I often think we — or maybe the people who control our money — lack the audacity to take on really big projects. It is hard to imagine laying the transatlantic cable for the first time today, for example. When I want a good example of this effect, I usually say something like: “Can you imagine going to a boardroom of a major company today and saying, ‘We plan to run wire to every house and business in the world and connect them all together.'” Yet that’s what the phone company did. But it turns out, running copper wire everywhere was only one major challenge for the phone company. The other was printing phone directories. In today’s world, it is easy to imagine a computer system that keeps track of all the phone numbers that can spit out a printed version for duplication. But that’s a relatively recent innovation. How did big city phonebooks work before the advent of the computer?
Turns out, the Saturday Evening Post talked about how it all worked in a 1954 article. We aren’t sure there weren’t some computerized records by 1954, but the whole process was still largely manual. By that year, an estimated 60,000,000 directories went out each year in the United States alone. Some of these were small, but the Chicago directory — not including suburban directories — had over 2,100 pages. In New York City, the solution was to print a separate book for each borough. Even then. the Manhattan book was three inches thick and projected to grow to five inches by 1975.