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Switchboard Memories and Directory Assistance History
Links on this page: Introduction International Operator Center Directory Assistance
By J.R. Synder Jr.
I think your web site is great but I haven't found a lot about operators and cord switchboards, TSPS and later TOPS. This is an important part of telecom history, in part because it was one of the few respectable jobs that women could hold in the 20th century. My aunt was one of the first women Traffic Managers in the 1960's, when the job was held by men. In that era it was fine for women to be operators, floor supervisors, first and second level supervisors, but a District Manager (Traffic Manager) was considered out of the question.
I was the third male operator in Arizona as a teenager in the early 70's. (In those days no self-respecting adult man would do a 'woman's job'.) I worked on a "highboard" corded Western Electric switchboard built in 1948.
I was 16 and that was my first "real" job and to this day I say it was the most fun. I can still remember the steps to follow in placing a call and the methods and procedures for all kinds of situations. It was in the days when an information call, you know, NPA+555-1212, came into the cordboard and we asked "for what city" and had to have in our head all the localities in the entire state and rapidly connect them through the tandem to the local toll center Directory Assistance operator. It was the end of an era because we knew TSPS (Toll Service Position System) was coming. With TSPS the cordboard was eliminated and operator could be located almost anywhere. No stopping the computer age.
We had 8 possible connections for 8 simultaneous calls and the back cord was used on the lower circuits for the incoming calls from various exchanges marked "Phoenix", "Wickenburg", "Mesa", "Scottsdale", etc. The strict rule was when not on a call you always "held a (back) cord" to be ready to stab into the local exchange circuit that lit up and said "Operator" or "Long Distance." We recorded with mark sense pencils on IBM cards the call information while we were pulling forward the front cord for the outgoing call. The majority of calls of course were long distance, especially since in Arizona there still were quite a few places without "1+" dialing. The upper circuits on the board were the tandem circuits and most of us used them for local calls also instead of going higher on the board to each exchanges outgoing circuit.
One of the first rules you learned in training was "you must always do a 'tip test' on the tandem circuit before inserting the cord tip all the way." We were to listen for slight static to see if there was -48 volts active, which meant the circuit was active. You couldn't always depend on the lamps and you didn't want to start key pulsing away and interrupting a call in progress by keying tones.
International Operator Center
I later went to the International Operator Center in Jacksonville, FL which was also a cordboard because International Direct Distance Dialing hadn't even reached a lot of the local operators, much less customers. So when you say "the last cord switchboard was retired in Catalina" that's not entirely true. That was the last local cordboard in the Bell System. I'd have to research it but the last toll cord switchboard was retired in either western Kansas or Nebraska much later. It was several years after that the International cordboards were retired in the International Operating Centers: Oakland, Denver, Pittsburg, Manhattan, White Plains, Springfield (MA) and Jacksonville (FL). They had been modified and a keyboard placed on them to replace mark sense tickets.
As inquisitive as I was there were some things I avoided like the plague at the JAX or Jackson IOC. I disliked High Seas because it was on MARISAT, the acronym for Maritime Satellite. Notorious for echo and reverberation, sometimes it would take 6-9 call setups for 1 call. Billing and paper ticket nightmare. We had a row of trunks above the tandems, along with the ring down countries, labeled MARISAT. It made me hate to have to learn relatively simple ship-to-shore on Southern Bell's 10 position cordboard in the new TSPS office.
There were two satellites, one for the Atlantic and the other for the Pacific. Therefore, Jacksonville and Oakland. When I was in the IOC from 1976-78 it was still relatively new technology and who'd a thunk Iridium. I believe it's Inmarsat now which bought Motorola's Iridium.
Motorola used to be a major employer in Arizona and a lot of work on Iridium was done in Scottsdale. It's passage cost a lot of high paying, good jobs in Arizona and made Motorola a blip on our now poor state economy.
When I started I was loaned for a while in a small toll center that had the old "Information" alphabetical whirling kiosk like listings. They were vertical and the names, addresses and phone numbers where on strips of paper that could be removed. Every week there were clerks who put in all the new listings and rearranged the strips in order. Twice a day we got a paper addendum with the new listings which we were required to check after we'd done a look up on the revolving kiosk before we could give out a "no listing found."
In Phoenix we were one of the last toll centers to still have giant paper directories which we flipped through in a specific way using a thumb and finger rubber on the upper right corner. They trained our eyes to look at the top of the page for the alpha group and then scan down the columns using a "green card" which we used to place under the listing when it was found. The addendum was in the back. The entire alpha tabbed Phoenix Directory was on the right side and the rest of the state on the left side. In the center of them both, which was where we supposed to return to after giving a listing, was the "FCNL" or Frequently Called Number List which ranged from Ambulances to Time, government agencies and businesses that a lot of requests where made. I can still remember the Phoenix PD number (before 911) which was 262-6151.
Information operators circa 1940s. Keeping these paper based directories up to date before computers was a challenging, ongoing problem.
I volunteered to go to Mableton, GA (outside of Atlanta) for the trial of the microfiche DA system. It basically was just photographs of the Directory pages and Addendum. We keyed in the first 2-4 letters we were looking for (last name or name of business) and it whirled around to that page. The green card was on a stick and we used it to hold under the listing. It returned to the Frequently Called Number List page when you were done with the listing. That was in the mid 70's and didn't last long.
Arizona bypassed the whole microfiche machine and waited until 1979 and put in DAS/C (Directory Assistance/Computerized) which was the real advance. You keyed in the 2-4 letters and it came directly to the most recent listing. It was very boring and I hated having to do it, but I was cross-trained and "demands of service" were the rule of the day. TSPS didn't come into Arizona until about that time either, 5 years after most of the country did. At the time we had only 1.1 million population, one area code, every operator knew just about every prefix and it's central office in the state and the toll center that handled it.
Oh, a last mention. We also had Toll Stations. Nine of them as a matter of fact; Organ Pipe, the bottom of the Grand Canyon and Crown King come to mind. They were all "rung down" from Phoenix. Click on this link to read more.
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(Soundwaves) (Life at Western Electric)
- Many, many more related pages! Click for a list. Information on J.R. Snyder Jr., operators, directory assistance working and history, placing toll calls and so on. Great reading.