The Great Lowell Measles Epidemic or How the Telephone Number was Invented

In the beginning, which was in 1879, a mere three years after Alexander Graham Bell made the first phone call, the Lowell (Massachusetts) District Telephone Company hired teenage boys to run the switchboard.

“Give me John Smith”, a subscriber would request, and the lad on duty would plug the call into John Smith’s line. However, as time went by, changes had to be made. “First off, young women were hired to run the switchboard,” said Peter Cronin, spokesman for the New England Telephone Company. “It was discovered that the women’s voices were better adapted for the work than the boy’s voices.

“Once the women took over the switchboard, and the public began to accept the idea of the telephone, business improved for the Lowell District Telephone Company. By late 1880, four operators were on duty at the switchboard. The phone company had over 200 customers by then”.

Alas, in December, a few days before Christmas, the trouble started. One of the operators phoned in sick. Back then a sick operator, even if she was missing for only a day, rocked the foundation of the brand new telephone company. She knew the name of each and every subscriber in the Lowell area.

Still, the three switchboard girls managed to keep things going until the very next day, when a second operator, phoned in sick. At this point, the company president W.A. Ingam put through an emergency call to Dr. Moses Greeley Parker, who in addition to being the best doctor in town, also happened to be a big stockholder in the new company.

“If you can’t get these two women back on the job in a hurry, we’ll be out of business,” Ingham told him. “Those other two operators will collapse from exhaustion.” So Dr. Parker visited the two ill telephone operators, and then went directly to the phone company office. “You’ll have to train substitute operators,” the good doctor informed Ingham. “They both have the measles.” “It will take weeks to train substitutes,” stated Ingham. “The new girls will have to memorize more than 200 names.”

“But,” Dr. Parker interrupted, “instead of names, why don’t you use numbers?” “Numbers, doctor?” responded Ingham. “I don’t know what you mean.” “It’s rather simple, Ingham,” said the doctor smoothly, “Instead of identifying your subscribers by name, identify them by numbers, and put a corresponding number over their holes on the switchboard. For example, since I had the first phone in town, and I am in the first hole position on your board. I can be Number One!”

Ingham began to get the message, but he scoffed at the idea. “Our subscribers,” he said, “will never accept your idea, Dr. Parker. People have names. They are not numbers.” “Be that as it may,” countered Parker, “its either numbers or we go out of business if those other operators get the measles.” And so numbers it was.

The Old Farmers Almanac, 1977, p. 174-175 by Barbara Craig