When Phone Operators Were Unruly Teenage Boys

Before they were women, they were swearing, wrestling, beer-drinking pranksters.

Boys operating the switches, c. 1877 (The Telecommunications History Group)

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.

Though Bell had no problem recruiting the boys for that work—"this combination of power, technical mastery, and effective anonymity seemed to act like catnip to teenage boys," Bruce Sterling notes—the company did have a problem when it came to the work itself. To connect calls, the boys had to run from one switching room to another, yelling information at each other as they did so. And connection wasn't instant; new technology was also sluggish technology. While they waited, Emily Yellin writes in her book Your Call Is (Not That) Important to Us, the boys occupied themselves by way of wrestling matches, spitball fights, and beer-drinking. They often swore—at each other, and at their customers.
They also regularly played practical jokes on those customers. The boys disconnected calls as they were still taking place. They purposely crossed lines so that strangers would suddenly find themselves talking to each other. Bell's chief engineer ended up referring to the boys as "Wild Indians." As Sterling sums it up: "Putting teenage boys in charge of the phone system brought swift and consistent disaster."

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.

The only thing to be done, in the end, was to fire them. Bell quickly let go of its unruly pack of operators; it replaced them with a new group, one it judged to be equally capable of grueling work, but more capable of decorum: women.