By Brad Dison
A large percentage of the world’s population uses mobile phones in their daily lives to do a myriad of tasks. Just over a century ago, however, telephones were in their infancy. Prior to the telephone, messages were transmitted between two points by a telegraph system. Rather than hearing a human voice, the person receiving a message only heard a series of beeps (Morse code) which he had to decipher.
In 1876, the United States Patent Office issued a patent to Alexander Graham Bell for the electric telephone, a device that clearly produced a replication of the human voice at a second device. On March 10 of that year, Bell completed the first successful intelligible telephone transmission when he spoke into the telephone’s microphone “Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you.” Thomas Watson, Bell’s assistant, was listening to a receiver in an adjoining room. He heard and understood each word.
In the following year, Bell’s father-in-law organized the Bell Telephone Company. Other telephone companies were subsequently established throughout the world. Initially, two telephones were connected by a single, direct wire or line, which meant that the two callers could only communicate with each other.
For telephones to be more marketable, they needed to be able to connect to other telephones with ease. In May of 1877, Edwin Holmes, owner of the Holmes Burglar Alarm Company in Boston, Massachusetts, installed the first ever telephone switchboard. Telephone callers in Boston called the operator at the Boston Telephone Dispatch and requested to be connected to whomever they wanted to speak with. The operator manually plugged in a cable which connected the two telephones. Switchboards in large cities were usually mounted floor to ceiling to allow for the ever-increasing number of telephone users. When the number of calls reached capacity, another switchboard was installed on another wall nearby. Switchboards in rural areas were usually located in the operator’s home so the operator could service calls at all hours.
Originally, the Boston Telephone Dispatch company hired only boys as telephone operators because they had been successful as telegraph operators. The company quickly determined that the boys lacked patience, expressed bad attitudes to callers, and their general behavior was unacceptable. In September, the company hired Emma Nutt, the world’s first female telephone operator. The experiment was so successful that, for the next 80 years, most telephone companies only hired female operators.
Candlestick telephones were common from the 1870s until the 1940s. These telephones featured a mouthpiece mounted onto a stand and an earpiece which the user held to the ear during a call. In 1919, the Bell telephone company sold and installed the first ever rotary dial candlestick telephone in Norfolk, Virginia.
As more and more telephone customers upgraded their telephones with ones featuring rotary dialing, switchboards with live local operators were mostly abandoned for automatic switchboards. This improved telephone callers’ privacy because operators had the ability to listen in on telephone conversations. Rather than telling an operator who you would like to be connected with, callers dialed the proper number and connected themselves to the person with whom they wished to speak.
Most of the telephone switchboards in the United States were eventually upgraded to automatic switchboards. Santa Catalina Island, just off the coast near Los Angeles, was the last holdout. The island was the last telephone office in the United States which operated entirely using manual switchboard operators. Santa Catalina finally replaced its 19 wooden switchboards and its 16 full-time switchboard operators with dial telephones… in 1978, one hundred years after the installation of telephone operators.
- Chicago Tribune, October 23, 1876, p.3.
- The Boston Globe, March 7, 1912, p.11.
- The Evening Star (Washington, District of Columbia), March 8, 1916, p.3.
- The Los Angeles times, August 10, 1978, p.162.
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