Spiders in the web

Central battery telephone station, The Netherlands 1903

Switchboard operators were typical of the times throughout much of the past century. Today, however, only a few remain. Over a long period, these primarily female service workers, like spiders in the web, constituted the real center of activity in the telephone network as they manually connected every call in the country.

This had its drawbacks, of course. There are many portrayals, in old films for example, of how the town’s switchboard operator listened in on confidential conversations and spread rumors throughout the town. Like the pictures of printing presses pumping out an extra edition of the daily newspaper, the image of switchboard operators sitting in long rows in front of banks of switchboard lights and plugging in cords as they connect town and country, high and low, near and far with each other seems to suggest an enormous system of gossip, rumor and news broadcasting.

A call overheard by the wrong person could be fatal for share prices. During the Second World War, some switchboard operators were key persons for discovering what the Germans were really up to and from which Swedish citizens the delegation on Blasieholmen received their information. (At least this is the part of the eavesdropping that we prefer to remember today.)

Town gossip, share prices, or international politics. None of these phenomena would have been the same during the 20th century without switchboard operators. However, switchboard operators were not only typical for the era when black bakelite instruments were used for telephone calls. Long after most normal calls were switched automatically, switchboard operators continued to serve subscribers, remaining in service until long before pocket phones took over technologically but not many years earlier in time.

I remember our mobile phone when I was small. There was a light gray handset of a standard model for that time, which was fastened in front of the gear shift and connected to a transmitter that took up at least one third of the trunk space. There was also some kind of light diode array on the dashboard that indicated incomings calls, successful connections or something of that nature.

I was proud of the number of antennas on our family’s car and always thought it was fun to make calls while on the road. Those calls were still connected by always friendly, always female operators.

How modern everything is when it’s new – and how quickly what was the very latest becomes a nostalgic reminder of the past. My memories of mobile telephony are from the early 1980s.

What groups of workers in our time will some day, like the switchboard operators, be left behind by advances in technology? Undoubtedly these groups will include some that we currently take for granted and are typical of our time.

Author: Torbjörn Elensky

Indonesia, 1978, telephone station

Manual switchboard. Indonesia, 1978, telephone station

© Telefonaktiebolaget LM Ericsson and Centre for Business History

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