As events such as the COVID-19 outbreak affecting the ability to travel, many people are grateful for the option of picking up a phone, dialing a number, and being able to speak with people on the other side of the world. Surprising as it may seem, it was because of an infectious disease outbreak nearly 150 years ago that we have phone numbers to dial.
When telephones started to become popular, there was no need for anyone to have a telephone number. If you wanted to call someone, you picked up a phone, spoke to a switchboard operator and said who it was you wanted to reach. The switchboard operator then looked up the name and made all the appropriate connections. As the number of telephone subscribers increased, the process of connection became increasingly complicated, requiring specialized training for switchboard operators.
When a measles outbreak in 1879 threatened Lowell, Massachusetts, one of its prominent citizens grew concerned about what this would mean for the burgeoning telephone industry. Dr. Moses Greeley Parker was a physician. He realized the infectious disease could easily strike the only four people who were qualified to serve as Lowell’s switchboard operators. With more than 200 telephone users in Lowell, Parker feared the abrupt loss of communication that could result and knew it would take far too long to adequately train a sufficient number of replacement operators.
Fortunately, Dr. Parker had some insight into how the telephone system worked, since he was friends with the telephone’s inventor, Alexander Graham Bell. Parker concluded that it would be easier to train operators to connect to an assigned number, rather than a name. It took a while for customers to get over the indignity of being a number instead of a name, but the system eventually caught on.
Not content to simply leave his fingerprints on the development of telephone numbers, Parker was also groundbreaking in his use of photography. He was the first person to photograph the tubercular bacillus and the first to take a picture of electric currents to prove they take the form of spirals.
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