Logic, But Not As We Know It

Star Trek’s Spock was never shy in pointing out illogical decisions made by his erratically human Captain Kirk. But one of the disadvantages of union with England is that we Scots have to thole their batty quirkiness when it comes to inventing numeric systems.

Take telephone numbers. Pretty much every country started off with local numbers 2 or 3 digits long, connected manually by the eavesdropping Mrs Busybody who kept the village abreast of gossip. This didn’t work in cities, so they elongated things to five digits and added on a couple of letters for the local exchange (e.g. MAyfair 23456). Eventually electronics advanced enough to detect what number was being dialled and Subscriber Trunk Dialling allowed people to phone all over the country by starting the number with ‘0’. The GPO (as was) system gave the main cities codes (01 = London; 021 = Birmingham; 031 = Edinburgh; 041 = Glasgow, etc) but everywhere else simply had its name translated on the phone dial. As a result, ABerdeen (nowhere near Birmingham) became 022 and BOurnemouth (nowhere near either) became 020. Village numbers had ‘filler’ numbers added but not all to the full 10 digits—some were as short as 8.

But it worked, even if a phone number gave little clue to its location. Then BT (as it had become) ran out of numbers in London. Instead of inventing a better system, it patched the old, scrapping 01 and splitting London into inner (071) and outer (081). This patch held less than 20 years before they were back, making London 02 plus eight digits and everywhere else add a ‘1’ so that Edinburgh became 0131, etc. The disruption to business was huge and any logic to numbering made even more obscure.

Why am I being so critical? Well the North American system (not just US–it includes Canada) worked out early on (1930s) that a ten-digit system would be required and applied it to all phones. The first three digits were an area code, originally for a city or state: 603 is New Hampshire; 605 is South Dakota. As cities grew, new area codes were inserted–San Francisco’s 415 once covered the Bay Area but the Peninsula became 408 and the East Bay 510 (which has in turn split to form 925). It’s simple, it works and–most importantly–change disrupts business only in the new area code. US business would never have allowed AT&T to fob off anything as clumsy and inefficient as BT did here.

And, lest we think this an isolated case of UK ineptitude, consider our car licence plate ‘system’. It used to be 2 letters and 4 digits, with the letters indicating the county of registration. Quaint. Then they added a third letter for more numbers; then a final letter that indicated year (‘A’ = 1961); then they ran out of letters and reversed the order…and ran out again. Ten years ago they changed to 2 letters (see above), then two numbers that are either the year or the year + 5, then four more digits. If you wanted an illogical pig’s breakfast, this is hard to beat.

Contrast the Germans. They register by location too. But the big cities have a single letter (M = Muenchen; H = Hamburg, etc) and then up to seven digits. Smaller cities have two letters (PA = Passau; KO = Koblenz) and towns large enough for car registration have three (FFB = Furstenfeldbruck) but their number of digits reduced to six and five. The logic is inescapable—efficient use of eight digits = Vorsprung durch Logik.

Whereas the US will use the same dialling code and Germans the same car registration system indefinitely, can someone please find some positive argument why we should stay in this union and thole more half-baked havers from pencil-necks down South?

About davidsberry

Local councillor, tour guide and database designer. Keen on wildlife, history, boats and music. Stood for the Scottish Parliament 2011; lost by 151 votes.
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