SBC Michigan Recognizes 125 Years of Telephone Operators

Personal Service, Availability Are Hallmarks of Communications Professionals

, Michigan, San Antonio, Texas, October 31, 2003

The telephone operator, an enduring American symbol of personal service and around-the-clock availability, this year celebrates its 125th anniversary. SBC Michigan is recognizing its telephone operators with an Operator Appreciation Week. SBC Michigan also is celebrating 125 years of service to Michigan customers this year.

"Since 1878, customers have been able to just pick up the phone, dial 'zero' or '1-555-1212,' and reach a telephone operator any time of day or night," said Craig Eisner, director of SBC Operator Services for Indiana, Michigan and Ohio. "It's an important job that has been a part of our nation's history and yet has evolved and adapted to changing times and technology.

"Years ago, someone named the operator 'the voice with a smile,'" Eisner said. "That principle still permeates the operator's work ethic today. It's all about service and taking care of the customer."

Gail Torreano, president, SBC Michigan, said telephone operators "have long played an important role in the delivery of telecommunications services to Michigan customers."

"Over the years, the operator's job has changed," Torreano said, "but it's just as important as ever for telephone companies to offer the personal service and human touch that only the operator can provide."

When the first commercial telephone exchange began service in January 1878, teenage boys were hired as the first operators. However, the young men often played pranks on each other and their customers. Within about six months, the Boston telephone exchange decided to add a female operator, a young woman named Emma Nutt.

The response was overwhelmingly positive. Customers were so pleased by Nutt's soothing, cultured voice that the rough shouts of all the boy operators were soon replaced by more and more women's voices -- including, in 1879, that of Misses Bessie Snow Balance, Emma Landon, Carrie Boldt, and Minnie Schumann, the first female operators in Michigan. Men were reintegrated into the Operator workforce in the 1970s.

While personal service has been the overriding constant of the operator's job, what has changed is the equipment they use and the functions they perform every day.

The telephone operator's work environment was once dominated by a large piece of equipment called a "cordboard." Early operators, usually wearing floor-length dresses and harnessed with a heavy mouthpiece and large earphones, had to navigate through a jumble of cords to help calling customers reach their destinations.

In the first half of the 20th Century, all phone calls, both local and long distance, were routed first through an operator. Well into the 1970s, most customers continued to use telephone operators to make long-distance calls until direct distance dialing became commonplace.

"You couldn't just pick up the phone and call someone out of state," said Eisner. "We only had so many lines or circuits for long distance to each location. So you took the customer's number and when a circuit opened up for the city they were calling and you had reached the right person, you called them back and connected them."

Eisner continued, "Operators were a critical link in the lines of telephone communications for years and years. They were often the conduit for information, delivering news about everything from newborn babies to significant world happenings, such as wars and elections."

A critical element to the telephone operators' mission of service was availability, and many operators, even today, spend a Christmas or Mother's Day working a few hours or a full shift. "Over the years, I have worked quite a few Mother's Days, Christmases and Christmas Eves," said Margaret Harris, an SBC operator for 36 years. "Almost everyone has worked a holiday because that's when people need help with everything - from calling family and long lost friends to finding stores on Christmas morning that were open and selling batteries. You were there to help your customers."

Prior to the advent of emergency 911 services, operators were a vital link between people in distress and much-needed help from law enforcement, fire departments and ambulances. The movie line, "Operator, give me the police!" wasn't just Hollywood fiction, but a real plea for help heard numerous times a day by the telephone operators who worked in larger cities and towns. However, the operators seldom found out how the emergencies turned out.

Harris said, "Getting an emergency call was always scary, you never get used to hearing the panic in the other person's voice. But, you just regain your composure and you remain calm. Sometimes, that is the best thing that you can do for the person, staying calm and staying with them on the line until help arrives."

Today, the cordboard is a piece of telephone history. It was phased out in the 1970s with the first of an advancing series of increasingly sophisticated computerized consoles. SBC operators now use a customized personal computer called the Intelligent Work Station or IWS.

The SBC operators' job has changed as well. Operators can check local and national listings, find a name and address by using a listed phone number and provide telephone numbers for specific types of businesses in an area.

"SBC recognizes the important role that the operator has played in the evolution of the telecommunications business," Eisner said. "As times have changed, we've made a consistent effort to stay focused on what our customers need and expect."

SBC Communications Inc. ( is one of the world's leading data, voice and Internet services providers. Through its world-class networks, SBC companies provide a full range of voice, data, networking and e-business services, as well as directory advertising and publishing. A Fortune 30 company, SBC is America's leading provider of high-speed DSL Internet Access services and one of the nation's leading Internet Service Providers. SBC companies currently serve 55 million access lines nationwide. In addition, SBC companies own 60 percent of America's second largest wireless company, Cingular Wireless, which serves 23 million wireless customers. Internationally, SBC companies have telecommunications investments in 26 countries.