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The State of Aloha

Starting Oct. 24, when dialing any number in Hawaii, you will have to first dial in the area code. No matter what. If you’re in Wailuku and you need to call auntie in Lahaina, your source in Haiku, or your long, lost pal in Hana, you still have to dial 808.

That won’t be too tough for most of us. We are very proud of our area code in Hawaii. It’s part of our identity at this point. Those three numbers may be tattooed on someone’s skin or incorporated in a business name. You have 808 on Main in Wailuku, 808 Deli in Kihei, 808 Clothing, 808 Grindz on Maui and the Big Island.

Eight-oh-eight this, 808 that, “the 808,” and so on; the code is part of our identity in a way. There are more than 2,500 business names filed with the state’s Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs that have incorporated our area code.

We’re very lucky in Hawaii. In China, the number 8 is a very lucky number. And two eights are better than one. That’s why Aug. 8 is a very popular wedding day for Chinese couples. And that’s even why the Beijing Olympics kicked off its ever-memorable 2008 opening ceremony on Aug. 8 (at 8 p.m.). When it comes to area codes, we certainly hit the jackpot.

So when were we blessed with this lucky area code?

Let’s start with phones. In 1877, Charles H. Dickey — not to be confused with the famed architect Charles W. Dickey — set up telegraph lines connecting offices and stores on Maui. The first line went from his house in Haiku to his office in Makawao and the first message was simple and concise: “God save the King!” — a nod to the Merrie Monarch King David Kalakaua.

About a year later, Dickey tinkered with the telegraph and got a “Bell Telephone” allowing him to use the lines to make actual calls. By 1878, plantations and stores were connected by phone throughout Maui. The rest of the islands followed.

But that still doesn’t shed light on the area code. To understand that, you have to know what it was replacing. By the mid-20th century phone numbers on the Mainland were a combination of numbers and letters. That’s because telephones were all linked through telephone exchanges. You’d dial the operator and ask to be connected to a line through a telephone exchange, a region that served all of the lines in the area.

Telephone exchanges were everywhere. The Holualoa Telephone Exchange Building on the Big Island is a designated historic site. Built in 1895, the little wooden structure with its tin roof laid the final lines connecting the Ka’u District to the rest of the island. Here on Maui, that massive concrete building covered in graffiti, and QAnon slogans off Maui Veterans Highway between Kihei and Kahului was the Navy’s telephone exchange building during World War II.

On the Mainland, phone exchanges dictated the phone number. The old numbers are preserved in pop music. The Motown girl group the Marvelettes had their hit “Beechwood 4-5789.” That’s a telephone number. So was David Cassidy’s tune about dialing up his old flame in “Echo Valley 2-6809.”

The problem was by the 1960s, there were too many telephones for exchanges. Bell Telephone Company after experimenting in some parts of the country prepared to replace all phones with a 10-digit number without reference to the telephone exchange. The first three digits were based on the region and the area code was born.

Protests followed. In San Francisco, the Anti-Digit Dialing League published a pamphlet entitled “Phones Are For People” arguing that the 10-digit phone number was part of the “cult of technology.” The infamous conservative linguist S. I. Hiyakawa, who would later welcome the police crackdown of protesting students at San Francisco State University, led the charge against area codes.

In an interview with Time magazine, he said that phone companies are “systematically trying to destroy the use of memory. They tell you to ‘write it down,’ not memorize it.” Another anti-area-code protester declared that “we’re all being reduced to numbers. Some place you’ve got to stop and take a stand.” They even managed to hire Melvin Belli to sue the phone company. They lost. Area codes became the norm.

The arguments may seem strange to all of us now, and for folks in Hawaii it must have seemed strange back then too. Despite the protestations of the Anti-Digit Dialing League and the complaint that the change in phone numbers somehow is a sign of “creeping numerialism,” whatever that means, Hawaii phone numbers were changed in 1957 without much fuss to include an area code: the lucky 808.

* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer, currently with the Office of the Public Defender, who grew up on Maui. His email is 808stateofaloha@gmail.com.

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