Why didn’t Phonewords take off in the UK?

by @edent | # # | 7 comments | Read ~194 times.

The first thing I did when getting to the USA as a kid, was to find a payphone where I dutifully called 1-800-STARWARS.

I’d grown up with American media. Phonewords – where your phone’s dialpad spells out words – were ingrained in my psyche.

But the UK never had anything like that. In 2003, a reverse-charges company tried to make it a thing. Here’s how they tried to teach UK users how to spell out words on their keypad:

Not even Holly Valance could convince the British public to adopt Phonewords!

The UK mobile operators adopted 7726 (SPAM) as the number for reporting spam SMS.

But, other than that, I’ve never seen a UK company use them.

Why is that?

(This is mostly a rhetorical question – with some historical suggestions.)

The UK did use phone letters!

In the 1933 film “The Coming of the Dial” – the British public were introduced to a telephone system which did not require an operator to place the call.

I thoroughly recommend watching this beautiful movie:

At one point, you’ll see this dial – complete with letters!

A black and white photo of an old rotary dial phone.

There are three interesting things to note:

  1. The lettering sequence is subtly different from the modern style. The letter O is on the Zero – presumably to reduce homographic confusion. I assume Q isn’t there for the same reason. Z is easily confused with 2, so is dumped. But I is there, even though it can be confused with the number 1.
  2. There are Phonewords! Dial TRU for Trunk Calls, and TEL for Telegrams.
  3. The telephone number is listed as “GERRARD 2666-7”. Dialling codes were often alphanumeric!

Old Dialling Codes

Here’s the Illustrated London News, from Saturday 19 November 1927. It’s a gorgeous description of a Strowger automatic telephone system.
A highly detailed set of drawings showing how an exchange works.

Nestled at the bottom is this:

Text describing how to dial a phone number.

A subscriber wishing to call a friend whose number is “HOLborn 4932” […] inserts a finger-tip in a hole in the revolvable disc above “H” [..] The letters “O,” “L,” followed by the figures “4, 9, 3, 2”

The UK’s old dialling codes were based on the name of the exchange!

So what happened?

At some point, letters slowly vanished from phones. I suspect because it was no more convenient to remember “HOL” than “405”.

Red Telephone

When touch-tone dialling came out, BT was still a monopoly. As my friend Sam Machin points out, their standard phone didn’t have letters on it.

When I was growing up, the payphones didn’t always have letters on them:

BT payphone

But was this cause, or effect?

What made Americans embrace 1-800-FLOWERS, while the UK didn’t? Was it because of our love of “catchy” jingles?

Possibly not…

Nowadays, of course, every phone pad has letters on it.

A modern Android dial pad.

But, let’s be honest, who even makes phone calls any more? As we move to a world of social media addresses and VoIP services, the phone number – and by extension Phonewords – have reached the end of the line.

7 thoughts on “Why didn’t Phonewords take off in the UK?

  1. Ha, I’d forgotten about 0800 REVERSE.

  2. @Edent did they take off anywhere? nobody has seen one in canada for decades.

  3. Thanks for that, I could never understand why we didn’t embrace this. Around the same time I learned about it, IKEA came to Britain and I was told their use of names instead of serial numbers was also about ease of memorising.

  4. Spike says:

    Point of order! I think “GERRARD 2666-7” would have indicated that it was two lines with two consecutive numbers; GERRARD 2666 and GERRARD 2667.
    Interesting bit of telephone history Terence – thank you!


  5. I went out for a while with a Canadian whose number was BIG SHIT. That’s how she gave out her number to people. It was awesome, but even she admitted it was a little tedious getting sniggering teenagers calling all the time.

    She had the same problem as Woz with his 888-888-8888 number


  6. Spike says:

    Like Scotland Yard used to be Whitehall 1212 and you dialled WHI 1212 (944 1212).


  7. kiwanja says:

    They kinda did if you consider all those ‘Dial 0800-CADBURY’ (or whatever) ad things.


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