A Traditional Telephone Book

What Can You Learn From the Phone Book?

by Elaine Schwartz    •    Aug 5, 2012    •    665 Views

Among all of the innovations that changed our lives, have you ever thought about the phone book?

The first phone book dates back to 1878. Compiled by the the District Telephone Company of New Haven, soon to become SNET, the Southern New England Telephone Company, it had 50 names but no phone numbers because the first phones had no numbers. Its purpose was to list phone owners so that people knew with whom they could talk through a central switchboard. One early version of the phone book suggests saying “Hulloa” to start a conversation although Alexander Graham Bell preferred “ahoy.”

Reading about the phone book, I soon realized that it conveyed a lot about our economic history. Soon after New Haven, Connecticut, then San Francisco, New York City and Chicago printed the earliest phone books. During 1916, researchers were asked to figure out the best way to organize a phone book. Experimenting with 3 or 4 columns to a page, font size, indentations, they actually figured out a format that shortened number look-up time to 9.28 seconds. According to a 1954 edition of The Saturday Evening Post, the larger phone books, maybe 2000 pages, cost AT&T $1.50 to produce. And remember, millions were printed and delivered, they were in almost every home, and no one directly paid for a copy. Or, just skim through the 1979 Yellow Pages. You find, for example, plenty of listings that relate to the typewriter and none that say computers.

And that takes us to Joseph Schumpeter. Schumpeter characterized the unsettling process through which innovations replace established technology as creative destruction. The computer replaced typewriters. The auto eliminated the need for buggy whips. Because of CDs, 78 and 45 rpm records became obsolete. Stepping back, you can see that creative destruction fuels massive economic shifts, it eliminates existing jobs and it necessitates new kinds of labor and capital.

With the proliferation of cell phones, aren’t phone books undergoing creative destruction? Is anything replacing them?

And lastly, a painting contractor whose name was Bill Holland, hoping to be easily found, listed his name in the 1960s Los Angeles Yellow Pages as Zachary Zzzra.

My phone book facts are from Ammon Shea’s The Phone Book. And here is an interesting Washington Post article on the future of the phone book.

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