World's first emergency telephone number, 999, is introduced - On this day in history

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30 June 2016
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The world's first emergency telephone number, 999, was introduced in London on 30 June 1937

On this day in history, 1937: The world's first emergency telephone number, 999, is introduced in London. It was launched in response to a house fire in which five women were killed in Wimpole Street, London in 1935, after a neighbour, who tried to call the fire brigade was held in a queue by the telephone exchange, wrote to The Times, prompting a two-year Government enquiry.

When initially introduced, the Evening News reported: ‘Only dial 999 ... if the matter is urgent; if, for instance, the man in the flat next to yours is murdering his wife or you have seen a heavily masked cat burglar peering round the stack pipe of the local bank building.

‘If the matter is less urgent, if you have merely lost little Towser or a lorry has come to rest in your front garden, just call up the local police.’

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The first arrest after a 999 call came a week later, on 7 July 1937, when 24-year-old labourer Thomas Duffy was arrested and charged with an attempted break-in with intent to steal from the Hampstead home of John Stanley Beard and his wife, known only as Mrs Beard.

The call scheme was revolutionary and was extended to major cities after World War II, and then to the whole of the United Kingdom in 1976.

The format of 999 was based on the 'button A' and 'button B' design of pre-payment coin-operated public payphones (introduced in 1925), which could be easily modified to allow free use of the 9 digit on the rotary dial in addition to the 0 digit (then used to call the operator).

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