A Brief History of Crank Calls & 0898 Numbers

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800px-Alt_TelefonFrom the moment when the first caveman held a seashell up to his ear and heard the ocean and then another caveman came along and smashed him over the head with a rock and screamed ‘LOSER’ at his inert body, people have been using and misusing communication devices. Whether it’s insulting Morse code, bad walkie-talkie etiquette or erotic semaphore, as soon as technology was introduced to help in the transmission of messages, we found a way to desecrate them for amusement or menace. Here is a brief run-down of the main methods of telephone abasement and where they appear in the history of communicating.


Though the early history of the telephone and the pioneers behind its development is hotly disputed, we do know that on the 10th March 1876, Alexander Graham Bell used his patented device and a liquid transmitter for the first time, uttering the words, ‘Mr Watson, come here, I want to see you’. This was in fact also the first instance of a ‘crank’ or ‘nuisance’ call. Bell had been goading Watson all morning, using various methods to call him into his office only to then throw a heavy book at him. To Bell, this was the height of hilarity. After sending notes, shouting, scrawling on household pets and use of an Aldis lamp, it is thought that Bell actually accelerated the development of his telephone merely to further annoy his assistant.

Alexander_Graham_Telephone_in_NewyorkFIRST DIRTY PHONE CALL

This also occurred on 10th March 1876, just a few minutes after the initial message. After summoning Watson once more with the message ‘Look, just come in, I promise I won’t throw a book at you’ and yet again throwing a book at him, and once his laughter had died down, Bell called Watson once again. His next recorded message was ‘Can you stick Mrs Watson on’. Reluctantly, Watson passed the receiver to his beloved Martha. What Bell said next was never documented, but Martha turned a ghostly white and swooned into a nearby Ottoman. Watson took the device only to hear giggling from Bell followed by the dial tone. The first instance of someone deliberately hanging up on a telephonic correspondent.


Remarkably, this was also on that same day in 1876. While fanning his wife on a banquette, the telephone activated once more. With trepidation, Watson lifted the receiver to hear Bell bark at him ‘So, do you want to buy one of these things or what?’ Bell was known for his swift and blunt changes of mood. Watson was slightly perplexed as he assumed he’d get one for free, as he had helped so much with its development to which Bell responded, ‘Yeah right, do you think I’ve got ‘mug’ written across my forehead. Now pay your phone bill or I’ll send the boys round’.

640px-ChampaignCountyHistoricalMuseum_20080301_4271FIRST PHONE TAP

Once again, this occurred in the Bell laboratory, a few days after the initial burst of phone activity. After Mrs Watson had recovered from her swooning, she found she rather enjoyed Bell’s telephonic intentions and would sneak away from her husband during the night and conduct unsavoury conversations with the inventor, who was in the next room. Watson’s suspicions grew and he decided to intercept their calls. As the two correspondents were just a few feet apart he was able to do this by ‘standing’ and ‘listening’. He disguised his angry grumblings and muttered curses by running a tap in the nearby science sink, which is where ‘phone tapping’ gets its name. The story does have a happy ending though,  as Watson soon discovered that he enjoyed covertly listening in to his wife’s indelicacies as much as she enjoyed conducting them.


Bell’s device soon took the world by storm. At first it was only the very wealthy who could afford to have a telephone in their home. But soon cheaper versions were mass produced. Once a small network of users had developed, the first commercial opportunities for the telephone were established. One of the earliest of these was 1-800-ANKLES, where Victorian gentleman could call an operator who would then describe uncovered chair legs and other permissive items of furniture. The earliest form of the Vice Squad had to be founded for the sole reason of raiding the premises that were conduction this operation.


The first device that could successfully record telephone conversations was invented in 1898 by Danish engineer Vlademar Poulsen. He found that he was so busy trying to develop telephonic devices that he kept missing important calls. Out of frustration he created the answering machine, then returned to be the lab and continued his fruitless search for the next big thing in communication. On a particularly bleak Danish day, Poulsen, frustrated and drunk on a Scandinavian beverage known as Glogg, recorded an outgoing message as follows: ‘To be or not to be? Hey just like Hamet, I guess it’s the second one, as I’m not in right now, see leave a message after the krone… I mean tone!’ The message was a huge hit with people constantly calling Poulsen’s phone just to hear it. Now Poulsen is considered the father of both the answering machine and Danish comedy.

640px-Motorola_L7FIRST SEXT

Though cellular phone devices are a modern development, people have been using non-speech based communication systems for the purposes of eroticism for centuries. Examples of smutty telegraphs, dirty smoke signals, indecent Morse code and pornographic Braille clutter up museums dedicated to the science. To increase business productivity, the Telex rose in popularity during the 40’s and 50’s, quickly followed by the Fax machine. Almost immediately both were used to send descriptions or poorly rendered drawings of body parts to  ungrateful recipients. Soon the notion of text based communication on cellular phones was developed and the  first ever SMS message was sent in 1992. Reading ‘Merry Christmas’ it was sent by a young engineer to a colleague. The second, sent a few seconds later said: ‘Show us your baubles’. This is considered the first Sext. He was given a written warning for his indiscretion.