The history of the invention of telephony reads like a captivating detective novel, but even more intriguing are the events that contributed to the worldwide adoption of this technology. In this series of columns on IQ.HSE, Anton Basov, HSE Faculty of Computer Science editor, discusses how telephones have become an integral part of our everyday life. The final episode of the series recounts how men were unable to cope with telephone operator jobs and were replaced by tall and polite young women. However, as telephone networks expanded, the role of the intermediary became unproductive, eventually rendering the switchboard operator profession obsolete due to automation—not the first nor the last time such a thing has happened. As for Alexander Graham Bell, he used the earnings from inventing the telephone to promote science, educate people about the world around us, and pursue new inventions.
Electronic lamps made it possible to establish telephone communication over any distance. However, there was still one weak link in the telephone connection—the switchboard operators, sometimes also referred to as 'hello girls.'
When the first telephone exchange was launched in 1878, it marked a true revolution—the telephone ceased to be an 'electrical speaking tube' and became a fully-fledged means of communication. Over the next 20 years, hundreds of telephone exchanges opened all over the world from Tokyo, Japan, to Tver, Russia.
Initially, telephone operators were men, or more precisely, teenage boys—comprising the majority of telegraph operators at the time, they were naturally employed to operate the 'talking telegraph.' However, it quickly became apparent that they lacked essential skills, such as the politeness, patience, and fast reactions required to interact with telephone subscribers.
Male telephone operators were often perceived as impolite. Considering that the telephone was primarily used by men at that time, the snappiness of male switchboard operators was perhaps shocking to them. There were reasons behind the operators’ attitude—due to the imperfect equipment, discerning the speaker's voice was a challenge, and since telephone numbers did not yet exist, people's surnames and names of companies were used, requiring the operator to memorise them. And lastly, the switchboards were bulky and difficult to handle.
Women began replacing men as telephone operators immediately after the introduction of telephone exchanges. Emma Nutt became the world's first female telephone operator on September 1, 1878, when she started working at the Boston Telephone Dispatch Company. She had been hired by the inventor of the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell, himself. Emma’s sister Stella became the world's second telephone operator. Within ten years, women had nearly completely replaced men in American telephone exchanges.
The requirements for telephone operators were stringent. Applicants had to be young and tall enough to reach the top sockets of the switchboard, and physically fit to endure a 10 to 12-hour workday, often handling up to six hundred connections per hour. Additionally, telephone operators were required to have clear pronunciation and to maintain courtesy and patience at all times.
That said, the operator job also had its advantages. The telephone and the typewriter were instrumental in empowering middle-class women to pursue employment without fear of public prejudice. Until then, only peasant women and female factory workers had the opportunity to work outside of their homes. Educated women were expected to marry well and manage a household; in Sinclair Lewis's novel Main Street , set in the early 20th century, the main character, a doctor's wife, cannot pursue outside employment because it is deemed inappropriate.
Their wages, however, were low, as young female operators were paid half as much as skilled male workers. Nevertheless, the job allowed young women to move out from their parents' home, rent their own apartment, commute to work unaccompanied, and spend their free time as they pleased. Financial independence enabled them to postpone marriage and not feel pressured to wed at the earliest opportunity. In fact, telephone operators were mostly prohibited to marry under the threat of losing their job, as the telephone authorities in most countries held the belief that married women should not be employed outside of the home.
With the increasing number of telephones worldwide, the role of telephone operators became more challenging. The demanding and monotonous nature of the work, coupled with low salaries and rude callers, often resulted in nervous disorders, breakdowns, and even suicides among the young women. In turn, subscribers were frequently dissatisfied with the operators' performance, experiencing delays of several minutes to be connected and becoming irritated by occasional errors. It was evident that the problem could not be resolved merely by increasing the number of operators. A radically new approach was required.
An early attempt to create a machine capable of replacing a telephone operator was made in 1879, a year after the first telephone exchange was established. The prototype of an automatic telephone exchange by the Connolly brothers and T.J. McTighe was favourably received at the 1881 Paris Exhibition, but deemed too 'raw' to be suitable for practical application. Over the last two decades of the 19th century, various inventors presented and patented their designs, creating working models. One such model, accommodating ten subscribers, was even installed in the Vatican.
Finally, in 1891, the bell of automation tolled for telephone operators—almost literally. Almon B. Strowger, the owner of a funeral home in Kansas City, produced and patented the most successful design for an automatic telephone exchange. According to an old (and possibly fictional) account, Strowger's invention was born out of desperation. He apparently suspected that a telephone operator, who happened to be the wife of a rival undertaker, was redirecting requests for Strowger's services to her husband. Frustrated at losing customers, Strowger then set out to establish a ' girl-less, cuss-less ' telephone system.
The first public automatic exchange serving 75 subscribers opened at La Porte, Indiana, in 1892. The inventor himself soon retired, but the Automatic Electric Company he had founded continued to operate. Over the next 20 years, automatic telephone exchanges emerged in numerous small American towns where the cost of employing a telephone operator was too high. Before World War I, larger cities such as Chicago and San Francisco in the USA, as well as a few European cities, had installed 'girl-less' telephones. In Russia, plans to install an automatic telephone exchange in St Petersburg in 1913 were interrupted by the war.
When the United States entered World War I in 1917, they brought along a unit of women who operated telephone switchboards. This was prompted by a request from General John J. Pershing, who, upon his arrival in Europe, expressed extreme dissatisfaction with the quality of communications on the Western front and called for American telephone operators. Out of over 7,000 women who applied, the War Department accepted only 223, selecting the best candidates for the task. In the summer of 1918, the 'Hello Girls,' as they began to be called, tripled the number of telephone communications they handled.
‘Hello Girls’ at work…
...and receiving decorations for excellent service
Unfortunately, the prejudices of that time also affected the female employees of the U.S. Signal Corps. They were not accepted into military service and thus denied military pensions, despite repeated appeals by Major General George Owen Squier, Chief Signal Officer and a prominent scientist. It was not until 1977 that President Carter signed an act granting the ‘Hello Girls’ veteran status.
After the war, the economic boom led to another surge in the number of telephones and telephone calls. Soon, all major cities, from New York to Shanghai, acquired automatic telephone exchanges. The number of telephone operators decreased significantly, although they continued, for an extended period, to serve long-distance lines, small towns, and the internal telephone networks of large enterprises.
The inventor of the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell, reaped both fame and fortune from his creation. After promptly stepping down from the company he had established, he dedicated himself entirely to inventing.
In 1880, he was awarded the Volta Prize by the French government for his contribution to electrical engineering. With this money, Bell established the Volta Laboratory, collaborating with his colleagues on new inventions. Among them were a wireless optical telephone, new microphone designs, sound recording systems (Bell came close to inventing a tape recorder), a metal detector, and much more. He continued to pursue his passion for educating the deaf.
Until recently, it was believed that no recording of Bell's voice had been preserved, but in 2013, researchers were able to play an experimental record produced in 1885.
Later, Bell developed a serious interest in kites, airplanes, and hydrofoils. A hydrofoil boat he built set a world speed record of 114 km/h in 1919.
In 1880, in partnership with his father-in-law and initial investor, Gardiner Greene Hubbard, Bell co-founded Science , which is considered one of the most reputable scientific journals today. In 1897, he was elected the second president of the National Geographic Society. In this position, he contributed to shaping the modern style of the National Geographic magazine, characterised by its extensive use of photography. Bell's descendants continue to play a significant role in the National Geographic Society.
Contrary to widespread belief, Bell did not dislike the telephone and did not refuse to have it installed in his home. However, he chose not to have a telephone in his office, believing that incoming calls would distract him from his work.
The telephone served its creator for one last time on August 1, 1922, when a doctor was called to attend to the seriously ill inventor. Alexander Graham Bell passed away the next day.
All telephones in North America went silent for one minute during Bell's funeral on August 4, 1922.
And they have never been silent since.
The author extends his heartfelt thanks to Daria Bocharova, Marina Basova, and IQ.hse.ru team for their assistance in creating this series of articles.
Numerous in-depth studies explore the history of the telephone and telephony in far greater detail than this brief series of articles. Those interested in learning more about the subject should see the captivating Museum of the History of the Telephone and the open collection of the Polytechnical Museum, and to watch the television series Cable Girls (Spanish: Las chicas del cable) set in 1928.
Detailed information on the history of telephony can also be found in the following sources used by the author:
The History of the Telephone:
American Telephone Practice, Kempster B. Miller, 1905
The History of the Telephone, Herbert Newton Casson, 1910
The Telephone and Telephone Exchanges: Their Invention and Development, John E. Kingsbury, 1915
The History of Communications:
Communications: An International History of the Formative Years, Russel W. Burns, 2004
The Worldwide History of Telecommunications, Anton A. Huurdeman, 2003
The Development of Telephony in Various Countries:
Public Ownership of Telephones on the Continent of Europe, Arthur N. Holcombe, 1911
Telecommunications in Europe, Eli Noam, 1992
The Development of Telephony in Russia:
75 лет городской телефонной связи [75 Years of Urban Telephone Communication], 1958
Materials on the History of Communications in Russia. 18th – Early 20th Century, 1966
Russian Virtual Computer Museum (section on Telephony)
Museum of the History of the Telephone (section on History of the Telephone)