Trivia

Hard

The World’s First Emergency Telephone Number Was?

911
999
000
222
A 1930s Ericsson desk telephone with the 999 emergency phone number prominently displayed.
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Answer: 999

The telephone was invented in the 1870s, and by the end of the decade, there were proper telephone exchanges and simple phone networks in place in various locations. It would be decades before dedicated emergency lines, a phone function we all take for granted today, would take shape, however.

While much of the work on early telephony happened in the United States, the well-known emergency number 911 wouldn’t come about until well into the middle of the 20th century. Instead, the first dedicated emergency number emerged in England in the late 1930s. The introduction of the number was inspired by a horrible London house fire in 1935. A neighbor tried to call for help, but ended up in the telephone exchange queue—five people died in the fire. The neighbor wrote a passionate letter to the editor of The Times, which set the wheels in motion for the first emergency number.

The number, 999, was deployed in 1937 and selected for several reasons. One, it was easy to modify the existing rotary payphones so that the 9 could be used without payment. Two, the number was easy to remember, but difficult to dial accidentally—it took a very deliberate motion to send the 9 rotating all the way around a rotary phone three times in a row, cutting down on accidental emergency calls. Finally, because the 9 hole on a 10 digit rotary phone is one hole away from the finger stop, it was easy for people with visual disabilities to quickly locate the 9 for emergency calls—that same design choice was useful for people without disabilities too since it allowed for easy dialing in the dark or in a smoke-filled room.

Slowly but surely, other countries followed suit and there are now easy to remember emergency phone numbers throughout the developed world and even in areas of developing countries.

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