From bad boys to the hello girls – the origins of the Telephone Operator

As was often the case with Victorian era workplaces, many of the worst and most menial jobs were filled by boys and this was the case with the early Telegraph networks.   As revolutionary as it seems to go from telegrams to spoken calls, it wasn’t immediately apparent to the first telephone network providers that boys would be less good at their jobs than they had been with telegraphs.   Also who could work as cheaply as boys?

Connecting a call in the 19th Century was surprisingly physically laborious; each one required some two to six people to plug switches into tall switch boards. This generally meant days spent standing and stretching and kneeling. It was thought boys would have the energy, dexterity, speedy reflexes, and mechanical know-how to connect hundreds of calls an hour on a switchboard composed of a bewildering maze of thousands of cords and jacks in a similar way to how young boys today have an unnerving obsession with technology.  

Teenage boys operating a 19th century switchboard.

Teenage boys operating a 19th century switchboard.

There was however an unexpected downside to using boys, one that might be obvious to anyone who has been a boy or lived with one.  It was sometimes hard for them to take their job seriously and act professionally.  They regularly played practical jokes on customers. The boys disconnected calls as they were still taking place. They purposely crossed lines so that strangers would suddenly find themselves talking to each other.

The incredible power and seeming anonymity also went to the boys heads and it didn’t help that the fledgling technology was relatively slow and monotonous.  They got bored, wrestled and play-fought each other, drank beer which led to the tendency to swear both amongst themselves and to customers.

Obviously this wasn’t a good luck for a new technology or new companies, imagine if everyone on this new internet thing was just in it for porn!  It would never catch on.

As was summarised back in the 19th Century “Putting teenage boys in charge of the phone system brought swift and consistent disaster.” It seems that nothing could be done to keep the boys in line so they were largely sacked .

The job of a switchboard operator took concentration, good interpersonal skills and quick hands. A touch of civility and professionalism wouldn’t go amiss and so it was decided that it would be a perfect job for a lady?  Handily for the telephone operators, women were almost as cheap to employ as boys.

The Post Office, which ran the telephone service in the U.K. , soon realised that women and girls were much more skilled and reliable than the messenger boys who had first taken on the job.

As the network expanded, suddenly there was a new employment opportunity for women: one that gave them some economic independence and an identity outside the home.

Hundreds of operators worked on each switchboard in towns and cities, and the service was efficient and largely confidential.

Some early lady telephone switchboard operators.

Some early lady telephone switchboard operators.

In smaller neighbourhoods, the switchboard might be operated by a single individual. The village postmistress’s ability to listen in on private conversations (strictly forbidden but difficult to prevent) soon taught phone users to be careful what they said.

It was for reasons like this and the sheer profligacy of telephones and increasing numbers of telephone operating ladies that almost as soon as telephone operators became a profession, work 

Of course we still have telephone operators today but on a reduced scale and hopefully we don’t need to speak to them that often as they are most prominent when calling the emergency services on 999.

About Stephen Liddell

I am a writer and traveller with a penchant for history and getting off the beaten track. With several books to my name including several #1 sellers. I also write environmental, travel and history articles for magazines as well as freelance work. I run my private tours company with one tour stated by the leading travel website as being with the #1 authentic London Experience. Recently I've appeared on BBC Radio and Bloomberg TV and am waiting on the filming of a ghost story on British TV. I run my own private UK tours company (Ye Olde England Tours) with small, private and totally customisable guided tours run by myself!
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1 Response to From bad boys to the hello girls – the origins of the Telephone Operator

  1. Pingback: From bad boys to the hello girls – the origins of the Telephone Operator – Glyn Hnutu-healh: History, Alchemy, and Me

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