In the early decades of the industry, telephone companies regarded their business less as a utility and more as a personal service. The telephone operator was central to this idea, acting as an early version of an intelligent assistant with voice recognition capabilities. She got to know her 50 to 100 assigned customers by name and knew their needs. If a party didn\’t answer, she would try to find him or her around town. If that didn\’t succeed, she took a message and called the party again later to pass the message along. She made wake-up calls and gave the time, weather, and sports scores. During crimes in progress or medical emergencies, a subscriber needed only to pick up the handset and the operator would summon the police or doctors. …
While operators were not highly paid, the need to attract and retain capable women from the middle classes led telephone companies to be benevolent employers by the standards of the day — and in some respects, of any day. Around the turn of the century, the companies catered to their operators with libraries, athletic clubs, free lunches, and disability plans. Operators took their breaks in tastefully appointed, parlor-like break rooms, some with armchairs, couches, magazines, and newspapers. At some exchanges, the companies provided the operators with a community garden in which they could grow flowers or vegetables. In large cities, company-owned dormitories were offered to night-shift operators.
But even as the number of telephone operator jobs was growing rapidly, the job of being a telephone operator evolved dramatically. By 1950, the hyper-personal touch seems to have greatly diminished, and the telephone operator skills involved being able to handle \”the board,\” which involved plugging and unplugging several hundred connections per hour.
With the electromechanical systems of the day, each additional customer was more, not less, expensive. Economies of scale weren\’t in the picture. To oversimplify somewhat, a network with eight customers needed eight times eight, or 64, interconnections; a network with nine needed 81. \”You were actually getting increasing unit costs as the scope of the network increased,\” says Mueller. \”You didn\’t get entirely out of the telephone scaling problem until digital switching in the 1960s.\”
This pattern of technology led to a situation where small-scale independent phone companies were more likely to use automated switching in the early part of the 20th century, while the giant Bell company continued to rely heavily on combinations of automatic switching with oversight from human switchboard operators–especially for long-distance calls.
In sum, it is possible that the decline in the relative importance of telephone operators may be nearing an end. It seems that in the foreseeable future no machines will be devised that can completely handle person-to-person calls, credit-card calls, emergency calls, information calls, transient calls, messenger calls, marine and mobile calls, civilian defense calls, conference calls, and coin-box long-distance calls. Indeed, although an executive vice-president of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company has said that the number of dial telephones will reach almost 100 percent in the next few years and that there will be an increasing amount of customer dialing of long-distance calls: \”Yet we will still need about the same number of operators we need now, perhaps more.\”