Friday, 27 February 2015

Putting you through now, caller

There was a time when almost all of our telephone calls were connected by a lady operator. Fifty-five years on, Melonie Clarke dials in to another age

Written by Melonie Clarke
The dialling tone is a sound we are all familiar with when picking up the telephone. But in the first half of the 20th century, before the automated system that we are used to was put into place (the programme of London automation began in 1927), women worked across the country manually connecting calls and helping people to stay in touch.

And this year marks the 55th anniversary of the closure of London’s last manual telephone exchange – the Enfield Exchange. The exchange began operating in 1899 in a cottage next to the Stag public house (it was replaced in 1908, and then again in 1925), and one of the impressive manual switchboards – acquired by the Science Museum when the apparatus was exchanged for automatic equipment in 1960 – is currently on show at the museum’s new Information Age exhibition.

The exhibition was opened last year by the Queen and it is the UK’s first permanent gallery dedicated to the history of information and communication technology.

Telephonists – most people referred to them as operators, a term that came across with the equipment from America and was popularised by films – normally were women, although the night service was always provided by men.

‘It was just an acceptance at the time that they didn’t want women walking through the streets late at night,’ explains the exhibition curator John Liffen.

‘Female telephonists would work between 7am and 10pm. The number of calls during the night was quite low. So the men – there might be two on duty – would pull their chairs into the middle of the room and sit there chatting. If a lamp went up [indicating a call] they’d just get up and walk across to it, plug it in, say “number please”, and connect the call.’

But it wasn’t always that way. When the first exchanges opened in 1879 (John tells me that there is some controversy surrounding which exchange was the first, but it’s generally considered to be the one on Coleman Street in the City of London), it was men, or rather boys, who kept the business ticking over.

‘At the time when switchboards were first started and were quite small, there were lots of messenger boys, teenagers, and it was thought a sensible idea to make them operate the switchboards,’ he explains.

PuttingYouThru-Feb27-03-590The Queen sends her first tweet to unveil the Information Age gallery at the Science Museum

‘But they just played about,’ he laughs. ‘They were not attentive to their duties, so by the 1880s women had started to be employed and they were found to be better at the job.’

The closure of most of the manual exchanges more than half a century ago marked the end of an era in communication history and I wonder what happened to the ‘hello girls’, as they were also known, when the last call had been put through.

‘At that time it was possible to find another job and they tried to find new roles for most people,’ John continues, ‘but the operators would have been sad to leave because the work was congenial and they all got on well.

‘It was a poignant moment,’ he adds. ‘The switchboard was alive; there was somebody at the end of each jack. And when the switchboard was cut out, it was gone, it was dead.’ So what was the last call to be manually put through? ‘It was reported that there was an emergency call in progress – someone was dying and the caller was looking for a man of the cloth. They kept the system going until it was sorted out.

‘Once the new automatic system had been cut in, everybody joined hands and sang Auld Lang Syne. It is a poignant moment; it is the same as men who mourn the passing of a particular kind of transport. Drinking in the last few minutes before it finally goes. It’s natural.’

The Information Age is at the Science Museum, Exhibition Road, London SW7: 0870-870 4868,

Call log

William Cooke and Charles Wheatstone demonstrate their telegraph to the directors of the London and Birmingham Railway, which ran between Euston and Camden Town.

The network of private telegraph companies is nationalised and operations are taken over by the Post Office.

Alexander Graham Bell speaks the first words on the telephone to his assistant: ‘Mr Watson, come here, I want you.’

The Telephone Company is set up, offering the country’s first telephones. In late 1879, the first public telephone exchange is opened, with just eight subscribers.

1880s & 1890s
The principal private telephone companies are amalgamated into the National Telephone Company.

A call made between London and Paris marks the birth of the international telephone service.

The telephone dial is invented.

Parliament agrees to local councils setting up their own telephone systems. Only six councils take advantage of this opportunity.

Italian physicist and radio pioneer Guglielmo Marconi sends the first wireless signal across the Atlantic.

The Post Office takes over the National Telephone Company. Only two systems remain outside of its control: in Portsmouth, which closed in 1913, and the Hull Corporation system, which still operates today. Britain’s first public automatic exchange opens in Epsom. Customers could now make calls without going through the operator.

PuttingYouThru-Feb27-04-590A manual telephone exchange switchboard from the Enfield exchange

1920s & 1930s

New styles of phones and cuts in call charges create a boom in ownership. The world’s first coaxial telephone cable is laid between London and Birmingham, providing 40 channels for telephone traffic.

The speaking clock makes its debut. Jane Cain becomes ‘the girl with the golden voice’. On its first day, the service receives 40,000 calls.

The 999 emergency service is introduced in London, followed by Glasgow in 1938 and all other major towns and cities in 1946.

The first transatlantic telephone cable, TAT-1, is laid between Scotland and Newfoundland, Canada.

Queen Elizabeth II makes the first telephone call using Subscriber Trunk Dialling. This enabled customers to make their own longdistance calls for the first time without the help of an operator. 1963 International Direct Dialling (IDD) is introduced between London and Paris.

IDD is introduced between London and New York.

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