Matt: Hi I’m Matt,
Tom: and I’m Tom, Matt: and this is the park bench,
Tom: actually out in a park again. And someone’s drawn a cock and balls on the path behind us. Allow me to just show you here that our normal bench has been desecrated with A well-placed but extremely well-drawn cock and balls. We’re sitting this way, so I don’t know what that says about… A couple weeks ago, we were talking about… What were we talking about that spawned this? Matt: Oh, people were ringing us.
Tom: Yes. And I got a couple of messages asking if I could explain British phone numbers. Because I used to do those rants on Computerphile about time zones and things like that. And I threatened to do one about British phone numbers and a couple people said I should. And I’d say probably at least a third of the watchers of the Park Bench aren’t from the UK, so Tom: Yes, and…
Matt: don’t understand our number groupings in the same way we don’t understand yours. I mean, to be fair, most of Britain doesn’t understand how UK phone numbers work, and that’s a problem. Matt: Yeah.
Tom: I thought I was gonna have a long rant about this. I thought I was going to insult the engineers at the post office, as it was, and then British Telecom after them,
and then Ofcom after them, But then I actually did the research for this rather than just doing an incoherent rant. I actually looked this up, and look, I have prepared notes. It’s gone serious. Yeah, apologies. I’m going to be doing a lot of talking here. Oh, look at you in your branded YouTube notepad that’s the same color as your t-shirt. Um, yeah, this is— Oh, that’s bright. Okay, so, we’re sitting with our backs to the sun, and this is a heliograph. I could signal passing planes with this. I have never heard that word before. You know and someone like gets— Planes. No, heliographs. I’m sorry; that was perfect. I will handshake on that. You set that up perfectly. I got a word into the description, and you just— Well done. It’s using a mirror to signal with the sun. Matt: Oh, that thing. Cool.
Tom: Yes. I did the research Back in the old days… So first of all, UK phone numbers are a mess. Okay? Our area codes can be three-digits-long or four-digits-long or five-digits-long or six-digits-long, and the local number can have five digits or six digits or seven digits or eight digits. This is not great. So most people would probably assume it’s a five-digit area code and then two threes in most circumstances. Yeah, in most cases certainly for all mobile phones—everything like that—five and then six which is meant to be the standard. So back in the old days… So what I’m going to do is as I run through my notes and I actually… “Old days.” [strikes off list] There was a famous phone number: Whitehall 1212, which was Scotland Yard’s phone number. If you wanted to call the London Metropolitan Police… It was well-known. To this day, the last four digits of their phone number are 1212. Matt: Aw.
Tom: Yeah, nice bit of tradition, and to reach that you would actually have to pick up the phone and talk to an operator who would connect you to the Whitehall exchange and then you’d be able to get through to 1212. And then, in the… whenever—I didn’t write that down… Was that number picked by a sound engineer? 1212. Nice. No. But if you mean, “Was it picked by an engineer who was quite sound,” probably. Matt: Sound engineer.
Tom: Yeah, not a sound engineer, a sound engineer. It’s like a camp bed, just… Let me introduce something called “Subscriber Trunk Dialing.” Wait. Did they call it “STD”? Yes, they called it “S”— Well, they called it “STD,” which… I mean, back then, STDs were called “VDs,” so it was fine to do this, Matt: Okay.
Tom: but yeah. So everyone wanted STDs back then. Yeah, basically, you could just call up and— So having STD all over you was a Matt: good idea.
Tom: Yeah, having STD meant that you were— [At this point, Tom made a joke so painfully unfunny that it’s been removed entirely from the video.] So Subscriber Trunk Dialing meant that you dialed a zero, and that meant you are going out to the national exchange and you’re going to put an exchange number in, not a local number, Matt: Okay.
Tom: and that zero became part of our area codes, so the first thing we dial— All British phone numbers start with a zero. Unlike a lot of countries where you just get the area code, and if you want to dial out, you just dial one or something before it. Our area code traditionally include the zero because it’s easier. And the engineers— Again, I used to rant about this, but now, I think they’re actually pretty clever because it turned out they use prefix codes. So you know I talked about the national dialing codes, where +1 means, “That’s the end of the code; there won’t be anything after that.” Matt: Yeah.
Tom: Like we have +44 for Britain, so there will never be a +441 area code. Tom: You know it ends there.
Matt: Oh really?
Tom: Yeah. +441 international code. Because it’s a prefix, so it only goes off what’s at the beginning, Matt: And if there’s anything after it, then…
Tom: Yeah, it’s got to be a local one. So that means you can have a one-digit, two-digit, three-digit—it doesn’t matter—they will never be ambiguous. And it turns out they did the same thing here. They gave London 01. Whole of London just gets the code 1, basically. Then five big cities—Birmingham, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Liverpool, Manchester—they gave two through six. So 021, 031, 041, 051, 061. And I didn’t realize this until what literally on the way here as I was looking at this that Birmingham, B, 2; Edinburgh, E, 3; like the old code, the letters that were written on the numbers—they all match up. Matt: Huh.
Tom: Whoever worked that out, congra— Like, someone back in history went, “Wait, I’ve got five cities, they all map to these— That’s how we’re doing it, folks.” Great plan. So now we’ve already got London two digits and big cities three digits. The rest of the country—all the towns and all the smaller cities—got four-digit codes. Yeah, and those numbers reflect the numbers on the key buds as well Tom: Yes.
so you start typing the name of it so like, I’m from York, so that used to be 0904, so Tom: Yes that’s Y and O, because O was 0
Matt: Y, O Oh, I see they’ve run out Matt: of numbers then.
Tom: Yeah. Yeah, the same way Mansfield where I used to come from was MA3, or something like that. 0623. And this was fine, and then the local exchanges could have five digits or six digits or seven-digit numbers depending on how much demand there was and they thought there’d be, and this was, in its fairness, a pretty good system. And I realize now, having done the research, all this is a great system as long as you don’t expect your dialing code or your number to be a certain number of digits. Tom: As soon as you forget that, the whole system makes sense.
Matt: Right. So. [dramatically crosses off list] Oh, the other thing I forgot to mention, the other reason they will have done big cities with small codes is because back then, you had rotary dials, so you had to literally [rotary dial noises] Tom: and wait for it to go back on those old…
Matt: And all the dialing codes that have got the most population Matt: have got shorter…
Tom: Yep! Shorter codes. I think the American system is the same, actually. Tom: Uh…
Matt: I think I read that. I thought it was left-to-right or right— [Matt and Tom are both wrong during this entire section.]
You infected me with west-to-east stuff. [Matt and Tom are both wrong during this entire section.] [Here, Tom is thinking of US zip codes.]
I thought it was east-to-west, 01 to 09, [Here, Tom is thinking of US zip codes.]
but I might be getting confused with zip codes. [The North American Numbering Plan is actually really complicated.]
I might be getting confused. [The North American Numbering Plan is actually really complicated.]
I think I read somewhere that new York’s got Matt: like 023 or something like that.
Tom: We’re going to get corrected there.
Tom: Yeah. Anyway, they hit in 1990 the same problem that America hit which is that they were running out of numbers. Matt: Yeah
Tom: There are codes that were getting full. Unlike America, they’re all geographic, so America solved this by allowing the same region to have two or three or four or five area codes, Matt: Oh okay.
Tom: completely unrelated to each other. Matt: That’s one way of sorting it.
Tom: That’s one way of sorting it, yes. We did not do that. First problem: London’s full, and they’ve got the number 01, So they can’t really do much to that. So they split it: Inner london is now 071 outer London is now 081. Matt: Oh okay, yeah.
Tom: Alright, that’s fine. And that way, there’s no ambiguity. If you dial 01 because it was the prefix code, you know that you haven’t dialed correctly. You just disconnect the call; the number must’ve changed. Matt: Okay.
Tom: This is really clever— I meant to rant about this; this may be an angry rant. And then I just kept going, “Oh, that’s actually a really clever hack.” Tom: “Oh, I see what you did there.”
Matt: ‘Cause it’s funny: After we mentioned it last time we had a chat about it and were both complaining, but you seem to have found some things that have allayed a lot of our complaints. Tom: Yes,
Tom: And then the ’90s there are also— “Okay, so there are these weird things called mobile phones now, so we’ll set aside a different code for them. That’ll be 0-whatever. 083-something or whatever, but we won’t need many of these, so it won’t really be a problem.” Ahem. [strikes off list] 1995 comes along; it’s starting to be a problem. Tom: Do you remember the phone day back in 1995.
Matt: Yes, and in fact I saw someone posted on the social network—someone I work with found a BT phonecard, Matt: which you would top up and used to pay,
Tom: Oh, God, an actual payphone card.
Matt: Yeah. Matt: that had an advert for PhONEday,
Tom: Yeah and it spelled phone but with “ONE” in capital letters Matt: in the middle of “PhONEday.”
Tom: Yes, because the idea was everyone’s landline across the country was going to change from 0-something—0623, as Mansfield was— Matt: 0904 for York.
Tom: to 01. Matt: So 01904.
Tom: We were getting an extra digit added in there, and Again, I keep looking at this and going, “Oh, that’s a really clever plan.” Because you’ve suddenly multiplied by ten the number of area codes available. All the landlines are now bumped under 01. Oh, I suppose and you said London was 081, so that’s where Live and Kicking got 01818118181 from. Yep, so it used to be 081; then, it was 0181-etc., yeah. Tom: That’s a very British [something] reference.
Matt: Does that mean going live, it had 081, Matt: and Live and Kicking had 0181.
Tom: Yes, they did. I don’t think the change perfectly matched, but basically, yeah. Tom: Yeah, that was…
Matt: Kids, Saturday morning TV.
Tom: Saturday morning shows. That also meant that if everyone’s landlines— Matt: Sorry, just imagine anyone ringing a TV show now.
Tom: Right, yeah. Matt: I don’t think that really happens, does it?
Tom: Eh. 01: Landlines. That means everyone’s landline now starts 01. They’ve also reserved 02 for future codes. That means that 03 can be “non-geographic stuff,” they originally called it. It’s like all the things where you want a company to be able to Tom: reach wherever.
Tom: Yeah. So, 03. 04—there’s some technical stuff in the other numbers. 07 can be all the mobile phones and pagers and personal numbers and things like that. All the stuff that’s expensive, of course, has got a radio thing in it. America, because they stayed geographic, even their cell phones are geographic. Matt: Oh really?
Tom: Yeah. So if you’re in America, you can’t tell if a number is a mobile or a landline. Which is why you pay for incoming calls on mobiles in America. Tom: Or they get—
Tom: Yeah. No, I’ve seen it on taxes. I had a SIM card… Matt: I thought that was bloody stupid because you have no idea if someone’s going to ring you
Tom: Yeah. Matt: or why they’re ringing you
Matt: and it’s not your fault, Matt: so if it’s not your fault you shouldn’t pay for it.
Tom: Yes. Yeah, Britain? Caller pays, always, and pays a different fee depending on what you’re calling. Matt: Because you’re the one instigating it; it’s your fault.
Tom: But if it’s a geographic number, the caller has no idea whether they’re ringing a landline or a mobile. Tom: So they can’t be expected to—
Matt: Does that mean it doesn’t know how to charge them as well? Yeah, it’s just, “Oh right, that’s how many minutes they’ve been on a phone and had the connection open,” so they have to have caller pays. Tom: Right.
Matt: That’s messy.
Tom: Yes, it is. Then they kept 08 for special phone numbers, everything free phone up to national… That’s a whole, confusing mess I won’t get in to, but 08’s that. 09: Premium rate numbers. You’re paying a huge amount. Tom: But this, this again—
Matt: Special services. Yes. [crosses off list] Like calling into TV channels that will just— Matt: You know how we just said that people don’t call into TV channels anymore?
Tom: Yeah. Matt: I wonder if people do still call into those TV channels.
Tom: Probably. So this will be a great solution, except there are also small cities running out of numbers. So there were some cities where they went, “Okay, you guys—like Nottingham, near me— Tom: you’re not going to go 0602 to 01602—
Matt: Oh, is this why you’ve got 0113 for Leeds Matt: and 0114 for Bristol?
Tom: Yeah, and 0115 for Nottingham Except, they change it to a four-digit code, and then, because they needed more numbers in the area, they said, “We’re going to extend all the local numbers and put a nine before them all.” Tom: So it’s all going to be 0115 for Nottingham and then 9, or 2 in some other regions or something like that.
Matt: Okay. The idea was fine. You’re not going to five digits. You’re not going to do that. You’re going to stay on four digits, and we’re going to extend that bit instead, unlike the rest of the country. No one—okay, very very few people—actually understood that. Even now, literally twenty-two years later, you will still see signs up in Nottingham that proclaim the area code to be 01159. Five digits, because everywhere else in the country’s got five digits, so of course they do as well. Matt: It’s the same in London, isn’t it
Tom: Yeah, you can see what they were doing because they were like, “Cool, Nottingham, you’re going to get to be like London. You’re going to have a four-digit code like 0181. It’s going to be like that. It’s going to be 01185. You’re a big city; you get to be like London and Manchester and— Oh god, you’ve screwed it up.” Matt: But then London is 020.
Tom: Yeah, that came later.
Matt: Yeah. Yeah, so then London ran out of numbers again, so they just decided, “We’re going to start some 02 codes now, and you know how we’ve already changed your area code twice London? Well we’re doing it again!” But they’ve kept the original eight. Matt: and seven.
Tom: Yeah, so now they drop London down from a four-digit code to a three-digit code again: 020, move the seven and the eight to the start of there, so now you’ve got eight-digit numbers. Tom: So that’s no good because now London thinks it’s 0207 and 0208.
Matt: The London area code is 020
Matt: and then four then four digits, Tom: Yeah.
Matt: rather than 0208 or 0207. Tom: Yeah.
Matt: That’s not part of the area code.
Tom: No! And now it’s even messier because they’ve done that to a few other cities. They’ve done that to Cardiff, and they’ve gone, “No, you haven’t got a five-digit code anymore. Tom: You’re going to get to be like London; you’ve got a—
Matt: 023 on there or something.
Tom: Yeah, you’ve got a three-digit code.” No one—literally— You still see 023-whatever-it-is—five digits—as the area code in Cardiff. And basically, if you’re a person trying to write down or read out a British phone number, Matt: unless you know all of these things, you don’t know how to group it properly.
Tom: Yeah. Tom: Yeah.
Matt: Which means if it’s someone like us who basically does know most of them, Matt: and you’re trying to understand what they’re telling you,
Tom: Yes. it’s really hard to understand what they’re telling you if they say, “02087—” “Wha— Wait, start again and group it properly. Otherwise, I can’t understand what you’re telling me.” Okay, so, this was going to be an angry rant because that feels like… This was going to the rant about how you plan way, way ahead for the future for systems like this, and you have to try it— Like, what would have been useful is one Tom: massively, everyone-changes thing in—
Matt: But you. No, you— Stop take-thatting me. Admittedly, I was going to say, “In the ’90s,” so that’s fair. Tom: That was Everything Changes “Take That,” wasn’t it?
Tom: Okay. That would have been good; they couldn’t do that. But every bit of this going on is clever. Tom: I may not think it’s the right thing to do, but every single thing is clever.
Matt: And each step they have planned for the future. Tom: Yeah, ’cause—
Matt: They just haven’t planned for the amount of expansion in the future. Yeah, ’cause London now has 0203 numbers. The reason they picked three as the extra one— that’s in the eight digits, not in the area code—the reason they did that is because [Tom got this the wrong way round. While there was 01203, it changed to 024 and thus if people thought “020 3” was an old “01203”number and tried to dial it, it wouldn’t work and oh no I’ve gone cross-eyed.]
there was never an old 0203 code. [Tom got this the wrong way round. While there was 01203, it changed to 024 and thus if people thought “020 3” was an old “01203”number and tried to dial it, it wouldn’t work and oh no I’ve gone cross-eyed.]
Tom: So years ago, back when that was the normal four digits, [Tom got this the wrong way round. While there was 01203, it changed to 024 and thus if people thought “020 3” was an old “01203”number and tried to dial it, it wouldn’t work and oh no I’ve gone cross-eyed.]
Tom: They now— Oh, hello. There’s a dog there.
Matt: Hello! Hello there! [Tom got this the wrong way round. While there was 01203, it changed to 024 and thus if people thought “020 3” was an old “01203”number and tried to dial it, it wouldn’t work and oh no I’ve gone cross-eyed.]
Bye-bye, dog. [Tom got this the wrong way round. While there was 01203, it changed to 024 and thus if people thought “020 3” was an old “01203”number and tried to dial it, it wouldn’t work and oh no I’ve gone cross-eyed.]
They knew it was going to be ambiguous, so stuff from literally twenty-five years ago… [Tom got this the wrong way round. While there was 01203, it changed to 024 and thus if people thought “020 3” was an old “01203”number and tried to dial it, it wouldn’t work and oh no I’ve gone cross-eyed.]
You wouldn’t dial a number that was on a thing from twenty-five years ago and get the wrong number in London. Tom: There’s a load of really clever stuff in here.
Matt: So you can’t back-convert it and think it’s somewhere else.
Matt: Oh, that’s clever. So all this makes sense—all this makes perfect sense if you accept that British area codes are numbers, do not have a fixed length, never will—the area code might be three, four, five, or six—the number of digits in the local area might be five, six, seven, or eight—it might be anything. Just dial the whole thing because everyone does that with cell phones now anyway, because no one does a goddamn number. Tom: They just punch a button in their phone, and it does the dialing for them.
Matt: Oh, yeah, you can’t dial just the local number; you don’t get charged. You need to type the whole thing in.
Tom: Yep. There you go: That’s the phone number rant. Tom: What do you want to rant about?
Tom: Don’t answer that; it’s going to be me.