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Switchboard operator

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Seattle telephone operators in a private branch exchange in 1952

In the early days of telephony, companies used manual telephone switchboards, and switchboard operators connected calls by inserting a pair of phone plugs into the appropriate jacks. They were gradually phased out and replaced by automated systems, first those allowing direct dialing within a local area, then for long-distance and international direct dialing.


A typical manual telephone switchboard has a vertical panel containing an array of jacks with a desk in front. The desk has a row of switches and two rows of plugs attached to cables that retract into the desk when not in use. Each pair of plugs was part of a cord circuit with a switch associated that let the operator participate in the call or ring the circuit for an incoming call. Each jack had a light above it that lit when the customer's telephone receiver was lifted (the earliest systems required the customer to hand-crank a magneto to alert the central office and, later, to "ring off" the completed call). Lines from the central office were usually arranged along the bottom row. Before the advent of operator distance dialing and customer direct dial (DDD) calling, a switchboard operator would work with their counterparts in distant central office to complete long-distance calls. Switchboard operators are typically required to have very strong communication skills.[1][2]

Before the advent of automatic exchanges, an operator's assistance was required for anything other than calling telephones across a shared party line. Callers spoke to an operator at a central office who then connected a cord to the proper circuit in order to complete the call. Being in complete control of the call, the operator was in a position to listen to private conversations. Automatic, or dial, systems were developed in the 1920s to reduce labor costs as usage increased, and to ensure privacy to the customer. As phone systems became more sophisticated, less direct intervention by the telephone operator was necessary to complete calls. With the development of computerized telephone dialing systems, many telephone calls which previously required live operators could be placed directly by calling parties without additional human intervention.

As well as the people that were employed by the public networks, operators were required at private branch exchanges (PBX) to answer incoming calls and connect them to the correct extensions. Today, most large organizations have direct inward dialing, or direct dial-in. Smaller workplaces may have an automated system which allows callers to enter the extension number of the called party, or a receptionist who answers calls and performs operator duties. Depending on the employment setting, the roles and level of responsibilities of a PBX operator can vary greatly, from performing wake-up calls in a hotel to coordinating emergency responses, dispatching, and overhead paging in hospitals. Operators employed in healthcare settings may have other duties, such as data entry, greeting patients and visitors, taking messages, triaging, or performing after-hours answering service. Experienced, well-trained operators generally command higher salaries.

New York telephone exchange in the 1880s, with both men and women as operators
Paris telephone exchange, 1900


Telephone operators in Stockholm, Sweden 1902–1903

In January 1878 George Willard Croy became the world's first telephone operator when he started working for the Boston Telephone Dispatch company.[3]

United States phone operator in 1911

Emma Nutt became the first female telephone operator on 1 September 1878 when she started working for the Boston Telephone Dispatch company, because the attitude and behaviour of the teenage boys previously employed as operators was unacceptable.[4] Emma was hired by Alexander Graham Bell[3] and, reportedly, could remember every number in the telephone directory of the New England Telephone Company.[3][4] More women began to replace men within this sector of the workforce for several reasons. The companies observed that women were generally more courteous to callers, and women's labor was cheap in comparison to men's. Specifically, women were paid from one half to one quarter of a man's salary.[5] In the United States, any switchboard operator employed by any independently owned public telephone company with no more than seven hundred fifty stations were excluded from the Equal Pay Act of 1963.

Harriot Daley became the first telephone switchboard operator at the United States Capitol in 1898.[6][7][8]

Julia O'Connor, a former telephone operator, led the Telephone Operators' Strike of 1919 and the Telephone Operators' Strike of 1923 against New England Telephone Company on behalf of the IBEW Telephone Operators' Department for better wages and working conditions.[9][10][11] In the 1919 strike, after five days, Postmaster General Burleson agreed to negotiate an agreement between the union and the telephone company, resulting in an increase in pay for the operators and recognition of the right to bargain collectively.[12][13] However, the 1923 strike was called off after less than a month without achieving any of its goals.[11]

In 1983, in Bryant Pond, Maine, Susan Glines became the last switchboard operator for a hand-crank phone when that exchange was converted.[14] Manual central office switchboards continued in operation at rural points like Kerman, California,[15] and Wanaaring, New South Wales, as late as 1991, but these were central-battery systems with no hand-cranked magnetos.

According to a 2024 study, the mechanization of switchboard operations harmed the economic outcomes of incumbent telephone operators, but did not harm the employment prospects of young women overall, as future cohorts of young women entered into other growing economic sectors.[16]

Reality and fiction[edit]

Before the 1960s, the telephone exchange with telephone switchboards and operators played a crucial role in connecting phone calls. A telephone switchboard is a device that allows telephone lines to be interconnected, enabling the routing of calls between different phones or phone networks.[17] The switchboard operator was a person who manually connected calls by plugging and unplugging cords on the switchboard. The role of the switchboard and operator was important because they were responsible for connecting callers with the correct party and ensuring that calls were completed correctly. They also provided assistance with making long-distance calls, directory assistance, and other services related to the use of the telephone network. Dial phones were invented in the 1930s but took years to become standard. New Hampshire switched to dials town by town from 1950 to 1973.[18] Switchboards and operators were an integral part of the telecommunications system until the introduction of electronic switching systems in the mid-20th century.

Dorothy M. Johnson, who later became a famous writer, started as a part-time relief operator at age 14 in Whitefish, Montana, in the early 1920s. It was attractive opportunity for ambitious young women in a small logging town out West who needed money for college. The role demanded quick decision-making, meticulous attention to detail, a very good memory for names, and the ability to handle criticism. Switchboard technology was a physically demanding task, involving numerous plugs, keys, lights, connecting cords, and complicated protocols for establishing connections. The full-time operators were on duty 56 hours per week, and while they often grumbled about being overworked by a harsh boss, they were reasonably compensated at $50 a month.[19]

While many of the functions of the switchboard and operator have been automated, telephone operators still play a role in some contexts, such as in emergency services or customer support centers.[20] Thus according to a 1995 study by Muller et al., the operators who provide directory assistance, "serve as experts in a variety of domains of relevance to their customers' lives, helping them to navigate through government agencies, complex business hierarchies, partially remembered geographies, and dynamic changes in their customers' worlds."[21]

The most famous group of American operators were in the "Women of the Signal Corps Female Telephone Operators Unit" of the American Expeditionary Forces in 1917–1919. They were bilingual female switchboard operators sent to France in the World War I. The 223 women were known informally as Hello Girls and were not formally recognized for their military service until 1978.[22]

In actuality, operators were rule-followers, but according to April Middeljans, in American drama, film, and magazines, they were often portrayed as rule-breaking rebels who challenged societal norms. Through disaster tales, detective stories, and romantic comedies, fiction writers suggest that operators were not just controlled by society, but rather played an active role in regulating it and shaping the lives of their clients and themselves. The female protagonists in these stories were motivated by their curiosity and empathy, and valued human connections over automated ones. By utilizing the switchboard's power, they aimed to achieve their own ideals of societal betterment. These stories reflect a deep admiration for strong female leads and a preference for human ingenuity and decision-making over machine efficiency.[23]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Principles of Hotel Front Office Operations - Page 55, Sue Baker, Pam Bradley, Jeremy Huyton - 2001
  2. ^ Kaplan Civil Service Exams - Page xii, Kaplan - 2008
  3. ^ a b c Petersen, J. K. (29 May 2002). The Telecommunications Illustrated Dictionary, Second Edition. CRC Press. ISBN 9781420040678.
  4. ^ a b "SBC Michigan Recognizes 125 Years of Telephone Operators; Personal Service, Availability Are Hallmarks of Communications Professionals". AT&T (Press release). Archived from the original on 8 June 2011.
  5. ^ Rakow, Lana. "Women and the Telephone: The Gendering of a Communications Technology" (PDF). Technology and Women's Voices: Keeping in Touch: 171–199.
  6. ^ Jacobs, Andrea (19 April 2018). "Overlooked No More: Harriott Daley, the Capitol's First Telephone Operator". New York Times. Retrieved 2018-04-20.
  7. ^ "First Capitol telephone operator still on job. Washington, D.C., July 30. When Miss Harriot Daley was appointed telephone operator at the United States Capitol in 1898 there were only 51 stations on the switchboard. Today Miss Daley is Chief Operator and supervises a staff of 37 operators as they answer calls from 1200 extensions. The picture above shows the present switchboard with Miss Daley still on the job, 7/30/37". Library of Congress. Retrieved 2018-04-25.
  8. ^ "The Upsides to Working Without Internet Access for 80 Days". The Atlantic. 2012-04-09. Archived from the original on 2012-04-14. Retrieved 2023-09-11.
  9. ^ Norwood, Stephen H. (1990). Labor's Flaming Youth: Telephone Operators and Worker Militancy, 1878-1923. Urbana and Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press. pp. 180–193. ISBN 0-252-01633-5.
  10. ^ "Telephone Strike Won by Workers" (PDF). New York Times, April 21, 1919. April 21, 1919. Retrieved 2011-04-17.
  11. ^ a b Norwood, Labor's Flaming Youth, pp. 262-291
  12. ^ Norwood, Labor's Flaming Youth, pp. 180-193
  13. ^ "Telephone Strike Won by Workers" (PDF). New York Times, April 21, 1919. April 21, 1919. Retrieved 2011-04-17.
  14. ^ "Goodbye, Central: Crank Phone Dies". New York Times. 12 October 1983. Retrieved 23 May 2014.
  15. ^ "Pulling the Plug : Phone Company to Replace Last Manual Switchboard". Los Angeles Times. 8 April 1991.
  16. ^ Feigenbaum, James; Gross, Daniel P. (2024). "Answering the Call of Automation: How the Labor Market Adjusted to Mechanizing Telephone Operation". Quarterly Journal of Economics. doi:10.1093/qje/qjae005.
  17. ^ Milton Mueller, "The switchboard problem: scale, signaling, and organization in manual telephone switching, 1877-1897." Technology and Culture 30.3 (1989): 534-560.
  18. ^ Judith N. Moyer, "Number, please: New Hampshire telephone operators in the predial era, 1877–1973" (PhD dissertation,. University of New Hampshire, 2000) online p. 21.
  19. ^ Dorothy M. Johnson, "Confessions of a Telephone Girl" Montana: The Magazine of Western History 47.4 (1997): 68-75. online
  20. ^ Michael J. Muller, "Invisible work of telephone operators: An ethnocritical analysis." Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW) 8.1-2 (1999): 31-61.
  21. ^ Michael J. Muller et al. "Telephone Operators as Knowledge Workers: Consultants Who Meet Customer Needs" p. 130.
  22. ^ Elizabeth Cobbs, The hello girls: America's first women soldiers (Harvard University Press, 2017).
  23. ^ April Middeljans, " 'Weavers of Speech': Telephone Operators as Defiant Domestics in American Literature and Culture." Journal of Modern Literature, 33#3, (2010), pp. 38–63.

Further reading[edit]

  • Fischer, Claude S. America Calling: A Social History of the Telephone to 1940 (1992), a major scholarly history.
  • Green, Venus. “Goodbye Central: Automation and the Decline of ‘Personal Service’ in the Bell System, 1878–1921.” Technology and Culture 36#4 (1995), pp. 912–49. online
  • Kramarae, Cheris and Lana F. Rakow, eds. Technology and women's voices: keeping in touch (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1988)
  • Lipartito, Kenneth. “When Women Were Switches: Technology, Work, and Gender in the Telephone Industry, 1890-1920.” American Historical Review 99#4 (1994) pp. 1074–111. ONLINE
  • Mueller, Milton. "The switchboard problem: scale, signaling, and organization in manual telephone switching, 1877-1897." Technology and Culture 30.3 (1989): 534–560. online
  • Muller, Michael J., et al. "Telephone operators as knowledge workers: Consultants who meet customer needs." Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on Human factors in computing systems (1995).
  • Munn, Luke. "Subordinated to Oneself: The Switchboard Operator as Early Self Manager." Junctions: Graduate Journal of the Humanities 4.2 (2019). online
  • Rakow, Lana F. "Women and the telephone: the gendering of a communications technology." in Technology and women’s voices: Keeping in touch (1988) pp: 171–199. online

External links[edit]