THERE was a continuous sound of many voices; a steady cadence in which no individual note dominated; a hundred women’s voices incessantly repeating brief sentences with a rising inflection at the end, each sentence lost in the continuous tumult of sound. In a long line, perched on high stools, they sat before the black panels which rose behind their narrow desk. Into the transmitters — hung from their necks — they articulated their strange confused chorus. And apparently without relation to the words they uttered, a hundred pairs of hands reached back and forth across the panels, weaving interminably a never-to-be-completed pattern on its finely checkered face.
On the panels a thousand little lights blinked white and disappeared. Tiny sparks of ruby and green flashed and were gone. Untiring, the white stars flickered in and out, and behind them raced the tireless hands, weaving a strange pattern with the long green cords. And unbroken, unintelligible, the murmur of the girls’ voices vibrated unceasingly.
Outside, under the gray sky of a rainy day, the life of the city was at the flood. Over slim wires, buried in conduits below the trampled street, or high strung, swinging in the rising wind, the voices of a thousand people told their thousand messages to waiting ears. A passing thought, perhaps, that you would have me hear; with a single movement you lift the transmitter from the hook beside you; white flashes the tiny lamp on the black panel; a girl’s hand sweeps across the board and plugs in the connection. Space, useless, is swept aside; though actual miles may intervene I am suddenly beside you.
Messages of business that can make or ruin, death, love, infidelity, appeal! Automatically, surely, she weaves back and forth across the panels. Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos, — Parcæ of the switch-board!
Here is the throbbing pulse of the city bared and visible. Night is over; with rapidly increasing frequency the flashing drops of light indicate that the activity of day has begun. Every action must be expressed in words, and, bared and concentrated, that word-current of the city rises like a gathering wave. From ten in the morning to five minutes after, the tide is at the flood. The flicker of lights is dazzling; the girls’ hands race dizzily behind their flashing summons. Business is at its height. But here on another row of panels the occasional flash of lights offers a curious contrast: this is a panel for a part of the residence district; from seven to eight in the evening its lights will glow with activity. Then business is over and the downtown panels will be darkened. Here is a visual shifting of scene and interest. Work over, the social engagements are made, and business is forgotten. There is a friendly gossiping along the wires.
Night has come, and a dozen girls watch the long, deserted boards. Like the occasional glimmer of a cab lamp late upon the street, the signals, one by one, flash and are gone. The world is fast asleep. Far down at the end of lhe panel a signal brightens. ‘Number please?’ — ‘Police!' It was a woman’s voice. From the card index ‘Central’ picks out the street address which corresponds to the number, and the nearest station is advised of the call. Had the woman no time to finish her message? There is another light burning on the panel. Already she is forgotten and the slim hands are making another connection. Police or doctor, — the night calls are laden with portent.
What interests the world to-day? Does something disturb the minds of men? The flashing panels answer. As surely as the sun will rise to-morrow will the increased throb of light betray the fevered interest of mankind. Five o’clock! usually there is a slacking up, but not to-day. Heavier than at the busiest five minutes in the whole twenty-four hours, come the calls for connections. Did the White Sox win their game? It is the final of the series. Who was elected? Politics to-day runs high. War? The troops are off; marines have landed! Strikes, fires, or the sinking ship; the racing hands weave faster; the steady hum of the girls’ voices accelerates almost imperceptibly. Here beats the pulse upon the surface; they know its normal rise and fall; by its fevered beat they can read diversion or disaster.
Back over the years the superintendent recalled the various events which had been dramatically visualized on the switch-board panels. Twelve years ago, about; the panels were fewer then. It was almost five o’clock in the afternoon; in a quarter of an hour the day operators would be leaving, tired from their long labor at the board. The lights were flashing slowly, perfectly recording the slackened beat of business. Five minutes to five,— a wave of white light seemed to flare across the downtown panels, suddenly, unexpectedly. Ignorant of the cause, the girls plugged in the desired connections. Every one seemed to be calling out to the residence sections. For a brief minute there was a pause — The flood of light was gone as abruptly as it had come. Then like a flame across the residence panels gleamed the signals, calling back, a hundredfold, back to the stores and offices.
The men had heard first the terrible rumor. Their messages across the wires to their homes had sought the answer to their first thought that she, that they, were safe. And then back, in anguished women’s voices, came frantic appeals for names of the missing. For long hours through the night the whitefaced girls held to their posts; and in their tired eyes the signals burned feverishly. That night Chicago shuddered in its grief,— for in the flames of the Iroquois Theatre, at a holiday matinée, had gone out the lives of countless women, men, and little children.