If self-dial telephone service in Arlington were a person, it would just now be eligible for Medicare.  Today is the 65th anniversary of dial technology coming to the homes and businesses of the town.  This automation coincided with the loss of the readily identifiable ARlington 5 telephone exchange name (otherwise known as the “prefix”).  It was replaced with MIssion 3 and Mission 8 (the numerical equivalents of 643 and 648, which are still in use).

The front cover of the special telephone directory issued for the launch of dial service in Arlington and other nearby communities. This phone book is well worn, as can been seen by the scribbles and the hole drilled into the upper left corner, for a loop of twine to hang it on a wall peg.

Many find it hard to believe that a suburb of over 47,000 people, just seven miles from Boston, had been using fundamentally the same method of placing calls since the arrival of the first telephone in Arlington (via the Somerville exchange) in 1879. 

The main reasons for such slow progress in local telephony were twofold.  There were years of backlog due to materials and production diverted to military needs during World War II.  Also, the former telephone exchange building on Medford Street (still standing as part of St. Agnes’s Fidelity House) was inadequate to house the new automatic mechanical Number Five Crossbar Switching System (5XB switch).  When New England Telephone was ready to bring the dial telephone to Arlington, it coincided with the opening of a new exchange and business office building (today owned by successor company Verizon) at 67 Pleasant St.   

This circa 1910 view of Medford Street features the 1907-1955 New England Telephone & Telegraph Co. exchange building at right.  The sign for the Arlington “Central Office” has the bell-shaped logo that reads “Local and Long Distance.” Note the trolley car on then two-way Medford Street, all the way to Massachusetts Avenue.

The 1920s:  Dial Service Comes to Boston

The first telephone dial was patented by Almon Brown Strowger in 1891.  AT&T purchased the patent in 1916 and put its first dial service into operation in Norfolk, Virginia, in 1919.  In Boston, Cambridge, and other nearby municipalities, preparations were underway in 1922 for the conversion, on the heels of New York City getting the dial.  This technology change led to the first of many adjustments over the decades to how telephone numbers were arranged, and calls completed. 

When all calls were placed by operators, saying “Cambridge 72” was enough.  But dial calls followed a three-letter and four-number (3L-4N) telephone numbering plan, with the first three letters of the exchange name used, and leading zeros added so the number format be “0072.”  The problem arose that CAM for CAMbridge corresponded to the same dial positions as CAN for CANton.  Thus, UNIversity (=864) was the replacement chosen.  Similarly, MEDford could not be used when dial telephoning arrived in sections of that city, because it shared the dial configuration of NEEdham; Medford’s principal exchange consequently name became MYStic.  In the case of Quincy, the lack of “Q” on the telephone dial caused the exchange name to become GRAnite.  All three of the replacement exchanges names retained identifiable connections to their localities. Arlington kept its exchange name; just the style was modified to read ARLington.  Dial callers composed ARL, followed by the four-digit number.

Post-World War II modernizations

In 1947, the original 86 area codes were introduced in the U.S. and Canada.  At the same time, the two-letter, five-number (2L-5N) telephone numbering plan came into effect.  Thus, a telephone number such as ARL 8218 changed to AR 5-8218.  For callers within Arlington and from other places without dial service, the complete exchange name continued to be spoken to operators, thus “Arlington 5-8218.”  The “L” corresponded to the number 5 on the dial, but the numerical part of the prefix needed to be displayed for uniformity, because larger communities increased exchange-number capacity by replacing the fixed letter with a variable numeral for the “third pull” of the dial.

This Western Electric Model 302 desk telephone was the standard-issue instrument produced between 1937 and 1955. Note the MYstic 8 telephone number, and the letter Z in the zero position on the dial. (Author’s collection.)

Arlington’s farewell to local telephone operators

A full decade after the end of World War II, telephones in Arlington, Bedford, Concord, Lincoln, Lexington and West Medford got the dial.  In the spring of 1955, New England Telephone rolled out an extensive community education program as if residents had never seen a telephone dial, despite the fact that it already was familiar to generations of Arlingtonians making calls from Boston, Cambridge, Somerville or many other nearby communities over the prior 30-plus years.

A telephone company “hostess” greeted shoppers at the First National Stores supermarket (today’s Whole Foods location in Arlington) with a display of dial telephones that they could practice using.  Some of the training was to reinforce knowledge about when to begin dialing (exemplified by the “WAIT FOR DIAL TONE” wording once appearing in the center of the dial—an instruction that was revived decades later for users of dial-up computer modems). 

One aspect of “learning the dial” was important to promote personal safety.  Prior to the switchover, users could call for emergency assistance by simply lifting the receiver and an operator would come on the line.  Now they had to locate by touch the “0” (for Operator) on the dial, in case they needed to call in darkness due to a power failure.

Another piece of training (this one certainly superfluous) had to do with the fact that the ARlington 5 exchange was being replaced by MIssion 3 and MIssion 8.  Users were instructed to not confuse the “I” in MIssion for the numeral “1,” or the “O” in VOlunteer for the zero, when telephoning to Lexington.

Franklin Hurd, Sr., chairman of the Board of Selectmen, places Arlington’s first dial telephone call at the new 67 Pleasant St. exchange. The person receiving the call was Arlington Public Schools Superintendent Clifford R. Hall, sitting at the school department offices at 22 Maple St., just a few doors down from the exchange. The manager of New England Telephone’s Arlington office, Leicester A. Coit, is observing from the far back. (Briand Studios; courtesy Frank Hurd, Jr.)

Origins of the “MIssion” exchange name

A common source of curiosity is why the local identity of the ARlington exchange name was changed to MIssion.  As it happened, the ARlington dial combination was assigned to Bedford and renamed CRestview.  This was to conform to using exchange names distributed by AT&T (the owner of local operating company, New England Telephone) to minimize misunderstandings of local exchange names when spoken, and to prevent spelling mistakes.  The recommended names were based on a nationwide study of pronunciations.  The “dropped R” in pronouncing ARlington, then a widespread linguistic phenomenon in New England, justified replacing ARlington with MIssion, a common word whose sound was unaffected by regional accents.

But why not simply change ARlington 5 to CRestview 5?  The idea generally was to break users of old habits, although there may also have been some technical rationale that was not publicized.  When CRestview was introduced it was as CRestview 4, to prevent callers from dialing old ARlington 5- numbers. Later, Bedford acquired CRestview 5 as an additional prefix. In other places where the dial positions were the same, most local names still were eliminated.  Examples are EVerett 7 becoming DUnkirk 7 (both equal to 387 on the dial), and WAtertown 4 changing to WAlker 4 (924 in both cases).  Such were the strongarm tactics of “Ma Bell.”

Arlington’s population growth drives more changes

Originally, the MIssion telephone exchange covered all of Arlington, plus West Medford, as ARlington had done previously.  In 1958, West Medford remained part of the Arlington central office service area, but it received its own exchange name: HUnter.  This made additional telephone numbers available for Arlington, as the number of households grew and many existing ones wanted to give up two- and four-party line service to have private lines.  With the arrival of dial telephone service, calling another party on same party line was an elaborate process.  For many years, people who kept their party lines enjoyed the advantage of paying the lower party line rate, even though there were no longer other parties sharing their lines.  

This image shows an interesting juxtaposition of the old and new telephone exchanges at Brattle Drug at 1043 Massachusetts Ave., owned by the Cavaretta family from 1936 to 1999.  On the awning the AR 5-3267 number appears, but the delivery car bears the new MIssion 3-3267 number.

Enter “all-number calling”

It is ironic that New England Telephone was still creating new names for exchanges in 1958, because that was the year that “all-number calling” (ANC) was being introduced in the United States.  But all-number calling did not come into official use in Arlington until 1962.  Going all-digit prepared for the future because eliminating letters in the prefix increased available number combinations.  It also facilitated international calling.  The letters on dials in some countries outside the U.S. occupied different numerical positions (for example, O and Q appeared in the zero position on French telephones); many countries (and some places in the U.S.) did not use letters at all.   

The advance to all-number calling had no practical effect on Arlington customers.  Businesses could use their existing printed materials and still be easily reached; indeed, some continued to advertise MIssion telephone numbers (by its “MI” abbreviation) throughout the 1960s.  And unlike other places whose exchange names represented local geography or history and drew protests at being subsumed into a series of numbers, seven years had not been long enough for “MIssion” to become an object of popular sentiment.  Today MIssion telephone numbers are looked upon with nostalgia by some “Baby Boomers” and their elders as an emblem of simpler times, evoking affectionate memories of family and friends to whom those numbers once belonged.