Why Did Old Phone Numbers Start With Letters?
On I Love Lucy. whenever Lucy or Ricky Ricardo gave out their phone number, they’d say it as, ” Murray Hill 5-9975.” Even though that may look and sound like gibberish to modern phone-users, it was perfectly normal at the time. Lucy, you got some ‘splaining to do.
Phone numbers looked like this in the middle of the 20th century because of telephone exchanges. These were the hubs through which an area’s calls would be routed. Phone subscribers were given a unique five-digit number within their service area. These would be preceded by two digits—which were identified by letters—that denoted the telephone exchange you were connected to. (Before the 1950s, some cities used three letters and four numbers, while others had two letters and three numbers. The two letter, five number format—or “2L-5N”—was eventually standardized throughout the country).
Because these telephone exchanges could only facilitate around 10,000 subscribers, many large cities had multiple hubs. The Ricardo’s MUrray Hill5-9975 meant their number was 68 5-9975 (“Hill” and its capital H served purely as a mnemonic), with the 68. or “MU,” representing the East Side of Manhattan’s telephone exchange.
This is also why phones still have three-letter chunks over numbers 2-8 (and four letters over 9).
Full words were used in order to help customers remember the telephone exchange name, and because they were easy to understand, especially for switchboard operators. Similar-sounding letters would cause confusion, so distinct names or phrases were preferred. The specific words used to identify the two-letter codes weren’t standardized, but rather recommended by AT others are segmented, with support throughout. When someone ponders what the longest bridge in the world is, they may want to consider what kind of bridge they’re talking about.
The Guinness Book of World Records ran into this semantics issue in 2011, when China finished construction on the Jiaozhou Bay Bridge, also known as the Qingdao Haiwan Bridge, near the Shandong Peninsula. The bridge spans an incredible 26.4 miles. with 5200 pillars supporting it along the way. The bridge—which took four years to complete—was so sprawling that it beat the previous record holder, Louisiana’s Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, by more than two miles. Said to be earthquake- and typhoon-proof, it’s one impressive structure.
But the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway is still significant. It’s 23.8 miles over continuous water, while the Jiaozhou Bay Bridge utilizes sea tunnels for parts of the structure and contains multiple lanes. As a result, Guinness refers to the Jiaozhou as the largest “aggregate” bridge in the world, while the Causeway is still believed to be the longest continuous bridge over water.
Those are impressive numbers, but if you don’t require bridges to be needed to navigate over bodies of water, then the longest bridge in the world might be the Dayang-Kunshan Grand Bridge in China. Part of a high-speed railway system, that bridge stretches for 104.2 miles and provides train transport between Shanghai and Nanjing.
If a bridge only impresses—or terrifies—you based on it being the longest bridge in the world without any underlying support, then you might want to investigate the Pearl Bridge beginning in Kobe, Japan. The central part of this 2.4 mile long bridge has 1.237 miles of uninterrupted span.
Of course, length isn’t necessarily directly correlated with the fear factor. If your curiosity over the longest bridge in the world is really over the scariest bridge in the world, you may want to avoid photos of Russia’s Kuandinsky Bridge. Barely wider than a car and with no guardrails, it’s almost a theme park ride, albeit one closed to the public—leaving only the very brave to risk crossing it .
Never a nation to fall in line, America is one of the few countries to resist the metric system. We stubbornly measure distance in miles and weight in pounds. So what’s with those two-liter bottles of soda?
First, a clarification: Soda is far from the only substance we measure in metric units. Heck, it’s not even the only beverage. Wine, liquor, and bottled water are sold by the milliliter. The healthcare field is all about metric units, too, from cholesterol levels to prescription, over-the-counter, and supplement dosages. We run 5-kilometer races, ride on 215-millimeter tires, and use 8-millimeter cameras, or at least we used to.
In most other things, we determinedly cling to our imperial measurements. Attempts to convince Americans to join the rest of the metric-measuring world have been met with great resistance.
Ken Butcher of the National Institute of Science and Technology has been working with the government’s tiny Metric Program for years. Speaking to Mental Floss back in 2013, Butcher explained that we’re so entrenched in our way of doing things that switching measurement systems now would be both chaotic and expensive.
“If we were going to start a new country all with the metric system, it would be easy,” he said. “But when you have to go in and change almost everything that touches people’s everyday life and their physical and mental experience, their education, and then you take that away from them—it can be scary.”
Here and there, though, when it’s convenient, we have been willing to budge. The soda bottle is a good example. Until 1970, all soft drinks in the U.S. were sold in fluid ounces and gallons, mostly in glass bottles. Then the plastic polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottle came along, and soft drink makers decided it was time for a product redesign.
The redesign process coincided with two key factors: a short-lived wave of government interest in going metric, and the burgeoning environmental movement.
The folks at PepsiCo decided to meld all three into its exciting new vessel: a lightweight, cheap, recyclable, metric bottle, with built-in fins so it could stand up on supermarket shelves. Two liters: the soda size of the future.
The two-liter bottle took off. The rest of the soft drink world had no choice but to get on board. And voila: liters of cola for all.