Tech. Science. Culture.
We may earn a commission from links on this page

Beeper Code: The Caveman Days of Text Messaging

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

In 1999, 45 million Americans had pagers. They were an equal-opportunity technology, owned by drug dealers, whores, doctors and CEOs—and new college students whose parents couldn't drop the leash. At least there was the code.

Saddled as I was with my beeper, I did what I could to avoid actually picking up the phone. For Christmas my mom gave me a few rolls of quarters: a reminder that when she paged me, I was supposed to call her back. Most of my paging, however, was sending numerical messages to my friend Sarah.

My pager was green! Hers was pink! We were so very cool. This number-to-word conversion we became addicted to will probably go down as only a very minor footnote in turn-of-this-century communication, but, for kids who'd never known from text messaging and hardly used email, the idea that I could send her any kind of message and she'd get it instantly—that was pretty darn huge.


Some of our codes were super private so I can't share them, but others were standard: 411 for information, 911 for emergency, 143 to symbolized the number of letters in each word of the phrase "I love you."

There was also an accepted system of sending numbers so that, when written together, looked vaguely like letters. We'd grown up getting adults to spell "BOOBLESS" on calculators by typing in the elements of a story about Dolly Parton and then holding the calculator upside down. (Her bra size was 69 and that was 2, 2, 2 big. So, she took 51 diet pills and went to see Dr. X eight times. Now she's... 55378008.) From there, it was an easy jump to many other words. Hello was 07734. That was one of the easiest one. We said "Hello" a lot. Bitch? Why that was 81764, naturally. There were so many, it became necessary to have beeper-code dictionaries, or at least, a basic decoder.


Now, Sarah and I text using actual words written using actual letters. Boring.

Anna Jane Grossman will be with us for the next few weeks, documenting life in the early aughts, and how it differs from today. The author of Obsolete: An Encyclopedia of Once-Common Things Passing Us By (Abrams Image) and the creator of, she has also written for dozens of publications, including the New York Times,, the Associated Press, Elle and the Huffington Post, as well as Gizmodo. She has a complicated relationship with technology, but she does have an eponymous website: Follow her on Twitter at @AnnaJane.