The rise and fall of telephone operators


In the early days of the telephone, people couldn’t call each other directly. They needed an intermediary, a telephone operator, to manually relay their call to a central switchboard connected to the subscribers’ wires. It was a crucial new service that helped a revolutionary new technology spread widely among the masses.

The idea originated in April 1877, when George W. Coy, 40, attended a lecture by Alexander Graham Bell. In it, the famous inventor demonstrated how he could converse with two colleagues – one 27 miles away, the other 38 miles away – using a device he had patented the year before: the telephone. Coy, a Civil War veteran who worked in the telegraph business, quickly made a deal with Bell to set up the first telephone exchange in the United States, a central switchboard that allowed anyone with a telephone to call or be called by any other person with a.

Coy’s central office in New Haven, Connecticut, opened in 1878, with all 21 customers, including the local police, post office, and a pharmacy. Today, Coy is often cited as the world’s leading telephone operator. But while Coy designed the switchboard for the swap (improvising parts of it using female bustle yarn!), He hired two boys to make it work. Louis Frost, the 17-year-old son of one of Coy’s business partners, was most likely the first operator.

That Coy would employ boys to do work later associated with mostly girls and young women was only natural. Boys often worked in telegraph offices, while telegraph operators were scarce. This would continue into the early days of the phone. But at the beginning of the 20e century, women began to dominate the field. And as their numbers grew, they became a powerful force, fighting for the right to join unions, striking for higher wages, and even serving overseas during WWI.

READ MORE: 10 Things You May Not Know About Alexander Graham Bell

The boy operators didn’t last

Group of telephone operators c. 1915. In many places, operators were closely watched, subject to strict rules on dress code and behavior, with penalties for talking, laughing or even smiling.

As it turned out, there was a problem with male switchboard operators: the boys, often barely teenagers, didn’t seem to behave properly. They tended to fight. And “when another diversion caught their attention, they would leave a call unanswered for a while, then return the blasphemy of the impatient subscriber with some original oaths,” Marion May Dilts writes in her 1941 book, The telephone in a changing world.

Hoping to find operators more attentive to their tasks and not to insult customers, local telephone companies have started recruiting girls and young women. Often times that meant going from house to house, trying to persuade parents that the telephone company was a respectable job for their daughters.

As the number of phones in the United States has multiplied, so has the demand for carriers. In 1910, there were 88,000 female telephone operators in the United States. In 1920, they were 178,000 and in 1930, 235,000.

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What exactly did the telephone operators do?

In the early days of the telephone, one telephone could be connected to another by wire, allowing both owners to talk. While it might have seemed like a miracle at the time, it was clear that the phone would be much more useful if a given phone could communicate with many phones. Telephone exchanges made this possible.

Each of the phones in a particular location would be wired to a central office. The owner of a telephone called the exchange and a switchboard operator answered. The caller would give the operator the name of the person he wanted to speak with, and the operator would plug a patch cord into that person’s socket on the switchboard, connecting the two. Long distance calls would require the local exchange to link the call to more distant exchanges, again via a series of cables. Later, as the exchanges added more and more customers, phones were assigned numbers and callers could request to be connected that way.

Some of the early telephone operators worked in small rural exchanges, their switchboards located in the local train station or behind a general store. In cities, huge switchboards could have long rows of operators crammed shoulder to shoulder.

Operators were subject to strict rules

A switchboard operator on roller skates at night at the San Francisco telecommunications office - 1929

A switchboard operator on roller skates at night at the San Francisco telecommunications office, c. 1929

On the busiest boards, the work could be hectic. Some operators have taken to wearing roller skates to get around. Otherwise, the dress code tended to be strict – long black dresses and no jewelry, for example. Operators were subject to many other rules, and spies sometimes monitored their calls on a device called a wiretap. In 1899, when a 25-year-old San Francisco operator named Anna Byrne committed suicide, the coroner held the telephone company responsible: “I firmly believe that the spying to which girls are constantly subjected on the telephone drives them into suicidal despair. . They are overworked; and no mercy is shown to them when a slight infraction is committed by an insignificant infraction of the rules of society.

Many operators have accepted. “What’s amazing is that more girls on the phone don’t kill themselves,” a seasoned operator told San Francisco Examiner. “We are not allowed to speak to each other even in a low voice during the nine hours we are on duty, let alone smile, and laughing out loud is the height of recklessness.” She said she had already been forced to work 10 hours of overtime, without pay, for a brief laugh.

Companies have also often tried to control the personal lives of their operators. “The unwritten rule was that she couldn’t get married and would lose her job if she did,” Ellen Stern and Emily Gwathmey noted in their 1994 story, It was a phone.

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The Rebel Operators

Striking operators of the New England Telephone and Telegraph Company leaving Fay Hall after a mass meeting, Boston, Massachusetts, April 18, 1919.

Striking operators of the New England Telephone and Telegraph Company leaving a mass meeting in Boston, Massachusetts, April 18, 1919

The pace of work and the repressive rules that operators often had to endure ended up causing dissension in the ranks. The telephone companies discovered that their supposedly docile female workforce could only be pushed to a point.

In April 1919, for example, some 8,000 operators quit their jobs with the New England Telephone Company, shutting down virtually all telephone service in Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont. Five days later, the company responded to their demands for higher wages and the right to collective bargaining.

The New England strikers may have been inspired by the more than 200 telephone operators (of the 7,000 who applied) who heroically served in the First World War. The Signal Corps female telephone operator unit, informally known as the “Hello Girls,” had started overseas in March 1918. Their mission was to facilitate communications between American, British and French troops on the Western Front, serving not only as operators, but often as translators.

The Hello Girls, along with women serving as nurses, paramedics, and other jobs crucial to the war effort, helped President Woodrow Wilson drop his objection to women’s suffrage and endorse it in a 1918 speech. in Congress. “We made women partners in this war…” Wilson said. “Are we to admit them only in a partnership of suffering, sacrifice and toil and not in a partnership of privilege and right?” ”

The end of the line?

With the advent of the 1930s, the technology that allowed phone users to simply dial another phone without the assistance of an operator had become widespread. Telephone companies have taken the opportunity to downsize and thousands of operators have lost their jobs. In 1940, there were less than 200,000 in total.

In 2021, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported a total of only 5,000 workers that it classifies as “telephone operators”, plus 69,900 others classified as “switchboard operators, including answering service.” And he expects more than 20% of those jobs to disappear by 2029.


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