The Evolution of the Telephone and Operator

The Evolution of the Telephone and Operator

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The Evolution of the Telephone and Operator


A few nights ago I was sitting at the dining room table reviewing my research, when my roommate, Lucy, walked in and inquired as to my progress. We started talking a bit about telephones and telephone operators and she related a story about the telephone in her hometown. Lucy is from a small town in Ireland. She clearly remembers when, at the age of four (about twenty eight years ago), her family installed their first telephone. To make a call her family would turn the crank on their telephone which would then alert Mrs. Murphy at the post office who would connect the call. Everyone in the village, Lucy explained, resisted making phone calls on Christmas Day in order to give Mr. Murphy break for the holiday. It was not until Lucy was in her teens that her town phone switched to automatic. She remembers calling home from school one day and receiving a pre-recorded message informing her that her number had been changed. Needless to say, she was greatly surprised.

Lucy is not much older than I am; we grew up in virtually the same period of time, but in obviously different worlds. Her story of the telephone recalls memories of the endless episodes of Little House on the Prairie I used to watch where Mrs. Nelson would nosily listen into a phone call after making a connection. Lucy's story is an abbreviated version of that of America's. What occurred in her town over a period of ten or twelve years, transpired over the late 19th and a good part of the 20th centuries in the United States. While the technology of the telephone has transformed considerably since it's creation in the late 1870's, the basic job and job-related stresses of the telephone operator have changed significantly, but to a lesser degree. Most of my data falls within two time periods: then (before the 1920's) and now (the 1990's). While we will be missing a large chunk of detailed information, what I have found allows us enough to piece together the missing periods.

In the first two years after the invention of the telephone, all subscribers in a particular area were linked to each other via a telephone line. When one wished to call another party, s/he would call directly across the line indicating the desired recipient by the number of rings sounded.

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Due to many technical problems and wariness of the general public, "Technicians invented exchange systems and switchboards so that all lines would come into a central office where they could be connected to other lines through a switchboard" (Green p916). This new "cord board" was, depending on the size of the city and the model (for lack of a better word) of equipment, a large spread of lights or balls, sockets, and numerous cords. When a subscriber wished to make a call s/he would turn the crank on the phone and down at the local call center, the corresponding light or ball would turn on, or over, on the switchboard notifying the operator. The operator would then remove the key from the caller's socket, ask who is the desired recipient, and connect the call by inserting the plugs at either end of a cord into both subscriber's sockets. The only indication the operator would have that the call was completed was by listening in. If the operator heard silence s/he would ask if anyone was on the line. Hearing no response, s/he would remove the connecting cord from the sockets, thus terminating the call. This appears to be the basic design of the majority of telephones and telephone switchboards until automation became widely used in the 1920's. Smaller cities or towns would have fewer boards and thus fewer operators, sometimes being simply a single board and operator at a local post office.

In the first decade of the telephone, a slow shift was seen in the person behind the switchboard. In the beginning most operators were male. Although women began to be hired in 1978, it wasn't until a few years later that they became to be more desired for their gentle and poised manner as well as their ability to communicate calmly and pleasantly. Women began to be hire more frequently when "accounts of deliberately disconnecting subscribers, swearing, beer drinking, fighting verbally and physically with customers, and other rude behavior demonstrate[d] how boys had not shown the deference required by people who paid for a personal service" (Green p919). The staid and professional yet personal, patient and friendly attitude of the female operators eventually led to women becoming the dominant sex in the profession.

Another change that came to be seen in the early days at call central was the expansion of an operator's duties. Connecting the phone calls became but one of the many required or expected responsibilities. In addition to this was giving out the time, weather, news, results of elections or sporting events, reserving tickets for subscribers to recreational events, or even calling subscribers to remind them of appointments. A more ridiculous example of the expectations is that "Occasionally, 'mother's who wished to go out for afternoon tea or a meeting of the "Dorcas Society" would leave their babies near the telephone with the receiver off, optimistically hoping that if the infant awoke..., it would cry and the operator,...would call up the mother at the scene of the festivities'" (Green p924). Although many more such examples abound, to relate them would belabor the point. Simply put, the demands placed on the late 19th, early 20th century operator far exceeded connecting phone calls. To clearly understand the social dynamics in play at this time, we must consider these demands in context of who was behind each call or request: the subscriber. Telephones were not a common commodity in the beginning years. The cost was high and most families viewed them as an unnecessary luxury. This suited telephone companies such as Bell Systems (which would later become AT&T) just fine. They were content offering extensive services to a limited and privileged population. By doing so, the companies were able to provide highly personalized service in which the operator knew all her subscribers by name and which services they desired.

As is easily imaginable, from the beginning the job of telephone operator proved stress producing. Besides being required to cater to every desire of the subscribers in a timely yet gracious manner, the complications of early technology generated many problems outside of the operators' control. These pressures could become overwhelming. Dorothy who began work as a telephone operator in 1919 in Whitefish, Montana explains, "It was every operator's dream that...she would open all the keys on a busy board, yell 'To hell with you,' pull all the plugs, and march out in triumph, leaving everything in total chaos" (Johnson p71).

As early as 1887 talk surfaced as how to bring about division of labor in the job of telephone operator. The fear of weakening the personal service received by the subscriber had allowed for the discussion to be put aside, or at least for the moment. By the end of the 19th century "the Bell System instituted a 'divided system' of switchboard operation, in which" one operator answered the call and a second connected the call without the latter ever speaking to the subscriber (Green 931). The current technology of the day allowed such a division to take place. How long this system existed I do not know as I was unable to locate any other data that discussed this concept. When speaking to a supervisor at US West's western call center recently, I was informed that all operators perform generally the same tasks and handle each call from beginning to end. This causes me to believe that the human division of labor that occurred was only temporarily employed. The division that would continue would no longer be between multiple humans, but instead between human and machine. The automation, and later computerization, of the job would complete the tasks that had previously been performed by a human operator.

The first automated telephone system was created in 1879, only a year after the invention of the telephone. Although never truly implemented, the technology "established a foundation for later work" (Green p925). The earliest record I found of an implemented automatic system which required no call center or operators was in 1884 when Bell technician ET Gilliland "patented the 'village'...[where] a maximum of forty customers could ring each other and converse without any central office assistance" (Green p 926). Although various patents such as Gilliland's had been founded, it wasn't until Almon Strowger created his system in 1888 that automation became more widely accepted in the United States.

Throughout my research I found Strowger's story told repeatedly, each one differing a bit from the next. The just of the story is that Strowger was an undertaker in Kansas City. He bitterly suspected the telephone operator (in which one account claims to be the wife of the competition) of sending his calls to the rival undertaker. This enraged Strowger to such an extent that he swore he would create a telephone system that would eliminate the job of telephone operator and cause calls centers to become extinct. He was mostly true to his word and "developed a system of automatic switching using an electomechanicalcal (sic) switch based around around (sic) electromagnets and pawls" which employed much of the technology used in the first automated system (SEG). Although the logistics of this technology are wasted on me, the basic concept is that pulses (as designated by the number dialed) would be sent over the telephone wires. The last two digits dialed would "select" the desired subscriber. They system consisted of two "arcs" of numbers (both zero through nine), one vertical and the other horizontal. The first of the last two digits was for the vertical arc and the second for the horizontal arc. For example, if the last two numbers dialed were 73, the selector would move over to the seven vertically and them up to the three horizontally. This location would be specific to one subscriber. As is easily determined, the system would allow up to one hundred subscribers (10 x10) to call each other directly without need of an operator. To reach locations outside of the system one would dial zero to connect with an operator.

Shortly after his patent, Strowger founded what was "the largest and most successful automatic telephone company and telephone equipment manager in the United States" (Green 928). Although many smaller telephone companies installed and operated the new automated systems, the Bell System, which was by far the largest telephone company, refused to switch from manual systems. First, they saw what they believed to be too many technical problems arise from the automated systems. Second, much due to these problems, they did not view the automatic systems as faster or more valuable, but instead believed the manual systems to be superior. Third, and perhaps most important, Bell Systems believed it necessary to continue the high level of personal service offered to their subscribers. Over time they changed some centers to "semi-mechanical switching systems (in which operators, not subscribers, dialed calls)" (Green 937). These quasi-automated systems allowed Bell Systems to remain competitive with the more highly automated companies by increasing efficiency and cutting costs (in part by the elimination of some operators), yet still providing the personal service they deemed so vital. Not until 1919 did Bell install fully automated systems, and then only in the larger cities. The public did not receive the new technology well, and over the next few years telephone companies had what proved a difficult job of convincing the public of the benefits and advantages of the new system. The resistance to the new phone systems was so strong that both branches of Congress introduced bills on May 20, 1930 that "addressed to the very core of what subscribers resented the most, having 'to perform the duties of telephone operator in order to enjoy the benefits of telephone service'" (Green 946).

The displeasure of the public was do to the fact that they were now responsible for dialing all phone calls themselves, be them local or long distance. The telephone operator was not obsolete though. Just as we are able to do today, the public could dial zero and be assisted by an operator if they so desired. What I haven't been able to determine for certain is how the equipment used by the operators in call centers had changed with the new technological advancements of the telephone. From what I have read and seen, it appears that the technology had not been altered too much from the early days of "cord boards." In her article "Two Real Operators are Know-It-Alls and Tell Chillicothe," Stephanie Mehta describes how the directory assistance in Chillicothe, Ohio switched directly from cord boards to computerized systems in the mid-1980's. Whether this was the norm in all or most telephone companies, or only the case due to the smallness of the town, I do not know. I can only say for sure that most companies had switched to computerized systems by the end of the 1980's.

Much clearer than the development of telephone operators' equipment is that of the phone systems. According to the SEG Communications website, after Strowger's system came the Time Pulse system, a.k.a. rotary. They pulses would be transmitted through the telephone line according to the number dialed. If a five were entered, the five quick pulses would be delivered. A pause between numbers was necessary so as not to confuse a pulse with a previous or following number. Hence the design of rotary telephones. By requiring the caller to pull the circular dialer all the way around to the finger bar and then wait until it returned to the normal position before entering the proceeding number, a pause is supplied.

Since an operator was no longer necessary for placing most calls a system was created to notify the caller of the status of their call. A Ring Generator produced tones of varying cadences and notes that distinguished between a dial tone, busy tone, number unavailable tone and a ring tone (SEG). This new technology appears to have been more an advance on Strowger's system then a completely new design.
Since any city of significant proportions would have more than one telephone call center, or exchange, the problem arose as how to dial to outside one's own exchanges. This became an issue because in order to dial a number that was belonging to another system, one must dial a special code. That code would differ depending on where the call was originating. So as to rectify the situation a uniform code was created and the Translator was developed which "took the uniform dialling (sic) code as the subscriber dialled (sic) it and translated it into the necessary impulse trains so that the selectors could be routed accordingly" (SEG). The first three digits of a telephone number indicated the exchange code and the last four were the selectors of the subscriber being called (if you recall on Strowger's original system the selector was only two numbers). Because phone companies questioned the public's ability to remember a variety of seven-digit numbers a "letter to number" system was designed. That is, the first digits would be represented by numbers (which corresponded to the letters on the face of the telephone) and the latter would be numbers. For example, BARnet 227 where only the first part of the word would be entered (SEG).

While I have not been able to locate any sufficient information describing the transition of technology from the rotary dial, our everyday use of touch-tone and digital telephones tells us that much has changed since that period of time. The details of the technological changes between then and now have remained elusive.

Now that we have somewhat of a construed picture of the progression of technology, we shall look at the paralleling development of the duties and position of telephone operator. As early as 1902, scientific management was introduced into the job of telephone operator. At this time "the Bell System opened its first formal training school where it indoctrinated operators with the expectations of a rationalized/scientifically managed work environment" (Green 932). Courtesy began to take the place of personal service somewhat, but not completely. Limits were placed on the length of each phone call, especially in the larger cities. In New York City, phone calls were to be no more than approximately 32 seconds for local connections or 55 seconds for long distance. These numbers are not too far off from what is expected of today's US West operators where all calls ought to be completed within 32 seconds on average (Smith). The time restraint, added to the push to provide a personalized service to customers, created a high stress work environment.

In this arena not much has changed in today's call center. A study in 1992 which included a survey of over 700 telephone operators found that "Call-time pressure...[was] most strongly linked to job stress by operators, with 70% reporting that difficulty in serving a customer well and still keeping call-time down contributed to their feelings of stress to large or very large extent" (Arsenault, et al). Furthermore, new technologies such as Visual Display terminals (VDTs) have only added stressors to an already tense atmosphere. "VDT workers are monitored in terms of number of keystrokes per second, the amount of time their hands leave the keyboard, break time, and their adherence to employer-set standards on how quickly they perform their tasks"( Newswire, October 5, 1990) As these demands and constant observation are combined with the insecurity and uncertainty of retention, due to cutbacks in employment as well as complete closure of some call centers, researchers are finding more mental and physical health problems arising. One study "Conducted at US West's Phoenix, Denver and Minneapolis locations...found that tendon-related disorders affected 15 percent of participants and that 12 percent manifested hand or wrist problems. Others had arm, shoulder, neck or back disorders" (Newswire, July 20, 1992). Another study determined "electronic performance monitoring is a major cause/promoter of psychological and physical health complaints" (Newswire, October 5, 1990).

Although the technology used is completely different from the earl days, the job of operator has not changed all that much. Of course operators no longer connect local calls, but they are stilled called on to connect long distance and international calls. Sherry Smith at US West's western call center explained that the general calls taken by an operator are regarding collect calls, billing, emergency call (some still dial zero instead of 911), and even the time of day. Although they are not allowed much time on the phone with a customer, the operators are encouraged to be helpful and courtesy.

As technology continues to increase, the job of telephone operator will remain questionable. According to the online Occupational Handbook "Employment of operators is expected to decline sharply through the year 2005." Even with this declination I do not see the job becoming extinct as Strowger had once hoped for. The fact that customers continue to call the operator for assistance, though on a lesser scale, with matters similar to those of the early days implies that there are some things technology can't change: the desire for a friendly and human voice.

Work Cited

Arsenoult, A. et al. "Applied Ergonomics." 1992: Online. Internet. www.ergoweb.com/PUB/Info/Ref/AppErgo/Abstract/a9229.html.

Green, Venus. "Goodbye Central: Automation and the Decline of 'Personal Service' in the Bell System, 1878-1921." Technology and Culture. October 1995: 912-949.

Newswire Association, Inc., Financial News. "Electronic Monitoring Exacerbates Job Stress; University of Wisconsin Study Reveals Physical, Pyscological effects, CWA Reports." October 5, 1990.

Newswire Association, Inc., Washington Dateline."VDT Study Expands Known Causes of Repetitive Motion Illness." July 20, 1992.

Occupational Outlook Handbook 1996-1997.
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