In the '60s, your "wrong number" was likely the phone company's error

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Dial a phone number. Instead of the person you're trying to reach, a stranger picks up. After a moment of confusion, you blurt out "sorry, wrong number," and hang up. Was it your fault? In 1960s America, it might have been the phone company's error, but AT&T was happy to let you blame yourself.

In a fascinating piece for Pacific Standard, Kate Greene looks at the concept of "honest design," as compared to engineering meant to deceive human users. She speaks with Eytan Adar, a University of Michigan computer scientist who discovered how AT&T, which controlled the U.S. telephone system, maintained a facade of infallibility by never indicating when it made an error.

Adar says he became interested in deceptive technology when, as an undergraduate in computer science in the 1990s, he learned about the history of early telephone networks. In the 1960s, the hardware that comprised the byzantine switching systems of the first electronic phone networks would occasionally cause a misdial. Instead of revealing the mistake by disconnecting or playing an error message, engineers decided the least obtrusive way to handle these glitches was to allow the system to go ahead and patch the call through to the wrong number. Adar says most people just assumed the error was theirs, hung up, and redialed. "The illusion of an infallible phone system was preserved," he writes in the paper.


Emphasis added.

It's a chucklingly efficient way to handle errors: Just ignore 'em. The phone company got to keep working on connecting calls (however inaccurately), people assumed they'd mis-dialed, and everybody got on with their day. It's impossible to know how many wrong numbers were actually the phone company's fault, but if you were around back then, maybe you won't feel so bad about jangling the wrong person's telephone. Turns out, it may not have been your fault. [Pacific Standard]


Photo: Woman talking on the phone circa 1950s via Getty Images