Uncommon Knowledge

Uncommon Knowledge: Is There Any Rhyme or Reason to Area Codes?

December 3, 2015

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Most people know that ZIP codes are roughly geographic, but area codes seem a bit more random. Why is New York 212 while Los Angeles is 213? Turns out, it can all be traced back to the rotary phone.

Before 1951, all long distance phone calls required an operator’s assistance. Once operators were cut out of the equation, the phone system’s infrastructure was in need of an organized routing system. Since everyone used rotary phones, area codes were given out with dialing speed in mind. The bigger the city, the less time you have to wait for the numbers to loop around. New York’s 212 took only 5 clicks to register while Nova Scotia’s 902 took a whole 21.

Until recently, all area codes had either a 1 or a 0 in the middle number so local calls could still be dialed without the area code. (The central computer was programmed to know that a second digit of 0 or 1 meant an area code, so it would wait to receive all ten digits before making the call.) However, the addition of cell phones and countless new phone numbers made this an impossible standard to keep up.

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  • Reply Jeff Welch December 6, 2015 at 5:46 pm

    The 508 area code was Massachusetts’ third area code. When area codes were introduced, Massachusetts had two – 413 and 617. The 508 area code wasn’t established until the late 1980s.

  • Reply Mike December 6, 2015 at 5:48 pm

    You’re wrong. Massachusetts used to only have 2 area codes, 617 and 413. 508 was actually the 3rd area code added to the state. Get your facts straight before publishing.

  • Reply Cassie December 8, 2015 at 1:23 pm

    Hi Jeff and Mike,

    Thank you both for pointing out our mistake. It’s great to see that our readers are passionate about keeping Uncommon Knowledge accurate! We updated the post to remove the misinformation.


  • Reply Alex September 2, 2016 at 5:56 am

    Area Code 508 is located in MA. While the area code can give you a general idea where a phone number originates from, the first 6 digits can narrow down the location even more.


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