4 Tidbits About Telephone Switchboards: The Lines Connecting History

Young woman working as a telephone operator
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Before the dawn of our digital age, telephone switchboards stood at the forefront of communication technology. These seemingly archaic contraptions played a pivotal role in connecting voices from coast to coast, city to town, and house to house. Dive into some fascinating facts that highlight the evolution and tales of these manual marvels.

1. Switching from Boys to Girls: The earliest telephone switchboard operators were young boys. However, their tenure was short-lived due to their penchant for being “rude and abusive” towards callers. This undesirable behavior swiftly paved the way for young women to take over, marking the beginning of an era where female operators became the voice of communication.

2. Holding Onto Tradition: While most telephone companies transitioned to automated systems in the 1950s, some held onto the past for much longer. The Kerman Telephone Company in California stood as a testament to this resistance. As late as 1991, they continued to use manual pull and plug cord switchboards. The owner’s refusal to adopt newer technology was driven by a heartwarming reason—he didn’t want to lay off his loyal switchboard operators.

3. A Competitive Spark of Invention: Behind many groundbreaking inventions lies a tale of personal vendetta. Almon Brown Strowger, who ran a funeral business, found himself losing clients due to a sneaky tactic by his competitor. The rival, leveraging his wife’s position as a telephone operator, had her divert calls intended for Strowger to his own business. This underhanded move ignited Strowger’s ingenuity. He went on to create the automatic telephone exchange, revolutionizing communication by removing the need for human operators.

4. End of an Era in Maine: Imagine a world where making a call involved turning a hand-crank! Well, until 1982, this was a reality for the residents of Bryant Pond, Maine. Susan Glines held the unique distinction of being the last telephone switchboard operator for such a hand-cranked system. With her departure, the town transitioned into the era of modern telephony.

From the personalities behind the switchboards to the innovations driven by competition, the journey of telephone switchboards is a captivating mix of human stories and technological evolution.

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