A new area code on the near horizon

It seems telephone sales are doing so well that the phone companies are running out of numbers for the 717 area code, so the Pennsylvania Public Utilities Commission will be adding a 223 area code. Sometime this summer, probably in August, telephone callers in the 717 area will be required to dial all 10 digits including the area code, rather than only seven digits.

If your new neighbor obtains a new number, you may have to remember that 223 is not necessarily on the other side of the region; it’s next door. And the seven-digit number you are dialing is not in some other state. It’s across the street.

When I was a kid, I learned about “party lines.” You picked up your phone, and so did your neighbors. It was pretty handy when you wanted to arrange a party, or let the fire department know your house was ablaze. It wasn’t much for privacy, though. Everyone wanted to know what everyone else was doing, and no one wanted everyone else knowing such things.

Telephones may have changed, but the people who use them haven’t much.

Technology, on the other hand, is in constant “what’s next” mode. So when someone invented “speed dial” I grabbed hold of the miracle and hung it on the kitchen wall. It had 20 buttons for storing numbers. To call my mom, or the editor at the paper for which I then wrote, I could press a single button and the phone would dial the number. Technology would, I was promised, take care of the rest.

Alas, telephone circuits in those days – and that was only the late 1980s – actually were mechanical. In fact, it was possible to pick up a regular telephone handset and tap on the switch to dial a number. Tap. Tap-tap-tap. Tap-tap. Tap-tap-tap-tap-tap. That would dial 1325.

The trouble was, the new Radio Shack telephone, with its ability to save numbers to a computer chip, could send the number to the dialing switches way faster than the switches could react to dial all the numbers.

Pick up the phone.

Press the button for Mom.

“What number are you dialing please?” came the voice of a real live operator.

“My mother’s,” I replied.

“What is your mother’s number,” the helpful voice asked.

“I don’t know. I just press Button 1 and it dials whatever number I stored there.”

OK, it wasn’t that bad. I did know the number, but the point was to press Button 1 and have it dial the seven digits to make Mom’s phone ring in her kitchen.

But the too-slow switches had not dialed enough digits, causing an operator to cut in to ask what number I had intended to dial. So, once I told her what number I had intended, the kind, courteous, helpful operator – at no additional charge – would dial the number for me.

The good news now is telephone dialing switches are computerized, and can keep up just fine with the speed dialers in our telephones.

Which is good news because there are very few operators available, and we must pay extra if they actually render assistance.

And come August, we in area code 717 will have to remember to dial 10 digits instead of only seven, and then we will have to remember which 717 numbers have been replaced with 223.

It’s not really that difficult, but joking with the operator was a lot more fun.

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