Operator, Can You Help Me Place This Call?

Operator, Can You Help Me Place This Call?

My mom has made 84 trips around the sun as of last summer. In those 84 years she’s had a couple of interesting jobs that she mentions now and then. She still carries a small totem on her keyring from a job she held from 1948 through 1950. It looks like it might be the plug from a full sized set of headphones. It’s actually a jack like the ones she used when she was a telephone operator. These jacks were at the end of a jumper cord that connected a caller to the party they were trying to contact.

Mom was part of a workforce made up of hundreds of thousands of well-spoken, organized and efficient women from all over the country. These women were an integral part of telephone communication for more than 70 years. In the early 1960s, “direct dial” technology eliminated huge percentages of their number. Direct dial meant that operators were no longer needed to connect one caller to another within an exchange.

By the 1970s, even most long distance connections within the continental U.S. had become direct dial. International long distance operators were still needed to man the trunk lines when it came to connecting a call overseas….for awhile. Country codes eventually made any number in the world a direct dial call.

In 1998 there were still 319,000 telephone operators in the U.S. They were mainly doing things like directory assistance (remember 411? That was before you could Google any number), 911 Emergency Operators and, to a great degree, “Branch Exchange” operators. “BX” or “PBX” (for Partial Branch Exchange) operators don’t work for the phone company. These are the operators who answer incoming calls and make connections within large companies, hospitals and hotels. That’s back before automated systems (“dial ‘1’ to be completely annoyed…dial ‘2’ if you would like to throw your phone against the wall now…”) displaced a lot of those kinds of operators. As of 2012, national estimates put the number of telephone operators at about 14,000. A few PBX operators remain, the rest are saving our lives at the other end of 911 calls. Go dial “0” on any phone…I can almost guarantee that you’ll get a recording.

In the 1870s, shortly after the invention of the telephone, the new devices were sold in pairs. If you wanted to call Aunt Ida, you had to buy a pair of the newfangled telephones. One went in your house, the other in Ida’s house. The phone company, which I can only imagine was a couple of guys in a horse drawn wagon full of wire, would run a dedicated line connecting your house to Aunt Ida’s house. What if Aunt Bertha wanted to call? You had to buy a Bertha pair of phones and connect her up, too. It only took about a dozen customers before the phone company realized this whole approach was ridiculous.

That’s when the phone company invented the switchboard. And you think the first cell phones were big? The first switchboards were floor to ceiling monstrosities. Each female jack on the board was the termination from someone’s house. If you wanted to call Aunt Ida, the light under your jack on the switchboard indicated when you took your phone off the hook. A teenaged boy would wrangle a ladder into position so that he could plug a long jumper cord into your jack. When you told him you wanted to talk to Ida, he would move the ladder over by Ida’s jack, plug in the other end of the cord, and connect the call.

The teenaged boys were, surprise-surprise, not very gentlemanly, serious or conscientious as telephone operators. By the 1890s everyone was tired of the fart noises and the snickers anytime you wanted to call “Jack Cass”. The decision was made to only hire serious and polite young women as switchboard operators. There would not be a male operator again for more than 80 years.

Advances in switchboard technology quickly eliminated the “big board”. It was replaced by desk sized boards that worked in pairs. They were connected inside the phone office. Desk “A” captured  incoming requests for a connection. The operator at Desk “A” would pass the request off to the operator at Desk “B” who would connect to the intended recipient of the call.

I hope the Desk “A” operators could see the writing on the wall. By the time Mom was doing her tour of duty, Desk “A” had been replaced by an automated switch that connected the incoming requests to the Desk “B” operator. The caller could tell the operator, “I need to talk to Bertha” and she would plug into Bertha’s line. Often you didn’t even need the number. Operators got to know regular callers within their “exchange” by name.

The exchange was identified by the three digits before the dash. The final four digits were actually the customers “phone number”. Up to ten thousand unique numbers could be assigned within an exchange (0000-9999). In the early days of telephony, most cities only had one exchange. What if you wanted to call someone in another exchange? You would be placing a “long distance” call…even if the other exchange was only a few miles away.

Special lines called “trunks” connected exchanges. Operators controlled the trunks and only a few trunks were available from city to city. Obviously, not all cities were connected directly to each other. Operators were skilled at orchestrating distant connections. Imagine that you were placing a call from St. Louis to Bertha who was vacationing in San Francisco. You would give your operator the number you were trying to reach. She would then “connect the call”. The process could take hours. There, of course, wasn’t a direct trunk to SF from STL, but there was probably a trunk to Kansas City. The operator would connect the STL trunk to an operator in KC. The KC Long Distance operator might find an open trunk to Phoenix, the Phoenix operator could connect to Reno, the Reno operator would connect to SF and the Long Distance Operator in SF would connect to the local exchange where Bertha was staying. When Bertha answered she would be told to hold the line, that she was receiving a long distance call from St. Louis. Then, your operator in STL who started the whole thing would ring you back to tell you the call had been completed. Long distance calls weren’t easy, and they weren’t cheap.

Today, when you dial SF from your iPhone, those same connections are happening at the speed of light over fiber optic cables and through satellite switches that can handle millions of calls…no human input required. And so it goes. Operators, like gas station attendants, record store owners and politicians who actually accomplish something, have become the stuff of legend.

[Questions? Comments? Column ideas? I would LOVE to hear from you! Write me at: allen.stare@gmail.com]

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