ARChives, ALÉsia, CARnot and ROQuette – in this day and age these names have a nostalgic and almost romantic ring to them. They are the now abandoned exchange codes once dialled daily by thousands of Parisian telephone users. Once an integral part of the telephone ethos of that city, they deserve a monument of their own before they are forgotten.

When the ever-increasing volume of telephone calls in Paris (also the growing cost per call and the rapidly diminishing supply of suitably qualified operators) made conversion to automatic working look inevitable, it was to the city with the world’s largest telephone population – New York – that the French administration looked for inspiration. London, under similar pressure at the same time, did the same thing.

For remarkably similar reasons, moreover, both Paris and London ended up rejecting America’s preferred switching process for many of its large metropolitan areas, the Panel system; in the event Paris opted for the Rotary system whilst London selected the Strowger Director system. Both European capitals did, however, adopt the same alpha-numeric subscriber numbering system adopted in New York, in which telephone users dialled first a three-letter alphabetic exchange code followed by a four-digit subscriber number, e.g. CENtral 1234 (Paris had initially considered a scheme using two letters and four numbers).

American  cities later modified this scheme from three letters and four digits to two letters and five digits (e.g. New York in 1930 and the other three cities from 1947-48) but Paris – and the six largest British cities – remained faithful to the original scheme right up until the introduction of all-figure numbers in the 1960s.[Subscribers in many of the larger French provincial cities dialed first one letter of the exchange name, later a few of them dialed the first two letters.]

Indeed Catherine Bertho, in her book Télégraphes et Téléphones de Valmy au Microprocesseur, suggests that Parisians needed to anchor themselves in the familiar geography of their city.  Each exchange name had its own particular characteristics, some of which had a lot to do with snobbery and social hierarchy. Whatever, it was considered  unthinkable to abandon these traditional designations, and making them an integral part of the new automatic system was ‘a symbolic operation of the highest significance’. Recourse to the most remarkable technical acrobatics was therefore preferable to abandoning the old names, she writes.

Initially it was not difficult to allocate codes which corresponded with localities, especially in the central area. In the suburbs the problem was greater, since a single exchange might serve half a dozen different communities.  Latterly, when most of the 'best' names had been used up, the choice was then more restricted and recourse had to be made to codes which had no geographic or other significance. Even these literary names caused headaches; those unfamiliar with their spelling frequently dialled the wrong letters.

Several exchange codes gave particular problems in use and some were in fact changed. BREteuil was frequently confused with AUTeuil and was replaced by BREtagne. MEDeric changed within two years to MEDicis, presumably because the second name was more well known. ROQuette and BLOmet caused problems when dialled by international operators in New York; their dials had no letter Q but dialling BLO (numerical digits 250) on an American dial would give 256, the code for ALMa.Certain exchange names were considered socially undesirable too, in particular ENTrepôt, PIGalle and BAGatelle, and customers were reluctant to have numbers on these exchanges. COPernic exchange (located in the same building as PASsy) closed in 1954 or 1955, for reasons unclear.

By the early 1960s it was considered that the lack of spare letter code combinations was restricting the telephone system’s capacity for growth in Paris and it was decided to abandon them in favour of all-figure numbers. Large cities in other countries were going through similar changes in numbering. In Paris the changeover took place on 1st October 1963, from which time all new subscribers were allotted all-figure numbers (tout en chiffres) and the letter codes were replaced on that date by their equivalent numeric codes.

Note that unlike in London, there was no wholesale alteration of exchange codes when all-figure numbering was brought in.  Later, on 25th October 1985, numbers in Paris and its suburbs were expanded to eight digits. Numbers in the Departement of Seine were prefixed with the digit 4, those in suburban departements nearby were prefixed with digit 3 or 6. To this day, the ghosts of many former exchange codes are still lurking in their numeric guise, although now prefixed with a 4. (Newer numbers in the Paris telephone area commence with other digits.)

Tabular information

Special cases

Informations Téléphonées. Noted in 1960 directory.

SOS. During the 1970s the numbers SOS 6969 and SOS 9999 were advertised as numbers for motorists to call if their car broke down.

Speaking Clock (Horloge Parlante). The Paris speaking clock was from its inception on ODÉon 8400. It was introduced in 1933, three years before that of London.

Note 1. A number of other French cities emplpoyed letter dialling, using single (and later twin) letter routing codes. Lyon had BUrdeau, MOncey and VIlleurbanne; Marseille had COlbert and PRado, Toulouse had CApitole and MAtabiau, and Dijon had D (this is not an exhaustive list).

Note 2. The code ROQuette was the only one in France using the letter Q and whilst this caused the French telephone system no problem (dials were equipped with the letter Q from the outset), it cost the British Post Office (BPO) a fortune! In advance of the introduction of international subscriber dialling to France, the British dials – on which the letter Q had never figured – had to be changed. Statistically the number of British telephone users wishing to call abonnés (subscribers) connected to ROQuette exchange must have been minute, yet the BPO in its wisdom decided that every dial must be changed. Work went ahead but was never completed in time, so a special note was added to dialling instructions that ROQuette could also be reached by dialling ROO.

Note 3. Unlike in Britain and the USA, the digit 0 was not reserved  for access to the Operator. This allowed the use of exchange codes commencing with the letter O, such as ODÉon, OPÉra and others. Calls to the Operator and similar services employed codes on the 1 level, namely

Note 4. After the abolition of alphabetic codes in Paris and elsewhere, letters were retained on dials and keypads of instruments supplied by the PTT and France Télécom, well into the 1980s.During that decade there were half-hearted attempts to reintroduce numbers that made words for promotional purposes; 06-ÉCOUTEUR used by a hearing aid company is one example. This idea did not take off, not least because many push-button phones from suppliers other than France Télécom no longer showed letters. Now the wheel has come full circle and most new telephones are again equipped with lettered keypads, but to the new ITU-T standard, which differs from the old arrangement in that letters O and Q have moved from their old place on digit 0. The letter O is now allied to 6, together with M and N, whilst Q has migrated to the digit 7, which it shares with P, R and S. Z has been added to WXY on 9 too.


Stan Swihart comments:

In spite of the flood of propaganda from the French PTT to this effect, I don't believe that the French PTT had come even close to running out of possible exchange names for Paris. There were lots of opportunities for excellent new names.Other names come to mind—this is the result of just a few minutes of compilation.Here are a few potential names that were never selected for telephone service, made up of more names of French writers, scientists, street or district names, church figures, military events or people, landmarks, sovereigns, etc.

Questions to be resolved

No research is ever complete and a number of issues remain to be resolved.

1.Were there any unpublished letter codes for service use, such as London’s TST for the engineers’ test desk (Table d’ Essais)? Or special codes for dialling into the private exchanges of government ministries or other large organisations? The US Army Western Base Section telephone dirtectory dated 2nd May 1946 lists an additional code BAC in the list of prefixes in use in Paris.

2. What were Informations Téléphonées? Was this a news service supplied by telephone?

3. Why was COPernic exchange closed?

4. All items in List 3 noted ‘Needs further information’.

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