Monday, February 28, 2011

A little history lesson

I usually write historical fiction, but once in a while I like to tell about the old days when I was a youngster. My topic for today? "What is a long-distance telephone operator?"

Well children, I'll give a bit of background first, before I tell you about the meaning and mechanics of the vocation I followed for two years in my youth.

Once upon a time, before cell phones, before push-button phones, even before "direct-dial," most people had a black thing in their house, a sort of a box-shaped item four inches high, and six or eight inches long by four or five inches wide. It was connected by a cord to the wall, and had a numbered dial on the top face. It also had a piece set crosswise in a sort of cradle that had two ends with holes in them. This was connected to the body of the item with a curly cord.

This item was a telephone. You didn't put it in your pocket. Since it didn't move around, you went to where it was sitting in a central place in your home to answer it when it rang. If you even had a telephone account, you most likely only had one telephone in your house. It belonged to the telephone company, and part of your monthly payment was earmarked to lease it.

When I say it was connected to the wall, I mean it was hard-wired to a phone line in the wall, and the cord ran out a little hole in a face-plate to your telephone. Oh yes. Telephones were made of a very durable black plastic material. Just black.

You could use a telephone to make a local call to businesses, family members, neighbors or friends, but if you wanted to talk to someone in a different city, you put your finger in the hole marked 0 or Operator, and spun the dial. A friendly voice came on the line to assist you in making the connection. This, of course, cost a lot of money, so you only made long-distance calls in an emergency.

The long distance telephone operator connected your call by means of a big board with lots of lights, cords and holes, called a "switchboard." She wore a heavy headset covering one of her ears that had an attached mouthpiece speaker. When a light next to a hole on the board lit up, she answered the call by flipping a toggle switch before her, then plugging one of a set of connector-tipped brown cords into that hole. She always had a pencil in her hand, palmed when not in use, with which she noted the details of the desired call on a special card. Then, plugging the other cord of the set into the board, and using a keypad off to the side, she would "dial" the number, and when it was answered, she connected the call through by flipping another switch.

I may have the sequence of switch-flipping out of order, but that is the basic process. Correction: that WAS the process I used during my career as a long-distance telephone operator from 1966 to 1968 in Phoenix, Arizona. Both long distance and local telephone calls are much easier to make now.

I left my job when I was called to serve a proselyting mission in South America for my church.


  1. That was fun -- I remember those times well and my bride of 43 years once worked as an operator.
    When I was a 50s kid we picked up the phone and an operator asked, "your number please." To call me you answered 1222. Maybe those were the good ol' days.

  2. Old Guy, it certainly was a simpler time. I'm glad I had the chance to chronicle some of the flavor of those days.

  3. Thanks, Marsha. That was fun!

  4. I worked for Ma bell for a while. I didn't like the sujpervisor hagning over my shoulder and listening to everything I said.

    But it was an experience.

    Love and blessings

  5. Marsha - This reminded me of a party line we had when we lived way out in the country when I was young. I believe we always went through a local operator when we made a call. If you picked up the phone and heard your neighbor talking, you had to wait until they finished before you could make a call.

    I don't remember our phone number, but it had the suffix, R2. That stood for Ring 2. When the phone rang, we counted the number of rings (they were close together). If there was one ring or three rings, the call wasn't for us. Two rings meant we should pick up the phone.

  6. Good post! Kids today can't imagine what it was like in the "old days." I remember being on a party line when we first got telephone service in eastern Montana in the 1950s.

  7. Can you imagine- me, a 20 year old, a kid of the 90s, already knew about this! I must be strange... maybe I should just go watch 'reality' TV (although how anyone can call Jersey Shore "reality" is beyond me...) so it can suck out my brain cells! Haha just kidding, books are better. It really is a tragedy that people my age know so little.

  8. I am 45 and remember the single black phone and only dialing the last four digits. My sisters experienced the party line as kids and would tell me about it. It was a big deal when we got a second phone in the house. I remember long distance calls being a big deal and only for checking that everyone was alright or important news. The current technology for phones and TV were only scfi cartoon dreams when I was a kid. Just think what the next 20 years could bring. I tried posting here a few days ago and it wouldn't let me. So here goes again.

  9. I love history. So fun!

  10. Wow. I have seen them on TV, but that was before my time for sure! THanks for sharing.


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