Why Do Fake Phone Numbers Start With 555?

iStock / elfinima
iStock / elfinima

As soon as an actor in a movie or TV show starts rattling off a phone number, every viewer knows what the first three digits will be: 5-5-5. How did “555” become the convention for fake phone numbers, and are there any real 555 numbers? Let’s dial up some answers.

Why do TV and movies need the fake 555 numbers? Just ask anyone who had the misfortune of having the number 867-5309 how their life changed after Tommy Tutone's 15 minutes of fame. Apparently some tiny fraction of the population—we’re guessing a fraction that largely consists of adolescent boys—thinks it’s hilarious to call any number they see on the screen. To curb these nuisance calls, movies and shows have been using the fake 555 numbers since as far back as the 1950s. (In keeping with the old exchange-naming convention, back then it was “KLondike 5” or “KLamath 5.”)

It’s hard to pin down exactly how 555 became the go-to fake prefix for phone numbers. In the book Easy as Pi: The Countless Ways We Use Numbers Every Day, author Jamie Buchan speculates that the repeated digit may have made the combination memorable, which helped it gain traction. Buchan adds that since no major place names in the United States began with a combination of the letters J, K, and L (the letters assigned to the 5 key on a phone), the KLondike/KLamath prefix wasn’t exactly a coveted commodity.

Since the early 1970s there’s been at least one 555 number callers can dial and get an answer—555-1212 is a standard number that rings directory assistance. The rest of the 555 numbers have largely gained fame as fake numbers in movies and on TV. (The number 555-2368 has risen to particularly rarefied air, possibly because of the “2368” combo’s use in old phone ads. Dialing 555-2368 will get you the Ghostbusters, the hotel room from Memento, Jim Rockford of The Rockford Files, and Jaime Sommers from The Bionic Woman, among others.)

Real Fake Numbers

What you may not know, though, is that there are many more “real” 555 phone numbers. Since 1994, 555 numbers have actually been available for personal or business use. That’s when the North American Numbering Plan Administration started taking applications from people and businesses who wanted their own 555 numbers. Theoretically, these numbers would have worked from anywhere in the continent; dialers would be able to dial 555-XXXX and always end up with the same number regardless of area code. The hope was that if you needed, say, a taxi anywhere in the country, you could just remember one number that would always work.

Things didn’t work out quite so smoothly. People and businesses snapped up the 555 numbers —except for 555-0100 through 555-0199, which were held back for fictional use—but they soon learned that owning a phone number isn’t all that useful if you don’t also own a phone company that can connect the number. Phone companies protested that setting up these services would be wildly expensive; in 2003 Verizon told The New York Times that adding the nationwide 555 service to its systems would cost the company $108 million. (Verizon did offer to hook up the 555 numbers for owners, but the same Times story noted that the service usually required a $2,500 set-up fee per area code.)

Skeptics claimed that the phone companies were just dragging their feet so the 555 numbers didn’t sap cash away from 800 numbers. There may be some truth to that theory, but the 555 system still isn’t up and running in any meaningful way. The list of people and entities that own the numbers is a pretty amusing read, though. It’s mostly newspapers, hospitals, random people, and the state of Nevada.

How Does Alberta, Canada, Stay Rat-Free?

Francisco Martins/iStock via Getty Images
Francisco Martins/iStock via Getty Images

David Moe:

Alberta is the only province in Canada that does not have any rats and is, in fact, the largest inhabited area on the planet that is rat-free. Rats had to come from Eastern Canada, and it’s a long walk, so it was not until the 1950s that they finally reached Alberta. When they did, the Alberta government was ready for them: They instituted a very aggressive rat control program that killed every single rat that crossed the Alberta/Saskatchewan border.

The Agricultural Pests Act of Alberta, 1942 authorized the Minister of Agriculture to designate as a pest any animal that was likely to destroy crops or livestock; every person and municipality had to destroy the designated pests. Where their pest control was not adequate, the provincial government could carry it out and charge the costs to the landowner or municipality.

Rats were designated as pests in 1950. An amendment to the act in 1950 further required that every municipality appoint a pest control inspector. In 1951, conferences on rat control were held in eastern Alberta, and 2000 posters and 1500 pamphlets titled "Rat Control in Alberta" were distributed to grain elevators, railway stations, schools, post offices, and private citizens.

Between June 1952 and July 1953, [more than 140,000 pounds] of arsenic trioxide powder were used to treat 8000 buildings on 2700 farms in an area 12 to 31 miles wide and 186 miles long on the eastern border. Some residents were not informed that arsenic was being used and some, allegedly, were told that the tracking powder was only harmful to rodents. Consequently, some poisoning of livestock, poultry, and pets occurred. Fortunately, Warfarin—the first anticoagulant rodent poison—became available in 1953; Warfarin is much safer than arsenic, and in fact is prescribed to some heart patients as a blood thinner.

The number of rat infestations in the border area increased rapidly from one in 1950 to 573 in 1955. However, after 1959, the numbers of infestations dropped dramatically.

The provincial share of rat control expenses increased to 100 percent in 1975. All premises within the control zone from Montana to Cold Lake are now inspected at least annually. Rat infestations are eliminated by bait, gas, or traps. Buildings are occasionally moved or torn down, and in some cases, rats are dug out with a backhoe or bulldozer. In the early days they also used shotguns, incendiaries, and high explosives to control rats. It was something of a war zone.

Hundreds of suspected infestations are reported each year, but most sightings turn out to be muskrats, pocket gophers, ground squirrels, bushy-tailed wood rats, or mice. However, all suspected infestations are investigated.

A few white rats have been brought in by pet stores, biology teachers, and well-meaning individuals who did not know it was unlawful to have rats in Alberta, even white lab rats or pet rats. White rats can only be kept by zoos, universities, colleges, and recognized research institutions in Alberta. Private citizens may not keep white rats, hooded rats, or any of the strains of domesticated Norway rats. Possession of a pet rat can lead to a fine of up to $5000.

In 2004 someone released 38 rats in Calgary. By the time the rat control officers arrived, most of them were dead. The local residents had formed a posse and killed them with brooms, 2x4s, and shovels. If the authorities had caught the culprit, he could have faced a $190,000 fine (38 x $5000)—assuming his neighbors didn’t get to him with brooms, 2x4s, and shovels first. Albertans don’t want rats.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

Why Do Students Get Summers Off?

Iam Anupong/iStock via Getty Images
Iam Anupong/iStock via Getty Images

It’s commonly believed that school kids started taking summers off in the 19th century so that they’d have time to work on the farm. Nice as that story is, it isn’t true. Summer vacation has little to do with tilling fields and more to do with sweaty, rich city kids playing hooky—and their sweaty, rich parents.

Before the Civil War, farm kids never had summers off. They went to school during the hottest and coldest months and stayed home during the spring and fall, when crops needed to be planted and harvested. Meanwhile, city kids hit the books all year long—summers included. In 1842, Detroit’s academic year lasted 260 days.

But as cities got denser, they got hotter. Endless lanes of brick and concrete transformed urban blocks into kilns, thanks to what was known as the “urban heat island effect.” That’s when America’s swelling middle and upper class families started hightailing it to the cooler countryside. And that caused a problem. School attendance wasn’t mandatory back then, and classrooms were being left half-empty each summer. Something had to give.

Legislators, in one of those if-you-can’t-beat-‘em-join-‘em moments, started arguing that kids should get summers off anyway. It helped that, culturally, leisure time was becoming more important. With the dawn of labor unions and the eight-hour workday, working adults were getting more time to themselves than ever before. Advocates for vacation time also argued (incorrectly) that the brain was a muscle, and like any muscle, it could suffer injuries if overused. From there, they argued that students shouldn’t go to school year-round because it could strain their brains. To top it off, air conditioning was decades away, and city schools during summertime were miserable, half-empty ovens.

So by the turn of the century, urban districts had managed to cut about 60 schooldays from the most sweltering part of the year. Rural schools soon adopted the same pattern so they wouldn’t fall behind. Business folks obviously saw an opportunity here. The summer vacation biz soon ballooned into what is now one of the country’s largest billion-dollar industries.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER