How did directory assistance work in the 70s and 80s?
November 28, 2017 7:42 AM   Subscribe

Back in the day, I believe you could dial "0" to reach an operator and get directory assistance. (Correct me if I'm wrong, however!) What happened if you were looking for a phone number in a different town or a different state? Did the operator transfer you to a different, local operator, or was there a way for him or her to look up the number directly?

I'd love to be pointed to an article that discusses this, but if you remember from your own experience, that's helpful, too.
posted by cider to Technology (34 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
 
In the us and Canada you called 555-1212
posted by GuyZero at 7:46 AM on November 28, 2017 [14 favorites]


In the US, I'm pretty sure that in the '80s, you could dial the area code and then 555-1212.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 7:46 AM on November 28, 2017 [7 favorites]


And to find the right area code you looked at the area code map at the front of your phone book. The first several pages of the phone book basically explained how phones work.
posted by GuyZero at 7:46 AM on November 28, 2017 [23 favorites]


And if the number was a different area code, you added the area code first - xxx-555-1212.
posted by Umami Dearest at 7:47 AM on November 28, 2017 [1 favorite]


In the 1980s, at least, you could dial 411, tell them the name of the town and state, give the last name, and they'd give you phone numbers for people in that town who had that last name. I don't believe they transferred you, they just had the information.

Writing this down now, it seems so primitive.
posted by bondcliff at 7:49 AM on November 28, 2017 [8 favorites]


Also there were dedicated numbers to tell you the weather, and what time it was! I think dialing "0" was used for operator-assisted calls like collect calls and person-to-person calls.
posted by Umami Dearest at 7:50 AM on November 28, 2017 [3 favorites]


Also there were dedicated numbers to tell you the weather, and what time it was!

There was also a number that would cause the phone system to call you right back. Big fun for kids.
posted by thelonius at 7:58 AM on November 28, 2017 [4 favorites]


At least in New York City in the early 80's, 0 got you an operator, but they would transfer you to 411. Once deregulation took place, if you direct-dialed 411, you'd get "Information, what city and state please," and then you'd ... tell them.

I believe 411 and 555-1212 still work, actually, in case you're ever stuck needing a phone number without having data access.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 8:02 AM on November 28, 2017


At least in New York City in the early 80's, 0 got you an operator, but they would transfer you to 411. Once deregulation took place, if you direct-dialed 411, you'd get "Information, what city and state please," and then you'd ... tell them.

Thank you so much, everyone! Dialing area code + 555-1212 makes sense, but in cases where you just dialed 411 -- they asked you "what city and state", but then, did they have access to phone numbers from every city and state? (Was there some sort of searchable database, or a room full of phone books, or...?)
posted by cider at 8:09 AM on November 28, 2017


When I was a kid, in the '50's, we used 113 for directory assistance. Since you couldn't call a long-distance number directly, I imagine you asked the operator for help when you placed a call if you didn't know the number. In the '60's, direct-dial became universal in the US, and 113 became 411 (presumably because pressing a 1 first now did long-distancy stuff). At that same time, 1+XXX+555+1212 became the long-distance information number.
posted by ubiquity at 8:11 AM on November 28, 2017 [2 favorites]


Thank you so much, everyone! Dialing area code + 555-1212 makes sense, but in cases where you just dialed 411 -- they asked you "what city and state", but then, did they have access to phone numbers from every city and state? (Was there some sort of searchable database, or a room full of phone books, or...?)

They would connect you to an operator in that area code. If you dialed "0" this would also happen. (I believe dialing "0" pre-dated 555-1212.)

So if you dialed "0" and said "I'm trying to reach someone in Dallas, Texas" they would say, "The area code for Dallas is 214. Let me connect you to an operator at that exchange." And then they would usually stay on the line with you while you were connected.

The operator in Dallas would pick up, then you could ask them for a phone number and/or address for the person you were seeking. This was referred to as directory assistance when i was a kid, but i don't know if it was always called that.
posted by zarq at 8:27 AM on November 28, 2017 [6 favorites]


My recollection is that 411 was only for numbers in your own area code. For numbers elsewhere you had to use xxx-555-1212.
posted by jkent at 8:28 AM on November 28, 2017 [5 favorites]


It sounds like you're interested in the tools available for people working at directory assistance, once it was centralized? Given the speed at which they answered questions, they were undoubtedly at some sort of electronic database they could query. You didn't have to sit and wait for them to find a specific bound volume, and you could hear the keys clicking. BUT DON'T TAKE IT FROM ME....

Check out this article about Digital Directory Assistance, which produced quarterly national CD-ROM directories for consumer purchase.

Another one (1990) about company US West

Phone Companies Wary About CD-ROM Directories (1988)

January 2000 Times-Picayune article about the sad decline in directory assistance quality

Paper in 1995 edition of textbook Advances in Human-Computer Interaction that focuses on usability research driving an easier-to-use workstation at Nynex, with some detailed descriptions of exactly how an operator would search.

Inevitably, also, Wikipedia on 411
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 8:35 AM on November 28, 2017 [5 favorites]


The wikipedia article for Directory Assistance is kind of terrible, but the one for 411 is better. It mentions how usage of 113 instead of 411 depended on the switching equipment in use in a particular region.

To answer the add-on question, the 411 directory assistance for Tulsa, OK (area code 918) only answered questions for numbers that were local calls from Tulsa. If you needed a number for a town outside the local calling area, you had to dial something else (I think it was 1-555-1212 but my memory is super foggy), and they did check paper phone books for other cities in 918 the couple times I needed that. If you needed a number outside of the area code they told you to dial whatever area code and 555-1212.

But I also remember going to the library and using out of state phone books instead of paying long distance charges for directory assistance.

Calling 0 got you to Operator Assistance and not Directory Assistance. There were charges associated with the various types of Operator Assistance, so you really only did that if you needed to place a Person to Person call. It was usually cheaper to place a long distance, direct dialed call to the remote Directory Assistance service, then place another direct dialed call to the number you just learned.
posted by fedward at 8:39 AM on November 28, 2017


This was referred to as directory assistance when i was a kid, but i don't know if it was always called that.

It was also called "Information," which may have been an earlier official designation or maybe just its colloquial name.
posted by JimN2TAW at 9:12 AM on November 28, 2017 [4 favorites]


I was a 0 operator for Bell South around 2001. I didn't work for 411, but would transfer people there who wanted a number looked up. We did have to look up phone numbers routinely, though - for example, if someone needed the police station we'd look that up and call for them rather than charge them to transfer to 411. (Some towns didn't have 911 service at the time, so we were it.) We had to pretend to be in whatever small town they were calling from, even though we were serving seven or so states.

There was no searchable database. There was a directory which was a giant book mounted on a post bolted to the desk. It was the size of three telephone books stacked together, roughly. It had every number assigned to a landline in the Bell South area (supposedly). My guess would be that 411 was also still not in a computerized database at that time (since if they were we could have used the database as well). Putting the directories into a computerized database was a big project that was at that time in the works, but not yet executed. So I think it's unlikely that they were in a database in the 70s or 80s.

The "switchboard" was computerized at that time, but not the directories.
posted by frobozz at 9:32 AM on November 28, 2017 [8 favorites]


For a summer in 1971 I was an operator for Bell Telephone, a replacement for an operator out on maternity leave. A more boring job would be hard to fathom. I sat for 8 hours a day with a headset on and waited for a beep and another operator's voice to ask me for "route and rate" to Pretty Praire, Kansas or Boise, Idaho, or Caracas, Venezuela. (This I referred to the overseas operator). I was an operator's operator, transmitting area codes and dialing instructions for placing long-distance calls. The number of people asking for "route and rate" to Long Island was staggering - somehow people thought it was a small place with a single area code. Our mandated default was giving information on how to dial Long Island City.

Anyway, we used books. Many, many books. Books that went around our stations in the shape of a "U" and were loose-leaf and tabbed, constantly updated with new pages replacing out of date pages. They had every area code and NNX (the first three numbers of a telephone exchange. These used to be geographically consistent) in the country.

I returned to college determined to graduate so I'd never have to end up a telephone operator. It never occurred to me that telephone operator jobs would fade away, along with elevator operators, but it was good motivation.
posted by citygirl at 9:33 AM on November 28, 2017 [20 favorites]


Was there some sort of searchable database, or a room full of phone books, or...?)

Yeah, in the early 80's my local small-town Ontario public library had local phone books for major Ontario cities and major national cities. So I could go to the library and find a recent Calgary phone book if I felt like perusing the Calgary Yellow Pages.

So yes, there was a literal shelf full of phone books in most cities. At least in Ontario.
posted by GuyZero at 9:42 AM on November 28, 2017 [5 favorites]


In Australia you could call 013 and they would call the operator in another country on your behalf and facilitate a three way conversation to get the phone number.
posted by Talez at 9:49 AM on November 28, 2017 [1 favorite]


Sometimes Information in the US would even give out addresses of people.
posted by mareli at 10:08 AM on November 28, 2017 [2 favorites]


I worked at a public library in Ontario in the mid-naughties and we were *just* then (2007ish) getting rid of the hundreds of telephone books we kept on the shelves. We still had people coming in looking for them for years afterwards too.
posted by saucysault at 10:08 AM on November 28, 2017


I seem to recall that for an additional charge, back to the the number you were calling from, they would connect you to the party you were asking about.
posted by tman99 at 10:34 AM on November 28, 2017 [3 favorites]


Eighties college party entertainment: call information in another country and ask to be connected to an individual's phone number. If they didn't connect you, you weren't charged. I remember a particularly delightful conversation some friends and I had with a very amused young-sounding male operator in Australia after we'd called asking to be connected to Olivia Newton-John. He refused to connected us, with apologies, but we had a great time chatting with him about the party, what we were drinking, asking about his day, pretending to be surprised he didn't know Olivia personally ...lots of laughing all around. I like to think he got a lot of mileage out of the story of a house full of tipsy American girls who livened up his workday once upon a time.
posted by Nancy_LockIsLit_Palmer at 11:05 AM on November 28, 2017 [2 favorites]


seconding tman99 -- post ma-bell breakup, 555-1212 and 411 were the usual ways, and some times you'd get charged for the 411 call, and also you could "press star to automatically be connected to that number for an additional $0.25"
posted by k5.user at 11:50 AM on November 28, 2017


It was also called "Information," which may have been an earlier official designation or maybe just its colloquial name.

As in:
Long distance information, give me Memphis, Tennessee
Help me find the party trying to get in touch with me
She could not leave her number, but I know who placed the call
'Cause my uncle took the message and he wrote it on the wall
(Chuck Berry. Full lyrics.)

The song is right that it was originally "long distance information," since local "information" was available simply from the operator by dialing zero. But it was never both "information" and "directory assistance". In in 1968*, AT&T (which was virtually the entire US phone system until it was broken up in 1982) got tired of people asking for all kinds of information, not just phone numbers, and ditched the "information" terminology in favor of "directory assistance." (*New York Times, July 6, 1968 p 23, subscription required). Until then, the info operators said, "Information, may I help you?" which then became "Directory Assistance, may I help you?" (This changed rolled out at various times in the late 60s across the AT&T state and regional subsidiaries.)
posted by beagle at 1:10 PM on November 28, 2017 [8 favorites]


The number of people asking for "route and rate" to Long Island was staggering - somehow people thought it was a small place with a single area code. Our mandated default was giving information on how to dial Long Island City.

Part of this caller confusion likely stemmed from the geographical vs. city limits definition debate. The area code for "Long Island" (Nassau and Suffolk Counties) was 516 from the '40s through the '90s. Long Island City is in western Queens (Queens County, a borough of NYC)... which is geographically located on LI.
posted by Iris Gambol at 2:14 PM on November 28, 2017


The library - a good one would have a whole wall of directories, white and yellow pages.
posted by Rash at 2:44 PM on November 28, 2017 [1 favorite]


Back in the 20th century, Operator Directory Assistance cost something like a dollar (?) and direct connecting cost a bit more, so if you had more time than money, then you might go look up the numbers in the out of town phone books at the library. Which would be something you would do if you were a college student.

As mentioned above, night switchboard operators were often bored and receptive to random conversations, and if you were charming there was a slight chance that they might overlook billing charges. Aside from the famous Chuck Berry song, there is also the 1972 song about telephony, Operator (That's Not the Way it Feels) by Jim Croce. Wikipedia trivia: The story was inspired during Jim Croce's military service, where he saw lines of soldiers waiting to use the outdoor phone on base, many of them calling their wives or girlfriends to see if their Dear John letter was true.
posted by ovvl at 3:24 PM on November 28, 2017 [2 favorites]


Also, if you needed to contact a company, you’d dial 1-800-555-1212, because we didn’t have 888 and 877 and all that. Toll free numbers were all 1-800 in the 80s.
posted by OrangeVelour at 3:41 PM on November 28, 2017


+1 that (area code)-555-1212 was the way to get directory information on the phone. But I'll just add that when I was an undergraduate at the University of Chicago (1986-90), the reference section of the main library had a lot of space devoted to phone books: every domestic US phone book, naturally, but a surprising number of foreign ones, too.
posted by brianogilvie at 5:37 PM on November 28, 2017


There was a period of changeover in the 80s, when a recording asked you to state the city or area and then the name. I didn't get the feeling that there was any voice rocognition going on - I think it just cut down on the chit-chat and saved the operator repeating the same question every time. By the late 80s, I think they'd worked some digital recognition in, because and operator would eventually come if the machine couldn’t understand you after a few tries.
posted by bonobothegreat at 6:24 PM on November 28, 2017 [2 favorites]


Yes, this changed continuously through my life, from a human answering 411 to a recording answering to the fall of the whole system. I believe 411 was free when I was a kid then became a very expensive call ($1?) later. When we were kids my brother and I called "Information" to ask dumb questions that they would sometimes answer.
posted by latkes at 9:01 PM on November 28, 2017


Rounding out what everyone else has said already, but with a British slant .. I was an operator with British Telecom in the '70s, and we had all the phone directory books for Britain which we'd refer to to look up any British number. Directories included addresses for most people, and we could optionally give those out too (maybe we weren't supposed to, not sure .. long time ago, but we did). If the address was not shown, and the inquiry was from an official body, we'd call an operator in the subscriber's local exchange as the local exchange had full details for every line in their area. Sometimes people would be "ex-directory" ("unlisted" in US English), and for those we'd also have to call the local exchange if it wasn't ours; ex-directory numbers were kept in a different book. For international calls we'd do as described by Talez: call an operator in the other country and set up a three-way conversation to get the number.
posted by anadem at 9:06 PM on November 28, 2017 [4 favorites]


When I was in Elementary school my walk home passed the main telephone building (exchage, operators, offices) for our town. In the lobby where people would go to pay bills, exchange phones, etc. they had a large alcove filled with hundreds of phone books from across the country. I'd stop in at least once a month and just pull random volumes and read random pages or look up if there was a "Mitheral" in Moose Jaw.

tman99: "I seem to recall that for an additional charge, back to the the number you were calling from, they would connect you to the party you were asking about."

This was a person to person call, if you used a long distance operator but were willing to talk to whomever answered it was a station to station call which cost less.
posted by Mitheral at 12:06 AM on November 29, 2017 [1 favorite]


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