The essence of a telephone operator’s job was to efficiently connect a caller to someone they wanted to call during an era when the technology was not yet sophisticated enough to allow direct connection. For many years it meant physically plugging and unplugging wires into the switchboard, connecting or disconnecting callers.

The idea for a commercial telephone exchange originated in April 1877, a year after Alexander Graham Bell patented his invention, according to history.com’s “The Rise and Fall of Telephone Operators.”

George W. Coy of New Haven, Connecticut, got the idea when he attended a lecture by Bell during which he demonstrated his new device, the telephone.

Coy, who worked in the telegraph business, came up with the idea for a central switchboard that allowed anyone with a telephone to call or be called by anyone else who had one, according to the website.

That first switchboard was built from carriage bolts, handles from teapot lids and bustle wire from women’s skirts, according to Wikipedia. It could handle two simultaneous conversations.

As demand for telephones increased, switchboards and their operators began to handle more callers. “Each of the phones in a particular locale would be connected by wire to a central exchange. The owner of a telephone would call the exchange, and a switchboard operator would answer. The caller would give the operator the name of the person he or she wanted to speak with, and the operator would plug a patch cord into that person’s socket on the switchboard, connecting the two,” says history.com.

As networks grew, so did the ability to call farther away. Long-distance calls required the local exchange to patch the call through to more distant exchanges, again through wires. As exchanges added more customers, each customer was assigned a number, and a caller could request to be connected to a number.

“Some early telephone operators worked at small, rural exchanges, their switchboards located in the local railroad station or the back of a general store. In cities, massive switchboards could have long rows of operators packed elbow to elbow,” according to history.com.

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