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."
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.