In 1935, a house fire in London killed five women. Though a neighbor tried to phone the fire department, he was put on hold and unable to get through, leading to an outraged letter in The Times and the beginning of emergency phone service as we know it. 999, chosen because the number was easy to customize for free use on rotary phones and praised by The Times for "its sinister significance" as a number one-third again as great as the Number of the Beast. On June 30th of 1937, 999 service launched; by 1948, the whole country was covered, and two years later 999 was fielding 80,000 calls a year.

75 years later, the emergency number sees an average of 597,000 calls a week, and the original rationale for choosing "999" is long gone. As a result, accidental dials are common. The concept of an emergency number, however, has spread throughout the world. The US adopted 911 in the late 1960s, and the UK now accepts emergency calls to 112, the emergency code for the European Union. As VoIP and text messaging grow in popularity, they too have begun to incorporate emergency dialing. And fortunately for Britain, a string of nines are still "pretty easy for the quaking finger to find on the dial in the dark room where the householder, shivering in his pyjamas, is hoping that the exchange will hear him before the burglar does."