The Problem with Seven Eights

Steve Wozniak, pictured above, co-founded Apple Computer in the 1970s with Steve Jobs. Woz, as the less-famous Steve is often called, was the more technical of the duo; he’s credited with being the primary design lead for the Apple II. And as he’d be the first to tell you, he loves numbers. (Earlier this year, he tweeted “I love number games” and that if Silicon Valley Comic Con’s Twitter account reached 3,313 followers, “we’ll give away 3 3-day passes to 13 new followers” and noted that those were “all prime numbers.” I’m still trying to figure out if they hit that mark in time.)

How does a rich tech mobile turn his love of numbers into a hobby? By collecting phone numbers.

But when he finally got the one he wanted, he couldn’t do much with it.

It should go without saying that the holy grail of phone number is the all-one-digital number. Not only is it cool (in a nerdy kind of way) but it’s also very easy to remember, as many 800-number owners surely know. For Woz, this was a lifelong quest. As he explained in his autobiography, iWoz, he had a lot of really great phone numbers — 255-6666, 353-3333, 354-4444, and more. But he wasn’t satisfied; he wrote in his book “my main goal with phone numbers was to someday get a number with all seven digits the same.”

What prevented him from doing so was the first three numbers, also known as the prefix. Those were assigned by town at the time (and often still are). Few if any places have 111 or 999, and 555 is typically reserved for non-public use. The good news for Woz was that the 777 prefix was a San Francisco one; the bad news is that he lived in nearby San Jose at the time, and San Jose lacked the trifecta. (Woz’s desire to get a special phone number apparently had its limits; he wasn’t willing to move to San Fran.) The dream was delayed.

But it was not over. At some point thereafter, San Jose received the prefix 888. Woz, per Wired, “after more months of scheming and waiting,” obtained 888-8888. “This was his new cell-phone number, and his greatest philonumerical triumph,” Wired proclaimed.

The triumph, though, was short-lived. Before ten-digit dialing was commonly required, you could call someone without using the area code. If you were in area code 347, for example, and you dialed 234-5326, you’d be connected to (347) 234-5326 despite the fact that you never entered the digits 347. So if you were in Woz’s area code and hit 888-8888, you’d ring his cell. And the ease of that number was a double-edged sword. Woz, in his autobiography, explained:

I put the number 888-8888 on my own cell phone, but something went wrong. I would get a hundred calls a day with no one on the other line, not once. Sometimes I would hear shuffling sounds in the background. I would yell, whistle, but I could never get anyone to speak to me. Very often I would hear a tone being repeated over and over.

A lot of prank calls? Kind of. Again per Wired, “one day, with the phone pressed to his ear, Woz heard a woman say, at a distance, ‘Hey, what are you doing with that?'” And then, the phone was slammed down. The person dialing his number, Woz concluded, was a baby. The little kids simply loved making the phone go beep beep, beep beep.

Woz calculated (how, exactly, is unclear) that as many as one-third of all babies in the area code would eventually call his number. That may be a gross over-estimate, but regardless; his coveted 888-8888 number, he concluded, was simply unusable.

Bonus fact: Woz dropped out of college when he co-founded Apple. In the 1980s, he re-enrolled at UC Berkeley to complete his electrical engineering degree. But when he did, he didn’t use his real name, hoping to maintain some anonymity. Instead, he used the name “Rocky Raccoon Clark,” the first two words being his dog’s name and “Clark” being his wife’s maiden name. And he used the alias all the way through; as the Los Angeles Times reported, “while his real name appears in the university records, he has opted for Rocky Clark on his diploma.”

From the Archives: The 411 on Area Codes: Why New York City’s original one was 212 and Los Angeles got 213, despite the fact that they’re hardly neighbors.