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  • Jennifer Walker

What was invented when? All about phones


telephone Jennifer Walker freelance editor

What do you call that gizmo you carry around with you 24/7? You probably call it a "phone" even though that's probably not how you use it most often. We all know that once upon a time a phone was its own separate device, bolted to the wall in your kitchen, or, if you were fancy, hunkered on your nightstand.


If you are of a certain age, you might struggle to write a story in a contemporary setting because of cell phones. Presenting the modern world of constant texting and scrolling, in novel format, can be trying for the writer and tedious for the reader. (Or it inadvertently feels like a YA novel.)


What is easier and certainly more nostalgic is to set your story before the advent of the ubiquitous cell phone. And although you might even remember your childhood phone number (628-9216 was mine), you might not recall every detail in the evolution of the phone.


The genesis for this post was a recent family gathering. Three generations of my family (I'm in the middle generation) meet every Sunday over Zoom to exchange trivia questions. My uncle's most recent question was "Finish this famous phone number: Pennsylvania 6 _____."


In the upper corner of my screen I could see my 24-year-old son frown. "I thought you said your questions were all phone numbers??" he responded.


For someone who has never known a world without cell phones and ten-digit dialing, learning that phone numbers used to start with words was baffling. When exactly did we make these changes?


Below is a list of phone-related technological milestones, to help you avoid letting your bell-bottoms-wearing, Vietnam-protesting protagonist text her friends about where to meet up for lunch.


1876 - Alexander Graham Bell invents the telephone ("Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you.")


1927 - First videophone unveiled and used by not-yet-President Herbert Hoover. It was not a hit.


1930s - Establishment of "Pennsylvania 6 - 5000"-style numbers. The leading word indicated a two-letter code ("PA" in this case) and that was followed by five numbers, creating the first version of seven-digit dialing.


1951 - Area codes are adopted, although they are only used for long-distance calls. They are three numerals with a zero or a one as the middle digit.


1960s - The two-letter codes are phased out in favor of just numbers, and so by the . . .


1970s - Most of America has seven-numeral phone numbers.


1992 - The very first text is sent (although it's from a computer to a phone, and the phone had no keyboard with which to respond).


1997 - Full keyboards begin appearing on phones. Beforehand, you had to type on an alpha-numeric keyboard, with each number representing three letters. It was a chore.


Early 2000s - Those full keyboards are prevalent. Because no one enjoyed tapping each key three times until the correct letter appeared.


2001 - Ten-digit dialing. It didn't happen all at once, but this is the year in which we all began incorporating area codes into our dialing, even when calling our neighbors.


2005 - Texting becomes commonplace.


2005 - Skype is released but not super-popular, except amongst grandparents.


2007 - The first year Americans sent/received more texts than phone calls.


2007 - Release of the iPhone, generally recognized as the first smartphone. Now you can call, text, photograph, research, listen to music, find your way around, etc., all from one device.


2010 - Apple's iPhone 4 gives us Facetime, the first videophone that was embraced , even though the technology had been around for nearly 100 years. Everyone can make video calls from the device in their pocket.


2020 - Covid-19 creates an enormous surge in and normalizes video calls, personal and professional, most commonly on the platform Zoom.


2021 - Arizona newspaper reports that some remote localities are finally being forced to make the switch from seven to ten digit dialing, even when calling within their own towns. Who knew anyone was still managing with just seven digits?


When you think you're ready for an editor and/or proofreader for your post-apocalyptic novel (congratulations!), I'd be honored to read your work. My #1 goal as a freelance editor is to make your words flow so seamlessly your readers won't be able to put your book down!


Jennifer Walker freelance proofreader