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The U.S. Phone Nomenclature System as Applied to Dynamic Knowledge Repositories

A Recap of Bell Labs Research


Sheldon Brahms
Date: July 9, 2001
Modified: N/A

Now that Doug Engelbart’s Open Hyperdocument System project has begun to make progress towards an architecture for the data structures in the Dynamic Knowledge Repositories (DKR), we have started to address certain issues inherent in this progress. One of the most important of these is how the vast numbers of possible nodes could relate to the user in an intelligent and memorable fashion.

After much discussion among the core developers of the OHS project, a consensus concluded the following relating to node addressing. If one has an established alphanumeric naming convention for a given DKR (like the OAD) along with an intelligent mix of letters with the numbers, users will be able to remember hundreds of nodes in their own DKRs.

Similar conclusions were actually reached by researchers many years before during the building of the US telephone system, and this paper provides a brief recap of this work, and shows some of the implications and applications of it in actual practice with the phone nomenclature system. It is instructive to do this, and in order to avoid the "reinventing the wheel" syndrome, it is important to frame it in the context of previous work in this area. Then, we are able to reframe it in the context of what has been more recently learned about memory in subsequent years.

Our phone nomenclature system was originally systematized after much research on memory at Bell Labs (remember The Bell Telephone Company). The Bell researchers found that the optimum amount of easily remembered numbers was around 7, and that this was with the numbers in a 3/4 grouping. It was increased to 10 with the 3 digit area code prefix, figuring that the area code was seldom used anyway (at that time).

Also, most phone systems decades ago used a combination of letters and numbers in subscriber identification (phone numbers). It was common to see phone "exchanges" such as "Liberty 2" (LI 2) or Walnut 5 (WA 5). Instead of all numbers, a phone number would be expressed as WA 5-3491.

This gave a sing-song, almost rhythm or lilt to the way a phone number was said. Often, advertisers used this phenomenon in jingles, which were also very popular in years past. Phone numbers were sung along with the rest of the lyric for client identification, and it lent itself very well to memory. Businesses would pay extra for phone numbers that rhymed or otherwise went well with this effect.

It has only been in the past 25 years or so that all-numeric phone numbers have replaced the combination alpha-numeric system. Even then, it took many years to phase in the "new" system. Now, in some parts of the country, it is necessary to "dial" the area code as well as the 7 digit numeric sequence to get your connection, making a total of 10 numbers "dialed."

As with the term "dial," much of our nomenclature is inherited from times when the words actually meant something, as with the telephone dial, something which has all but disappeared, gone and forgotten. Still, even now, most telephones have a switch to select between tone and pulse "dialing," or switching.

And not to stray too far from the topic, the 7 digit standard was also incorporated into intelligence tests. For example, in the WAIS, or Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale, a very common and popular insrument, this was considered about "average" in the Digit Span subtest, and given a statistical weighting of such. Thus, the "average" person was one who could remember a telephone number.

Now, much has evolved from and been built onto this original work that gave us the basics for our phone system of today, work that has lasted for over 50 years. If we take some of the more current research in memory and add it to these existing systems, we should be able to develop nomenclaturing systems for Dynamic Knowledge Repositories that will hopefully have as lasting an impact, and allow users to gain maximum utility and control over their own DKRs. If our DKR naming conventions can mimic what is already known and comfortable to people, then the Open Hyperdocument System and DKRs will be seen as an extension to existing systems that can be readily grasped, as opposed to something more burdensome to be learned.

Please send comments to Sheldon Brahms

Keywords: Open Hyperdocument System, OHS, Bootstrap, Doug, Douglas, Engelbart, Augment, NLS
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