Wednesday, 16 September 2009

History by numbers

A little piece I wrote for The Times last week (on 9.9.09) about the 999 number - a subject about which, before writing this piece, I knew only slightly more than sod all ...

The Times played a key role in the birth of 999. The emergency number owes its existence to a fire on November 10, 1935, which swept through a house in Wimpole Street, in the West End of London, killing five women. Norman Macdonald, a dentist living in the house opposite, tried to ring the fire brigade and was so outraged at being held in a queue by the telephone exchange that he wrote to The Times.

In response to Macdonald's letter and the ensuing public outcry, the Government set up a committee to establish a dedicated emergency service. The 999 number was chosen because, at a time when there were only three million home telephones, most people would be calling from coin-operated red telephone boxes. It was easy to customise these to allow free use of the number 9 on the rotary dial.

On June 30, 1937 the Assistant Postmaster General, Sir Walter Womersley, told the House of Commons that the new emergency service would be trialled in London. For reasons now lost to history, MPs burst out laughing at the announcement that the number would be 999 (perhaps because, amid the gathering storm of war, it sounded like a German saying "no" three times).
The Times, however, approved of the number. "Being one third as big again as the Number of the Beast, it has its sinister significance," it declared. "All cannot be well with him who dials 999. Moreover, the figure 9 would be pretty easy for the quaking finger to find on the dial in the dark room where the householder, shivering in his pyjamas, is hoping that the exchange will hear him before the burglar does." The trial was extended to Glasgow a year later and by 1948 the whole country was covered. By 1950 the number of 999 calls had reached 80,000 a year.

Over the years, 999 has had its detractors. In recent years the number of accidental calls to the emergency services has risen sharply because 999 is easily dialled by mistake on a mobile phone - unlike numbers that use more than one digit, such as the EU standard emergency number, 112, or the American 911.

Like the Qwerty arrangement of letters on a keyboard, the 999 number is an example of what historians of technology call "path dependence" - which means that, although the initial reasons why it was adopted no longer apply (coin-operated telephones being virtually extinct), it carries on being used through the forces of habit and inertia. Unlike the MPs in 1937 who found the number so hilarious, we think of 999 instinctively - exactly what is needed in an emergency.


  1. Not sure that 999 alone bypassed the queues though.. My dad was was telephone engineer which meant I spent the odd 70s Saturday morning loitering in telephone exchanges before we went to the match. Whenever 999 was dialled a buzzer would sound and a red bulb would flash so that they could check that there was a line free.

    Enjoyed the book. Sadly all your publicity jaunts passed me by, I stumbled across it in a library.

  2. Thanks for the kind words about the book Andy - I wish some of the publicity jaunts had passed me by as well.

  3. i am looking an article - history by numbers, do you have any idea? thank you before.

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