I remember watching movies with my mother years ago, as an adult, and smugly telling her something I’d only recently learned.


Emergency Numbers on a Swiss Telephone in the 1970s (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“You know the movies had to start using a “555-“ exchange because it isn’t real. People used to call the numbers they talk about in a movie or on tv. It bothered the customers whose phone numbers they really were, so movies started using 555- since those numbers don’t go to anyone.”

She had never heard this before, proof that you can indeed learn things from your kids.

When did movies and television shows start doing this?

It started in the 1960s, when telephone companies asked producers of television shows and movies to use a 555- exchange for unassigned phone numbers. The first movie to comply was the science fiction movie, “Panic in Year Zero,” released on July 5, 1962.

Even then, not all 555- numbers were unused. 555-1212, preceded by an area code, was the universal number for directory assistance in that area code, like the local 411, and 1-800-555-1212 was for assistance with 800 numbers.

In an odd technology quirk, customers in the 1970s in Washington, DC. could call a 555- number at the same time and talk to each other between error messages, a “party line” capability that also existed on the Michigan State campus when I was there in the late 60s for avoiding long-distance charges.

You might have thought people would have gotten out of the habit of calling movie numbers after 40 years. But, in 2003, when the movie, Bruce Almighty, starring Jim Carey, used 776-2323 as the number to call to reach God, the real owners of the number in various area codes were called. The number was changed to a 555-exchange in the next release.

Now, 555-0100 through 555-0199 are unassigned numbers, reserved for films, movies, books and games and the rest are assigned.


Carol Covin, Granny-Guru

Author, “Who Gets to Name Grandma? The Wisdom of Mothers and Grandmothers


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