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]

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mhhf1ve 8/6/2014 | 2:51:37 PM
It's interesting that prank calls don't seem to happen more and more with VoIP and free long distance calling And thankfully, robocall scripts are not readily in the hands of teenagers with too much free time...
Michelle 8/5/2014 | 10:53:19 PM
Re: Is your refrigerator running? Oh my! I suppose there really is nothing new under the sun...

People will do what they always do...always.
DHagar 8/5/2014 | 12:51:37 PM
Re: When Bart Calls Moe @Susan, excactly.  Supply meeting demand (i.e., business).
DHagar 8/5/2014 | 12:45:42 PM
Re: Innovative ways to misuse technology @Duh!  Thanks for further clarification.  I did get your point, but my answer may have been too brief.  My thinking is that the distinction of "utility" versus "social/economic" value applies not only to the supplier but the user as well.  If the goal is just utility, that is different than optimizing capacity, even from the user end with shared use.

Your points are good ones!
Duh! 8/5/2014 | 10:37:53 AM
RE: Innovative Ways to Mususe Technology DHagar,

You may have misunderstood my point.  In this context, "social optimization" means using shared resources in a cooperative fashion, so all users obtain the intended benefit.  "Individual (or selfish) optimization" means using shared resources for individual benefit, at the expense of all other users.

The signalling network is a shared resource. Excessive use of this individual optimization results in congestion and/or higher pricing to permit the operator to recover capital costs. Also see "tragedy of the commons". 
Susan Fourtané 8/5/2014 | 3:36:23 AM
Re: When Bart Calls Moe DHagar, 

Thanks. If telecom companies wouldn get enough profit from pre-paid SIM cards the service wouldn't exist in the first place. They are businesses, not charities. 

R Clark 8/4/2014 | 9:25:06 PM
Re: Is your refrigerator running? Back in the 19th century, the telegraph was a major platform for hooking up, games, porn, scams and pranks.   Who'd have thought?

DHagar 8/4/2014 | 1:32:13 PM
RE: Innovative Ways to Mususe Technology @Duh?  Good points.  There are real distinctions between a focus on utilization of capacity to generate revenues and creating social and/or commercial value.  It depends on which side of the coin you are on and what your goals are.
DHagar 8/4/2014 | 1:19:46 PM
Re: When Bart Calls Moe @Susan,

You have an excellent point about the profits of the telecomms!  I was thinking about the people who should be working spending their time placing prank calls.  I think your profit motive trumps the cost of other companies!
Duh! 8/4/2014 | 10:27:11 AM
Re: innovative ways to misuse technology "Unintended use", not "misuse".  Individual optimization, at the expense of social optimization. 

I vaguely remember similar discussions about this in ISDN signalling and SS#7 standardization.  If memory serves, it was solved by local ringtone generation, which made it difficult to signal by counting ring cycles.  This also was part of the motivation for SMS. 

If this is a serious problem, operators could consider plans that incent use of SMS for this purpose.
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