When Phone Operators Were Unruly Teenage Boys
Before they were women, they were swearing, wrestling, beer-drinking pranksters.
When the telegraph was the primary means of instant communication in the United States, it regularly employed boys to operate its switches. Boys were nimble, the thinking went. They were quick. They were also, as workers went, cheap.
So when Bell Telephone launched its first phone systems, in 1878, the company hired as its operators ... teenage boys. Connecting a call, back then, was physical labor; each one required some two to six people to plug switches into tall switch boards. This generally meant days spent standing and stretching and kneeling. Who better to do this than young men? "It was believed," John Murphy writes in The Telephone, "that they would have the energy, dexterity, quicksilver reflexes, and mechanical know-how to connect hundreds of calls an hour on a switchboard composed of a bewildering maze of thousands of cords and jacks."
But they were also teenagers being asked to work grueling, 12-hour shifts.
In 1910, the journalist Herbert Casson wrote an account of what he called Bell's "operator problem." It included the following passage:
Boys, as operators, proved to be most complete and consistent failures. Their sins of omission and commission would fill a book. What the whittling the switchboard, swearing at subscribers, playing tricks with the wires, and roaring on all occasions like young bulls of Bashan, the boys in the first exchanges did their full share in adding to the troubles of the business. Nothing could be done with them.