What did the telephone companies do, exactly?

The essence of a telephone operator’s job was to efficiently connect a caller to someone they wanted to call at a time when the technology was not yet sophisticated enough to allow a direct connection. For many years, this meant physically plugging and unplugging switchboard wires, connecting or disconnecting callers.

The idea for a commercial telephone exchange was born in April 1877, a year after Alexander Graham Bell patented his invention, according to history.com’s “The Rise and Fall of Telephone Operators.”

George W. Coy of New Haven, Connecticut came up with the idea when he attended a Bell conference where he demonstrated his new device, the telephone.

Coy, who worked in the telegraph business, came up with the idea of ​​a central switchboard that would allow anyone with a phone to call or be called by someone else who had one, according to the website.

According to Wikipedia, this first standard was constructed from carriage bolts, handles from teapot lids, and waving wire from women’s skirts. He could handle two simultaneous conversations.

As the demand for telephones grew, switchboards and their carriers began to process more callers. “Each of the telephones in a particular location would be connected by wire to a central office. A telephone owner would call the switchboard and a switchboard operator would answer. The caller gave the operator the name of the person he or she wanted to speak with, and the operator plugged a patch cord into that person’s jack on the switchboard, connecting the two,” explains history.com.

As networks grew, the ability to call further also increased. Long distance calls required the local exchange to connect the call to more distant exchanges, again via cables. As exchanges added more customers, each customer was assigned a number and a caller could request to be connected to a number.

“Some of the earliest telephone operators worked in small rural exchanges, their switchboards located in the local railroad station or in the back of a general store. In cities, massive switchboards might have long rows of operators squeezed shoulder-to-shoulder,” according to history.com.

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