The Telephone Operator

The invention of the telephone in 1876 jump-started several new developments:

telephone operators

The telephones themselves needed to be further refined.

Telephone offices with operating equipment needed to be created so that telephone calls could be made within a community. (Very early telephones were sold in pairs and functioned as a home-to-office communication system, much like an intercom of sorts.)

The Telephone Office

Telegraph offices provided a model for how one central location might be created to manage area phone calls.

The telegraph offices employed young boys. A more mature employee who knew Morse code sent and received the telegraph messages. The boys would then be sent out to deliver the telegrams received.

Because young boys were used in this way, the early planning for operating a telephone switchboard factored in the use of young boys. However, in the early days telephone exchanges, there were not many subscribers—or many phone calls. The boys became bored with waiting, and often rough-housed with each other to fill the time.

Hire Women?

The behavior of the young boys opened job possibilities for women. In the early 20th century, women had very few opportunities. Being a teacher or a nurse were the most common options for those who didn’t have to work as servants. A few types of factory jobs were open to women, but the chance to be trained as a telephone operator sounded very professional.


Women embraced the opportunity, and they soon dominated the field. They worked for low wages and had to abide by a strict code of conduct.

Like other professions, women had to leave the workforce if they married.

The Job of Telephone Operator

A telephone operator sat in front of a board filled with telephone jacks. When a phone service subscriber lifted the receiver on their home unit, a light went on in the central office next to the jack that connected to their household. The operator then inserted her “answer cord,” and asked how to direct the call. If the call was a local one, the operator plugged a “ringing cord” into the jack of the person being called.

The first telephone systems had a “small-town” feel. Callers would pick up the receiver and when the operator came on the line, the caller would state the name of the family he or she was calling.

Early telephone exchanges were small. Some had under 30 subscribers. Bigger ones might have serviced 150 families. There were no phone numbers in the beginning. Operators had to know the names of subscribers as everyone was requested by name.  

A city operator might process as many as 600 calls in an hour. A rural operator often had the switchboard in her home. She might handle only a few calls each day, so she was given an extra long wire for her headset so that she could move around and do other things until a call came in.

A Long Distance Call

If the call was long distance, the operator plugged into a trunk circuit to begin making the necessary connections to another locale. The call could be completed only if all the intermediate trunk lines between the calling centers were available at the same time. The average time to complete a connection for a long distance call in 1918 was 15 minutes.

The average time for an operator to patch through a long distance call in 1918 was 15 minutes. During World War II, government calls took priority so it often took 2 hours before you could speak to whomever you called.

This time estimate extended to two hours during World War II when the government was given priority for military calls.

Calling Without an Operator

The first person to create a way for callers to connect directly with another caller is said to have been an undertaker in Kansas City. Almon Brown Strowger was one of two undertakers in town. The other undertaker was dating an operator. When calls came in, she directed the calls to the funeral home of the man she was dating. 

Strowger realized that he needed callers to make up their own minds. He worked out a way to automate local calling, and in 1891 he was given a patent for his invention.

By this time, Strowger was living in La Porte, Indiana. The first automatic telephone exchange was installed there on November 3, 1892. It had 75 subscribers. As many as 99 families could sign up for this exchange.

The Beginning of Telephone Numbers

A local doctor in Lowell, Massachusetts, Dr. Moses Greeley Parker, was among the first to see that there needed to be a way to dial numbers for households, not request a family by name. In 1889, a measles epidemic was spreading through Lowell. He pointed out that if the operators became ill, the telephone system would be paralyzed since substitute operators would not know which jacks corresponded with which families.

switchboard operators

Dr. Parker pushed for creation of a system that involved using numbers instead of names so that substitutes could quickly pick up the system. Parker went on to be a big investor in various phone companies.

A Few Fun Facts About Early Telephones

The very first telephones were sold in pairs and were generally intended to connect a business owner’s home with his office. There was no existing infrastructure in town, so telephone wire had to be strung between the two places specified.

In movies, we sometimes see wall telephones that need to be cranked to make a call. These were Magneto telephones. The caller cranked the handle to notify the operator that he or she wanted to make a call. When the operator picked up, callers would give the family name-or later a number-so the operator could connect the two parties.

Party lines were common and made telephone service more affordable for the middle class. Each family was given a specific “ring code.” One household might be reached with two short rings and a long one. Another household on the same party line might be signaled with one long ring and short one.

Anyone on the party line could listen in on other calls, if they so chose. Operators with extra time often did so as well.

Operators became information sources and subscribers would call in for weather reports and traffic information.


In World War I, General John Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Forces on the Western Front during World War I, saw that the French operators were not as efficient as American ones. He put out a nationwide call for bilingual (English and French) operators to apply for becoming wartime operators. To read this story, see U.S. Recruits Women Operators.

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