I found this 1995 email exchange in the MIT archives of the TELECOM Digest between Bell Labs engineer Ralph Carlsen (patents) and Patrick Townson, the editor of the digest. The TELECOM Digest is the “oldest continuing e-journal about telecommunications on the Internet, having been founded in August, 1981 and published continuously since then.”
Given the obscurity of that resource, I wanted to bring some attention to it — especially after this story was covered on the 99% Invisible podcast by Roman Mars and Avery Trufelman back in 2014 (“Octothorpe”) and then reprised in 2018 (“Interrobang”).
Don MacPherson was a Bell Labs supervisor and colleague of Ralph Carlsen who trained customers in use of AT&T’s new telephone systems, which included the # and * symbols, and therefore helped to socialize the term.
I’ve added a few links for those curious about the historical context and technologies and devices mentioned.
From: firstname.lastname@example.org (Ralph Carlsen)
Date: Tue, 28 Nov 1995 16:21:55 -0500
Subject: Octothorpe (The Answer)
The following explains where “octothorpe” really came from. I am sending this to you because, as you will see, there are very few people who could know this story. The reason I am writing at this time is because I volunteered for the AT&T Lay Off package after 34 years of service at Bell Labs so I may not be around much longer. During the past year I have enjoyed reading your news group, and I have used your archives a couple of times (once to get “octothorpe”). Your comments and notes on the postings suggest you and I would agree on lots of things related to our telecom industry.
THE REAL SOURCE OF THE WORD “OCTOTHORPE”
First, where did the symbols * and # come from? In about 1961 when DTMF¹ dials were still in development, two Bell Labs guys in data communications engineering (Link Rice and Jack Soderberg) toured the USA talking to people who were thinking about telephone access to computers. They asked about possible applications, and what symbols should be used on two keys that would be used exclusively for data applications. The primary result was that the symbols should be something available on all standard typewriter keyboards. The * and # were selected as a result of this study, and people did not expect to use those keys for voice services. The Bell System in those days did not look internationally to see if this was a good choice for foreign countries.
Then in the early 1960s Bell Labs developed the 101 ESS which was the first stored program controlled switching system (it was a PBX²). One of the first installations was at the Mayo Clinic. This PBX had lots of modern features (Call Forwarding, Speed Calling, Directed Call Pickup, etc.), some of which were activated by using the # sign. A Bell Labs supervisor DON MACPHERSON (ibid) went to the Mayo Clinic just before cut over to train the doctors and staff on how to use the new features on this state of the art switching system. During one of his lectures he felt the need to come up with a word to describe the # symbol. Don also liked to add humor to his work. His thought process which took place while at the Mayo Clinic doing lectures was as follows:
- There are eight points on the symbol so “OCTO” should be part of the name.
- We need a few more letters or another syllable to make a noun, so what should that be? (Don MacPherson at this point in his life was active in a group that was trying to get JIM THORPE’s (ibid) Olympic medals returned from Sweden) The phrase THORPE would be unique, and people would not suspect he was making the word up if he called it an “OCTOTHORPE”.
So Don Macpherson began using the term Octothorpe to describe the # symbol in his lectures. When he returned to Bell Labs in Holmdel NJ, he told us what he had done, and began using the term Octothorpe in memos and letters. The term was picked up by other Bell Labs people and used mostly for the fun of it. Some of the documents which used the term Octothorpe found their way to Bell Operating Companies and other public places. Over the years, Don and I have enjoyed seeing the term Octothorpe appear in documents from many different sources.
Don MacPherson retired about eight years ago, and I will be retiring in about six weeks.
These are, of course, my remembrances and are not any official statement of AT&T or the subsequent 3 companies.
[TELECOM Dgiest (ibid) Editor’s note: Thank you very much for sharing. This is indeed an interesting report. Do you think you could get Don MacPherson to join us here among the Digest readership? PAT]
¹ Dual-tone multi-frequency signaling
² Private branch exchange