If you’ve ever seen an old-timey movie, you’ve likely seen a sequence where someone picks up the phone and connects with a telephone operator who sits at a giant switchboard and manually connects the call. That’s what this article is about. It describes exactly what’s going on when a phone call is made:
When you take your telephone receiver off its hook, that tiny light already mentioned flashes in front of the girl whom you call “Central” — one of scores, sitting in a long line at the switchboard of your local exchange.
To her question, “Number, please?” you give her, say, a number in your district. She inserts a plug, representing your wire, into a small hole, which represents that of the subscriber whom you are calling, and rings the latter up. Every telephone number in that particular district terminates in a hole, or “jack,” in front of each operator at the exchange switchboard; in other words, the number is repeated at intervals of about six feet all along the switchboard.
If anther operator along the board has already connected the number which you want with some other, the girl who answered your call is warned by a buzz as soon as she inserts the plug in the jack on her board corresponding to the busy wire. Then it is that you hear the familiar phrase, “The line is busy.”
If the subscriber with whom you wish to speak is in another district of the city, the operator who answers your call connects herself, by means of a “trunk” line, with the exchange wanted. She then gives the number you want to an operator at that exchange, who in turn inserts the plug corresponding to the trunk line communicating with your exchange into the jack corresponding to the telephone of the subscriber with whom you wish to speak.
If you call a number on a suburban toll line, the operator answering your call connects herself with a special switchboard, where there is a so-called “recording operator.” After making out a slip for the call, the recording operator then gets the suburban exchange where the person you want is located, and from there the connection with his telephone is made.
If there is a delay you will possibly make disparaging remarks to the girl at your local exchange, who has been innocent of everything to do with the call from the moment when she made connection with the recording operator.
Imagine having to connect phone calls manually. As the article describes, it’s not that bad in the wee hours before dawn, but in moments when everyone needs to place a call at once, things get crazy for the operators. And those times may not be what you think. For example, since there was no other way to get news in real time, people had to make phone calls to find out simple things like the results of a sports game. So call volume increased as games neared their conclusion. Here are a few other times when the switchboards could get crazy:
Election days, although holidays, are among the busiest for the girls in the exchanges. The general interest as to the result causes a great deal of general telephoning. Then, when people desire to know the result of the voting the girls are worked for a while to the limit of their capabilities.
But by far the severest strain that can be put on telephone operators is that caused by excited happenings on the stock market. Every second counts then for those using telephones — subscribers, their nerves stretched to snapping point, are furiously impatient and exacting.
“I have known girls at the switchboards go into hysterics at such times,” declared one of the men in authority at the Cortlandt Exchange.
At the time of this article, New York had twice as many telephones as any other city in the world, at approximately 310,000. There were 12,000 telephone employees, and around 1,250,000 phone calls made per day.
Here are some more interesting stats from the article:
Average time required for an operator to receive a call and repeat it to the called subscriber, 13.5 seconds.
Average time required for the operator to connect with and start ringing the calling subscriber, 13.5 seconds.
Average time required for subscriber to answer the telephone, 10.5 seconds.
Average time required to disconnect the lines after the conversation is completed, 3.8 seconds.
Although automated switchboards have long since replaced manual switchboards, some large buildings such as offices and hotels continued to use manual switchboards well into the second half the of 20th Century.
WATCHING THE PULSE OF NEW YORK TELL ITS LIFE STORY: Activity in Business and Social Life Shown in the Daily Charts of the Telephone Exchanges. (PDF)
From December 4, 1910