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You have come a long way…switchboard

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It was not up until Dean sent me an email this morning, did I realize that the Switchboard, is 126 years old. On January 28, 1878 the first commercial telephone switchboard went into operation, in New Haven, Connecticut, according to Today in History. According to this website, the Switchboard served 21 telephones on 8 lines consequently, many people were on a party line. Twenty days later, Western Union opened the first large city exchange in San Francisco. San Francisco switchboard is known as the official birth of the PSTN “public switched telephone network” which has essentially evolved into today’s phone system.

norah jones The switchboard led to the greatest job boom, and helped bring out women into the modern work force. Initially phone companies hired young boys as operators but they were woefully ill equiped to handle the work. In 1878 Boston Telephone Company became the first company to hire women. Emma Nutt was the first woman switchboard operator in the history and she worked for 33 years as a phone operator. September 1 is Emma Nutt Day.

But not just anyone could be a switchboard operator. She had to be “unmarried, between the ages of seventeen and twenty-six. She had to look prim and proper, and have arms long enough to reach the top of the tall telephone switchboard. African American and Jewish women were not allowed to become operators. The typical operator earned about $7 per week — a small salary even in 1900. She worked ten or eleven hours a day, six days a week. To many early telephone users — most of whom were wealthy — the telephone operator was just another household servant.”

Over next 60 odd years it became one of the fastest growing professions, but in 1950s the development of new technologies saw the switchboard go from manual to all electronic. In 2000 there were only 259,000 switchboard operators in the US, and even the US government says their numbers are in decline. Today with the softswitches looking to overrun the business, the days of the switch board operator are numbered. The switchboard itself has gone from a warehouse occupying behemoth to a shiny server sitting in the corner, much like a referigerator. You really have come a long way ….

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