On 30 June 1937, the world’s oldest emergency call service, 999, went into effect in London. The introduction of the emergency number was prompted by a fire in November 1935, in which five women died. A neighbour tried to phone the fire brigade, but was made to wait in a queue by the Welbeck telephone exchange. He wrote an outraged letter to The Times, probably dictated while he was still on hold (because, what else are you going to do while you’re on hold but rant about it?). The letter was sufficiently powerful to result in a government inquiry.
The number initially covered a 12-mile radius around Oxford Circus and was gradually extended, reaching the whole of the UK by 1976. The public was advised to use it only in an ongoing emergency, ‘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.’ No word on what one does in the case of lightly masked cat burglars. The first arrest, for burglary, was made a week later. A total of 1,336 calls were made the first week the number was active, though 91 were pranks.