Caller ID Throughout the Ages

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We often wonder what we’d do without Caller ID since it’s so useful for finding out who’s looking for us, but in reality, people have been using different forms of caller ID throughout the ages:

Burning Bush

Remember the scene in “The Ten Commandments” when Charlton Heston (playing the part of Moses) discovers the burning bush?  Well, some would say when God’s calling you, it’s time to stop and receive the message, so to speak.  Heston actually voiced the voice of God in the film.


Talking Drums

European explorers were surprised to learn that African tribes knew of their arrival in a new village or territory before they arrived, thanks to messages being relayed by talking drums. Information could be carried this way for up to 100 miles. Think along the lines of the fire signals in The Lord of the Rings.

Smoke Signals

From soldiers in Ancient China to Native Americans to Australian Aborigines and even the Vatican today, people have used fires and smoke signals to communicate that they have arrived in a new territory and would like to meet the people living there,  to signal trouble or a call for help, or even the selection of a new Pope.



Heralds were originally officers in medieval Europe, responsible for carrying messages to and from commanders of opposing armies. In the 12th century, a herald formally announced tournaments, including each joust, and the name of each competitor. In order to do this, it was essential for the heralds to recognize the arms of local nobles on sight, and be familiar with each family.


Paul Revere & Israel Bissell

People often recall the “midnight ride of Paul Revere”—subject of Longfellow’s poem telling of Revere’s Revolutionary War ride to warn colonists that the British were attacking.  Perhaps because more words rhyme with “Revere”, Israel Bissell’s heroics are little known:  The postman rode 345 miles through 5 states, from Massachusetts to Pennsylvania to warn of the British maneuvers.


Who wouldn’t trust a butler to let one know who’s calling—or possibly run interference?

According to Emily Post’s 1922 book of etiquette, “when a servant at a door says ‘Not at home,’ this phrase means that the lady of the house is ‘Not at home to visitors.’“ While saying “Not receiving” actually means the same thing, saying “not at home” is more polite: “Since in the former you know she is in the house but won’t see you, whereas in the latter case you have the ‘pleasant uncertainty that it is quite possible she is out’.”

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Calling cards

In Victorian times, if you wanted to call a friend, the only option was to drop by their house.

Cards served a number of social purposes, with strict rules. They were used to make introductions, further acquaintanceships, express congratulations or condolences and to provide notices of arrival or departure.

Generally, the bearer waited in a carriage, and had a servant deliver the calling card. The bearer folded a corner if delivering the card in person. The first call was rarely an in-person meeting;  it was expected one would deliver the card to a servant and leave. The receiver of the card returned the call, so to speak, with their own card in a few days, inviting the initiator back for an visit. If the aspiring socialite received the answering card sealed in an envelope or did not receive a return card, it meant to maintain social distance.

Telephone operators

As telephone networks expanded, every phone call came through a switchboard. Someone had to be there 24/7. The operators knew just about everything that was happening in small communities – it was common to call the operator to locate someone.  Every call had a certain ring: The sound and number of rings showed who the call was for, “so after a while, everyone knew who was calling who,” said a retired operator.

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Caller ID

Work on Caller ID technology started in 1968. From a box attached to your corded phone, to a voice telling you who’s calling.

Smartphone Caller ID

Caller ID fell by the wayside for a few years until Android brought it back.  Apps like Current Caller ID tell you who’s calling, even if they’re calling from a mobile phone.  The app also gives you social updates, call & text blocking and the weather where your caller’s dialing from, we’ve come a long way.

by Whitepages

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