Popular in the 20th century, telephone switchboards connected different circuits of telephones, creating a medium for users to make telephone calls. They also connected to other switchboards, allowing for greater coverage. Today, telephone switchboards are no longer as popular, thanks to rapid technological development. Even so, we cannot ignore these devices’ crucial role in enhancing communication, especially in the previous century. Here is everything you need to know about telephone switchboards.

The First Telephone Switchboard

On March 7, 1876, Alexander Graham Bell was awarded the first United States patent for the telephone. The Scottish-born Canadian-American inventor had found a significant breakthrough in enhancing communication.

Bell’s invention had its limitations, though. For instance, the first batch of the devices were rented in pairs; only the two people who had them could communicate with each other. Even so, they couldn’t dial one another directly.

In 1877, about a year after the invention of the telephone, the Boston, Massachusetts-based Holmes Burglar Alarm Company installed the first telephone switchboard. With the help of an operator, the switchboard could connect multiple subscribers.

How Telephone Switchboards Worked

Telephone switchboards were designed to accommodate an operator who connected different subscribers. The device had a high back panel consisting of rows of female jacks, each with varying roles. On the side where the telephone operator sat, the switchboards had columns of 3-position toggle switches called lamps, keys, and chords.

So, when a subscriber from a specific locale wanted to communicate with another, they would call the switchboard operator and ask for their desired connection. The operator would then connect the callers by connecting the appropriate cables.

How Boys “Fumbled” Their Role as the Earliest Telephone Switchboard Operators

Before telephones, there was telegraphy, where boys thrived as operators. As such, with the invention of telephones, they were given the first priority whenever a switchboard company was hiring. Unfortunately, the boys had bad attitude, lacked patience, and their overall behavior was considered unfit for live telephone contact.

The Boston Telephone Dispatch company, one of the biggest telephone switchboard service providers at the time, noted that boys weren’t a perfect fit for the job and started hiring female operators instead.

Appointment of the First Female Telephone Switchboard Operator

On September 1, 1878, a woman known as Emma Nutt became the first female telephone switchboard operator. She was employed by the Edwin Homes Telephone Despatch company. After boys were phased out, the rules became tighter for female operators. They had to adhere to a strict dress code of long black dresses and wore no jewelry. Spies occasionally listened to their conversations with clients, too. PS: Susan Glines was the last telephone operator in 1982.

The Infamous Incident Where a Telephone Switchboard Operator Took Her Life

In 1899, Anna Byrne, a 25-year-old telephone switchboard operator from San Francisco, took her own life. The coroner held the phone company she worked for as he believed that the strict rules laid for the employees drove them to suicidal desperation. The coroner believed the girls were overworked and showed no mercy whenever they committed a slight offense. Many operators agreed.

When Telephone Switchboard Operators Had Heard Enough

Although Anna Byrne’s case didn’t necessarily change how the female telephone switchboards were treated, there is only so much that the employees could take. At some point, the laws were so punitive that it was a fireable offense for an operator to marry.

April 1919 marked a huge turning point in ending the injustices. The seemingly docile female telephone switchboard operators walked off the job at the New England Telephone Company. With about 8,000 employees missing in action, telephone services were shut down, affecting Vermont, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Maine, and Massachusetts.

Telephone Switchboards and Hello Girls

Formally known as the Signal Corps Female Telephone Unit, Hello Girls was a group of female switchboard operators that served mainly during World War I. They were called “Hello Girls” because every time a caller contacted them, they would greet them with “hello.” They facilitated communication between American, French, and British troops.

How a Telephone Company Saved the Jobs of its Telephone Switchboard Operators

By the 1950s, the majority of telephone companies had laid off their telephone switchboard operators as their services were seemingly no longer needed. However, the owner of the California-based Kerman Telephone Company refused to computerize the company’s equipment to avoid laying off any operators. They continued working until around 1991, when the company was forced to switch.

The End of the Line for Telephone Switchboards

By the 1930s, the telephone switchboard operators were increasingly dissatisfied with their positions. More importantly, one of the industry’s bigwigs, Almon Brown Strowger, had noticed that he was losing business in a peculiar way.

A competitor was using his wife (employed by Strowger as an operator) to direct callers to his business. This forced Strowger to invent the automatic telephone exchange to do away with the need for telephone switchboards operators.

Phone companies saw this as an opportunity to reduce their workforce, with thousands of operators losing their jobs. About a decade later, there were fewer than 200,000 left. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, less than 5,000 workers are classified as “telephone operators” today. About 70,000 switchboard operators still exist, but the number is expected to decrease by more than 20% by 2029.

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Last Update: April 1, 2024