Think you’ve got what it takes to be a 1920s telephone operator?
That’s the question behind Mike Lazer-Walker’s unusual new video game Hello Operator, which uses a real live vintage 1927 telephone switchboard to play a time-management game akin to Diner Dash or Tapper. Just like a real telephone operator, the player must juggle dozens of impatient callers along a limited number of phone lines in an attempt to get everyone’s calls through within a limited amount of time.
Walker’s game debuted at the alternate controller exhibition of 2016’s Game Developer’s Conference in San Fransico, CA as an experiment in alternate forms of gaming—but according to an interview with Kill Screen’s Jess Joho, he also hoped to explore the history behind telephone operators, the majority of whom were women. The industry didn’t start that way, however. Walker notes:
“What’s fascinating about this is that, originally, switchboard operators were men. But the work was too tiring and they were so gruff and so nasty that they then brought in the women instead…It was sort of the opposite of computing. In computing, no one wanted to do it at first, so it was considered women’s work, and then the men came in when they found it interesting enough.”
Like Walker says, the first telephone operators were indeed male—but they were much younger. Originally they were young boys, the same ones who’d worked at the telegraph offices, except instead of tapping out messages, they were running around connecting switchboard wires in teams of two to four, “dash[ing] from board to board to make connections,” according to Ellen Stern in Once Upon A Telephone: An Illustrated Social History (1994). While this initial approach was economical, since the boys already worked there, it soon led to other problems—namely, the fact that they were teenage boys. As a result, they were “rowdy and restless” and “took pleasure in insulting callers, pulling pranks, and crossing wires”—not exactly shining examples of customer service!
So when Emma Nutt came to Boston’s Telephone Dispatch Company with her soothing voice in 1878, her employers soon saw her as a godsend. Not only did she “supposedly remembe[r] every number in the New England Telephone Company directory,” but she was patient with callers, soothing ruffled feathers while getting calls connected. Following her success, other telephone companies soon started hiring women, whom they expected to be innately polite. By the 1880s the job was dominated by female employees, and being a telephone operator became a respectable women’s job. According to Stern, the ideal employee was “obedient, virtuous, and…unmarried.” If she married while employed, she lost her job. She also put herself in jeopardy if she didn’t dress “prim and proper,” didn’t keep focused on her switchboard, didn’t sit perfectly straight, spent time “chattering” with other employees or callers, crossed her legs, blew her nose, or wiped her brow “without permission” from an overseer. Height, weight, and even “arm length” were also important considerations, ensuring that one could transfer calls efficiently; women under five feet tall, or those with “foreign” accents, need not apply.
One’s attitude was also a big deal: operators had to “respond quickly, efficiently, and patiently” to all customers, no matter how irate the customers might be—or how tired they themselves were. Considering that a large part of their job consisted of answering “number please” on “the average of 120 times every hour,” it was easy to become less than enthused about answering calls—and when you got an irate customer, it could be even harder. An entertaining 1922 New York Times article written by “a telephone operator” described some of the average callers she dealt with, including:
- a customer who accused her repeatedly of reading War and Peace, rather than answering and connecting his calls—nevermind that she had a supervisor breathing down her neck all day
- a tired businessman who always talked around his cigar, and “expect[ed] us to translate [his] grunts…into the number he desires”
- a women who always gave her “life story” before actually divulging the number she wanted to call
- a toddler who’d pick up the phone and not hang up, no matter how much the operators beg in “English and the baby language” for him to hang up so he’ll stop tying up the line
Those who stuck it out, though, often ended up finding their work rewarding. According to Stern, Alfred A. Green, an attorney for AT&T, ended up working as an operator for one day in 1969, and he found it to be “the single most satisfying day…in a quarter-century career at AT&T.” Not only did he connect calls, but he helped customers get information they needed—and in the end he “really felt like I was helping my community—I was a cog in the great public service machine.” This urge to help and connect is paramount to being a good operator. In his book The Telephone Idea: Fifty Years After, Arthur Pound notes:
“In the morale of the telephone group of 1926 shines the same passion for promptness which thrilled weary Inca runners on their grueling journeys…[they have] arrived at a rough-hewn solidarity of interest through their devotion to getting the message through…Among telephone workers, this sense of responsibility becomes doubly strong. From its very nature, telephone service is an intimate, personal service…[and] the men and women of the telephone never know…the importance of the messages they are called upon to speed on their way. Telephone calls carry no special delivery stamps—nothing to indicate what connection may involve a matter of life or death; nothing to foretell the far-reaching results that may follow failure to get every single call through to its destination.” —Arthur Pound, The Telephone Idea, pages 54-56
Interestingly, this sense of responsibility and connection to callers is exactly what encouraged some people to keep playing Walker’s game. As he observed, it was “neat to find the players who get into the role play and end up feeling really bad for the people they’re leaving on the line.” Walker is hoping to add a narrative element to a later version of the game, one which would involve listening in on conversations—something real operators sometimes did, especially with party lines. “What does it mean when three people are making calls at once and you have to decide who to listen to?” Walker asked. “How can I make sure that you have an interesting story? Is it like a murder mystery, where you have to figure out who did it? There’s a really big narrative possibility space there.”
Unfortunately, Walker has no plans to release his game commercially (though, given his choice of console, this is understandable). Instead, he hopes his game “winds up in a museum,” possibly after he’s added more narrative content.
However, you can still hear Walker explain his game—and watch Kotaku reporter Kirk Hamilton play it—at the video below:
If you really must try it for yourself, you can play with this 2015 online game I found that simulates a switchboard. I wasn’t sure how to play it, but feel free to experiment with it.
Want something really odd? Try this 1931 guide to the history of the telephone, told from the point of view of…the telephone? It’s terribly odd, but the illustrations are bizarre and interesting.
Also, there’s a pretty sweet short story by Dorthy Parker called A Telephone Call (1930) that you can read here for free. It’s short and very much worth a read. Enjoy!