So, Parker rang his pal Bell and suggested a new way of doing things. What if each telephone subscriber was assigned a number? That would make training replacement operators possible and head off disaster. Bell agreed and in late 1879 and early 1880 the world’s first phone numbers (four digits each) were rolled out – in Lowell.

A side-note to this story: Lowell’s telephone exchange, established by Charles Glidden for $6,000 on April 19, 1878, was the fourth in the nation after New Haven, San Francisco and Albany. The first telephone subscriber in Lowell was Whitehead and Co., a coal dealer.

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A second side-note: While early telephone operators were teenage boys that practice was ended when it became apparent the boys had little patience, were rude to customers and often ended up wrestling and engaging in horseplay in the office. Additionally, telephone exchange officials realized women had more pleasant voices, preferred by customers, most of whom were men. The first female telephone operator was Emma Nutt, who began working in Boston on September 1, 1878. The Lowell exchange, made obsolete by technology, closed on Nov. 28, 1975; at that time it was located at 115 Appleton St.

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12 thoughts on “Call Me, Maybe . . .

  1. Pingback: A New Blog in Town | richardhowe.com

  2. Great to have you in City Hall! Enjoyed this tale of the past while anticipating your/Mayor’s Office insight and comments on a forward-looking Lowell, as well.

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