More than a century ago, while the phone was still young, pranksters were already calling the morgue to ask for Mr. Stiff.

Mitch Wagner, Executive Editor, Light Reading

August 1, 2014

2 Min Read
A Brief History of the Prank Phone Call

Eight years after Alexander Graham Bell summoned Mr. Watson, someone was already using Mr. Bell's invention to prank their elders. 1884 was the first documented appearance of the prank phone call.

Electrical World magazine ran an article describing how a prankster in Providence, RI, was phoning undertakers "to bring freezers, candlesticks and coffins for persons alleged to be dead. In each case, the denouement was highly farcical, and the reputed corpses are now hunting in a lively matter for that telephonist."

Pranksters continued using the phone for mischief, calling the Bronx Zoo in New York for "Mr. Lyon," the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago for "Mr. B.O. Constrictor," and so on.

For decades, April Fools Day became a virtual New York holiday for inflicting these dummy calls on younger siblings and new office workers: on April 1st of 1928, the Bellevue Morgue recorded some 125 calls for Mr. Stiff, 73 calls for Mr. Coffin, and — rather more creatively — another 50 calls for Mr. Biers. The Aquarium was assailed by 2,646 April Fool calls in 1936; the Bronx Zoo got hit with 1,980 calls that same day for the likes of L.E. Fant and Mr. Behr.

Eventually the Bronx Zoo simply took to disconnecting its Wellington 3-5000 number every April 1st, forcing jokesters to resort to Mr. Bush at the New York Botanical Garden and Mr. Snow at the Weather Bureau. The situation was much the same around the country, though Chicago's zoo hit upon a more pugnacious response: phone operators set up a gramophone so that callers asking for Mr. Lyon were promptly hit with an ear-splitting roar through their handsets.

It's no joke -- find out what you need to know about modern services at Light Reading's services content channel.

Prank phone calls were still going strong a century later, but Caller ID struck the first death-blow in the 1990s.

Prank phone calls will remain alive as long as people continue to watch The Simpsons.

— Mitch Wagner, Circle me on Google+ Follow me on TwitterVisit my LinkedIn profileFollow me on Facebook, West Coast Bureau Chief, Light Reading. Got a tip about SDN or NFV? Send it to [email protected].

About the Author(s)

Mitch Wagner

Executive Editor, Light Reading

San Diego-based Mitch Wagner is many things. As well as being "our guy" on the West Coast (of the US, not Scotland, or anywhere else with indifferent meteorological conditions), he's a husband (to his wife), dissatisfied Democrat, American (so he could be President some day), nonobservant Jew, and science fiction fan. Not necessarily in that order.

He's also one half of a special duo, along with Minnie, who is the co-habitor of the West Coast Bureau and Light Reading's primary chewer of sticks, though she is not the only one on the team who regularly munches on bark.

Wagner, whose previous positions include Editor-in-Chief at Internet Evolution and Executive Editor at InformationWeek, will be responsible for tracking and reporting on developments in Silicon Valley and other US West Coast hotspots of communications technology innovation.

Beats: Software-defined networking (SDN), network functions virtualization (NFV), IP networking, and colored foods (such as 'green rice').

Subscribe and receive the latest news from the industry.
Join 62,000+ members. Yes it's completely free.

You May Also Like