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|Answer to Quiz #28 - September 25, 2005
Who is Emma Nutt and why would she be comfortable in being in this picture?
Bonus question: Give a rough estimate of the date the year was taken.
|Photo courtesy of www.deadfred.com.
Click on thumbnail to see larger image.
On September 1st 1878 Emma Nutt
became the FIRST woman telephone
operator in America when she began
working for Edwin Holme's Telephone
Despatch Co. Exchange at Boston,
Massachusetts. By the mid 1880s
most exchanges employed women as
they were found to be less
quarrelsome than menShe began
working for the phone company as an
attempt to replace the teenage boys
who had been used for the job. She
ended her career 33 years later.
|To commemorate this historic event,
September 1 has been designated Emma Nutt Day!
(This is for real.)
>>>>>The picture was taken around 1915, comparing the style of dress and
telephone equipment used to many pictures on the Internet.<<<<<
When telephone companies began hiring operators, they chose teenage boys for
the job. But the companies soon regretted their decision. Boys had done a great job
working in telegraph offices. And they worked for low wages. But being a telephone
operator was a tough job that required lots of patience -- something the boys didn't have.
The boy operators quickly turned telephone offices upside down. They wrestled instead
of worked. They pulled pranks on callers, and even cursed at them.
In 1878, the Boston Telephone Despatch company began hiring women operators
instead. Women, the companies thought, would behave better than boys. Women had
pleasant voices that customers -- most of whom were men -- would like. And because
society did not treat women equally, they could be paid less and supervised more strictly
The first woman telephone operator was Emma Nutt. In her day, women who wanted
to work outside the family home or business had few choices. A young woman could get
a job as a servant. Or she could work as a factory laborer, sales clerk, nurse, or teacher.
Many women jumped at the chance to become telephone operators. By 1900, almost all
operators were women. But not all women could be operators.
To be an operator, a woman had to be unmarried, between the ages of seventeen
and twenty-six. She had to look prim and proper, and have arms long enough to reach
the top of the tall telephone switchboard. Much like many other American businesses at
the turn of the century, telephone companies unfairly discriminated against people from
certain ethnic groups and races. African American and Jewish women were not allowed
to become operators.
Because women were generally discriminated against, operators' wages were low.
And operators seldom got the respect they deserved. The typical operator earned about $7
per week -- a small salary even in 1900. She worked ten or eleven hours a day, six days a
week. If necessary, she also worked nights and holidays. An operator who got married
was forced to leave her job. To many early telephone users -- most of whom were
wealthy -- the telephone operator was just another household servant
Many thanks to Robert McKenna for submitting this photo of his mother. As Robert
The person in the right of the picture is my mother, Edith Naomi Bibbins. She was a
young operator recently out of high school, in Bridgeport, Connecticut. The headphone
and speaker are very similar to those of Emma Nutt. The picture was taken about 1915.
The first operators were teenage boys, who often
engaged in horseplay and foul language. Telephone
companies soon began hiring “girls”, in order to
present a more gentile image to customers. c. 1877
Operators were well trained in switchboard
technique and in deportment, before being allowed
to work the boards. This group attends
switchboard training in Denver. 1910
To relieve the tedium of the job, the Colorado
Telephone Company required operators to do
calisthenics. This is on the roof garden of Denver
Main, at 14th and Curtis. 1912
Historical Note: In 1879, there were 98 telephone subscribers listed on the New
Orleans Telephonic Exchange. Most were companies (Pullman Palace Car Co.), city
officials (Chief of Police), and charitable organizations (Jewish Widows and Orphans
Home). Not many residences were equipped with telephone equipment yet so no one
got their dinner interrupted and there was no need for a "Do Not Call List". (Just
A subscriber was advised to use the phone as follows:
Instructions: To call the Exchange give a long ring with the bell crank and when the
operator signals back, remove the telephone from the hook and give the name of the
subscriber wanted. When called by the Exchange give a ring back, then remove the
telephone from the hook and say Hello! Hello!
To see a transcription of the 1879 List of Telephone Subscribers to the New Orleans
Telephonic Exchange, visit:
But Thirty Were on the Do Not Call List
The first commerical telephone switchboard opened in 1878 in New Haven, CT. It
serviced 31 customers.
A Tough Job to Undertake
Almon Brown Strowger, inventor of the automatic telephone switching system,
was born in 1839 in Penfield, New York, a close suburb of Rochester. Like Bell,
Strowger was not a professional inventor, but a man with a keen interest in things
mechanical. Strowger went to an excellent New York State university, served in the
Civil War from 1861 to 1865 (ending as a lieutenant), taught school in Kansas and Ohio
afterwards, and wound up first in Topeka and then Kansas City as an undertaker in
Many stories suggest that someone was stealing Almon Strowger's business. Telephone
operators, perhaps in league with his competitors, were routing calls to other
undertakers. These operators supposedly gave busy signals to customers calling
Strowger or even disconnected their calls. Strowger thus invented a system to replace
an operator from handling local calls. In the distillation of these many stories, Stephan
Lesher relates a story from Almon's time in Topeka:
"In his book, Good Connections, telephone historian Dave Park writes that Strowger
grew darkly suspicious when a close friend in Topeka died and the man's family
delivered the body to a rival mortician. Strowger contended that an operator at the new
telephone exchange had intentionally directed the call to a competitor -- an allegation
that gave rise to tales that the operator was either married to, or the daughter of, a
As with Bell, Strowger filed his patent without having perfected a working invention.
Yet he described the switch in sufficient detail and with enough novel points for it to be
granted Patent number 447,918, on March 10, 1891.
No Cranks Allowed
In 1893 the first central office exchange with a common battery for talking and
signaling began operating in Lexington, Massachusetts. This common battery
arrangement provided electricity to all telephones controlled by the central office. Each
customer's telephone previously needed its own battery to provide power. Common
battery had many consequences, including changing telephone design. The big and
bulky wall sets with wet batteries providing power and cranks to signal the operator
could be replaced with sleek desk sets. There were four great overlapping eras in
telephone development: Invention, Crank, Dial and Handset. They went from,
respectively, 1876 to 1893, 1877 to 1943, 1919 to 1978 and 1924 to the present.
The First Phone Numbers
The first telephone numbers weren't numbers, they were names. The name of your
company or you as an individual. That was too confusing to build a telephone system
on since many people in a town might share the same name. Starting in 1879, then,
scarcely three years after the telephone was invented, the switch to assigning a
customer a number began, with a four digit code being typical. Calls were not dialed by
the customer, indeed, there were no dial telephones yet. All calls were connected
manually by an operator at a switchboard.
Why You Can't Spell Quiz Using the Telephone Keypad
AT&T's operating companies started installing dial telephones in the mid to late 1920s.
Customers could now dial numbers themselves, instead of having an operator place
them as before. Rather than use all digits to indicate a telephone number, AT&T hit
upon a hybrid system of letters and numbers. Instead of a number like 351-1017, the
Bell System referred to it by a name like ELgin 1-1017, ELliot 1-1017, or ELmwood 1-
1017. Something like that. The two letters and a number indicated a customer's
switching office or exchange, the last four digits the actual customer's number. But
why use letters?
The Bell System thought abbreviations would prevent misdialing, a mnemonic device to
help callers unaccustomed to using dial telephones. AT&T's William G. Blauvelt
designed a dial with the letters and numbers we use today, one without a Q or Z, one
without letters for the digits 1 and 0. The assumption was, therefore, that customers
could dial four or five numbers correctly but not six or seven. And that somehow they
needed letters as well.
Step Aside Barbara Walters!
When AT&T held its pioneering demonstration of television on April 7, 1927, Edna Mae
Horner, an operator at the Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Company, helped guests
in Washington, D.C., exchange greetings with the audience in New York. Throughout
the presentation, viewers in New York could see and hear Edna as she called eager
audience members to the transmitting equipment. Edna thus became the first woman to
appear on U.S. television.
In reporting the day’s events, The New York Times noted that Edna was “one good-
looking girl with fluffy hair, and as cool and efficient as if she had been at the television-
telephone switchboard all her life."
To thank Edna for her work, AT&T Executive Vice President E.B. Craft invited her to
New York in May 1927. According to an AT&T employee-newspaper account of the
trip, Edna “visited the Laboratories building…and inspected this end of the television
system over which her face and voice had so often been transmitted. The remainder of
her visit was spent in…sightseeing, shopping and theatergoing.”
AT&T’s archives contain no more information about Edna, whose broadcasting career
probably ended almost as quickly as it began — making her not only the first woman
on television, but also the first to experience those fleeting 15 minutes of fame.
Edna Horner makes connections at the switchboard during
the April 7, 1927, demonstration of television.
|Congratulation to our winners!
Mary Fraser Dale Niesen
Lynne Perez Gwen Upton
Cheryl Hinkle Debbie Anderson
Kelly Fetherlin Lynne Darrouzet
Robert McKenna Ken Smith
(If your name has been omitted from the list of winners, it was unintentional. Please let me know.)
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