The telephone switchboard : the story of a revolutionary instrument

 Switchboard operators operating on board  (1940) Source:

Switchboard operators operating on board (1940)

 How would the telephone work without the presence of a network? It would not. When early telephones appeared in the 1870s they were limited to communication between two users. Earlier the railroad and the telegraph both used networks in order to operate, and this undeniably helped the development of a telephone network. The introduction of this new system democratized the telephone and allowed a new utilization of this device. First used by companies, the telephone then became an instrument of our daily life, allowing users to reach anyone at a distance. One element is at the center of this major technological improvement, the telephone switchboard. This invention acted as a hub for all telecommunication activity. It allowed the interconnection of two or more phone’s subscribers without requiring direct lines between users.

Its invention created an opportunity for women to enter a new sector within the workforce. Associated with the telephone switchboard, the image of the young beautiful switchboard operator with the melodious voice quickly emerged. Two factors can explain this development: the phone companies and Hollywood. Indeed, telephones companies decided to use women as switchboard operators in order to make them the “front façade” of their businesses. Their attitudes and images were therefore highly controlled.

Nowadays, manual switchboards are no longer used in order to transfer the calls. This means that the job has changed. Switchboard operators became telephone operators. They do not need to transfer calls through a switchboard or deal with wiring systems. Their tasks were simplified and the working conditions improved. However, their work has recently been taken over by automated answering systems. It means that the image and the relation we hold with our phone company will never be the same anymore.

The telephone exchange is a telecommunication system which revolutionized the use of the telephone. When Graham Bell and Thomas A. Watson invented the telephone, the utilization of this device was limited. By 1876, the longest call made was a distance of only two miles. Bell and Watson relentlessly worked to improve the telephone and made better models of it, but these changes were not enough to turn this invention into a device of common usage. Early telephones were hardwired and could communicate with only a single other telephone. At this stage, the telephone was still a restricted object with a small range and a poor transmission quality. A year after the invention of the telephone by Alexander Graham Bell, the Bell Telephone Company was founded. The use of the telephone was then limited to business purposes. [1]

By the end of 1877, there were only three thousand telephones in service.[2] Western Union, on the other hand, had a network of 250,000 miles of telegraph wire, which did not need switchboards, strung over 100,000 miles of route.[3] No switchboards existed yet, making the telephone operate strictly in pairs without any network. The telegraph was then the most widely used telecommunication system. One invention would put an end to this domination. In 1878, George W. Coy conducted the first US telephone exchange in New Haven, Connecticut. Like the telegraph, the telephone exchange is based on a network, and allows interconnection of more than two users at a distance. The manual switchboard was then introduced for the first time. This device is at the core of the telephone exchange and acts as a hub for all the telecommunication activities. Using electrical cords or switchers, the switchboard permitted the connection with different lines through a manual procedure performed in central offices. The telephone exchange and the telephone switchboard contributed to the vision of a more connected world, where distance was no longer an obstacle to sharing thoughts. The switchboard also democratized the use of telecommunication. This invention improved the reach and the reliability of the telephone and allowed the common use of communication with sound. You were no longer required to use the telegraph that needed specialized skills in order to decipher messages but could simply pick up the telephone and talk from your home.

 1940s telephone switchboard source:

1940s telephone switchboard

Right after the invention of the switchboard, telephone companies started to hire young men as switchboard operators. Their job was to receive calls in central offices and transfer them to the correct destination. Those early switchboard operators quickly earned a reputation for being rude and display unacceptable attitudes on the phone. Women quickly replaced them. Emma Mills Nutt became the world’s first female telephone operator, on September 1, 1878. The widely held belief that justifies this replacement is that, because of the early state of the telephone exchange system, the condition of work and the transmission quality was poor and therefore, you needed employees conversing with the users in a friendly way.[4] However, the introduction of women as switchboard operators was simply motivated by economic factors. Indeed, at the end of the 19th century, woman switchboard operators were paid from one half to one quarter of a man’s salary. [5] Furthermore, women did not have many options in the workforce and therefore were more dependent on their jobs than men. Employers could then put them under rigorous rules without fear they would leave. Their job was really stressful and physical. They worked more than 10 hours a day. Each operator had to handle hundreds of calls each day. They were subject to a strict code of conduct and dress.[6] Their recruitment was discriminatory, generally based on physical criteria and age. Married operators were often discharged. Switchboard operators’ script was very restricted. They were trained to use certain phrases while conversing with the customer. Operator wanabees even had to train their voices in order to be soft, low and melodious on the phone.[7] They could only use certain phrases on the phone such as: ‘Number please’ and ‘Thank you’. They even had supervisors looking over in order to make sure that they perform their job according to the company’s rules.

The image of the young and attractive switchboard operator with the beautiful voice started to emerge. It has been adapted for the screen by Hollywood that participated to the amplification of the image. In the 1937 film Telephone Operator, directed by Scott Pembroke, where a young beautiful switchboard operator, played by Judith Allen, adeptly coordinates successful communication via her switchboard during a major flood that hits her city.

Apart from the emergence of their image, the job of switchboard operator created an opportunity for women to shift toward a new job sector. Women were mainly working service jobs. Switching operators became another form of white-collar office work available to them. Switchboard operator was among the most refined job of this type that a woman could get at this time, and nearly the only work in the telecommunication sector that hired women.

Unfortunately, they could not rise within this sector; they were stuck in this position. Women job’s within the telecommunication sector were then limited to switchboarding and billing administration. Only men performed technical tasks such as engineering. Maintenance of the telecommunication equipment was job exclusively performed by men.[8]

Compared to other service jobs, switchboard operator was among the only jobs where women were in daily contact with devices that represented some of the most high tech equipment at the time. Operating the early switchboard was not easy. It needed concentration, accuracy and dexterity. Operators needed to be trained in switchboard techniques before being allowed to work the boards. This job generated some of the most technical tasks that a female worker could perform within the workforce at the time. It was only in 1970, in response to equal rights legislation that telephone companies began to hire for “nontraditional” jobs. This meant that women could become installers and repair technicians, while men could once again be switchboard operators.[9]

Despite their low salary, those switchboard operators emerged as the face of the telephone companies. They were the “front façade” of the private businesses and the telecommunication corporations. For the subscribers, the telephone was then associated with the sound of a soft voice with a courteous tone. Switchboard operators were more than operators as they were at the core of the communication within the community. Switchboard operators were the “fingertips of the country”[10] allowing communication within the population. With the use of the dial tone system introduced in the 1920s, that caused the automation of switching systems, the work of switchboard operator has changed. Switchboard operator became telephone operators or receptionists. These jobs have been gradually replaced by automated answering systems that have recently taken over. In an attempt to provide a human aspect, these automated answering systems mainly use female voices[11]that reminds us of switchboard and telephone operators. However, the time of the switchboard operator with the soft and melodious voice is passed. Modern automated switchboards, which ask you to press a certain key according to the service you want to reach, are devoid of human nature and will never completely replace the feeling of an operator on the phone.


[1] Thomas Farely and Ken Schmidt. “Telephone History: Early telephone development.” Accessed. May 8, 2015.

[2] Gregory R. Russell. “Telephone History: The Early Years 1876- 1900.” Accessed. May 8, 2015.

[3] Thomas Farely and Ken Schmidt. “Telephone History: Early telephone development.” Op Cit.

[4] Use of Women as Telephone Operators: Early History.” YouTube video, Posted by “Danieljbmitchell”. August 7, 2007.

[5] Lana, Rakow. Women and the Telephone: The Gendering of a Communications Technology. (New York: Routledge, 1988), 207–225.

[6] “Use of Women as Telephone Operators: Early History.” Op. cit.

[7] “Use of Women as Telephone Operators: Early History.” Op. cit.

[8] “Telephone and Telegraph.” video, posted by “Holmes (Burton) Films, Inc.” Posted July, 6th 2002.

[9] “Collection Photograph, Operators.” Accessed. May 8, 2015.

[10] Use of Women as Telephone Operators: Early History.” Op. Cit.

[11] Joe Heim, Justin Rude and Dan Zack. “Three Wise Guys: Automated Female Voices, Peeling Potatoes.”The Washington Post. March 9th 2008. Web. May 8th 2015.

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