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A Better Answer Blog

The History of the Telephone Operator

history of the telephone operator

Telephones are central to modern life – not only are we constantly glued to our mobile phones, but much of our personal and business dealings are dealt with through a call center. We take the ability to pick up the phone, or indeed make a call through our computer completely for granted.

However, it hasn’t always been this way. The first telephones distributed for personal and business use in the 1870s were rented out on pairs – after all, a single telephone wasn’t much use if the person you were calling didn’t have a phone to pick up your call. Of course, if you had several clients to call, that would have involved several pairs of telephones, so a more practical solution was born – the telephone exchange.


The first telephone operators

The first telephone operators at the Boston Telephone Dispatch company in 1878 were teenage boys. Whatever you might think about the communication skills of teenage boys, they were clearly no better over a century ago. They were considered rude, uncommunicative, and just too plain unruly to do a decent job. In September of the same year, Emma Nutt became the first woman telephone exchange operator. Women were seen as the smarter choice – they were more gracious, better-mannered, and without the benefit of modern labor and wage laws, infinitely cheaper to employ than even a boy.

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Although seen as being a suitable and respectable job for a woman, she had to fit certain criteria – she must have good diction, speak well, be of a fairly standard height and build, but have long enough arms to reach the top of the switchboard. She couldn’t be African-American or Jewish, and she also had to be young and unmarried; the latter being essential when you consider that early switchboards in small towns were generally installed in the operator’s home, as it was a 24 hour a day job.


Early Phones

As early phones had no rotary dials or keys, any calls made on anything other than a shared party line had to be connected by an operator. Not only would their voices become familiar to callers, they were notorious sources of both useful information and local gossip. They could, of course, listen in to private conversations, so whilst discretion might be expected, it wasn’t always observed.

The typical salary in 1900 was around $7 per week – small even for a woman’s wage. The hours were long, and despite the New York Times praising telephone operators for their “brisk intelligence” and “gentle ways”, keeping that up over an 11 hour shift for six days a week must have been hard. The close proximity to colleagues, the bustle and the camaraderie is no doubt something anyone who has ever worked in a call center would recognize, however.


The Evolution of the Telephone Operator Now Meets Demands of Modern Day Business

As automated exchanges became commonplace, the telephone operator became unnecessary for most calls. The old telephone operator function might have almost entirely died out today, but with the modern call center so central to business, the job has evolved to its present day equivalent.

The functionality of telephone operators have changed over the years. See how an inbound call center can help take your business to the next level!

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Topics: News Better Communications