The Switchboard

Recently, I was looking through an old scrapbook and I came across a yellowed newspaper clipping from the Calgary Herald dated April 30, 1964. It was entitled Machine No Substitute For Langdon’s Operator. Mrs. Scott, our intrepid community switchboard operator of 46 years was retiring at the age of 76. The article goes on to say that automation would never replace this one-woman first aid administrator, mid-wife, fire department, and telephone operator. She started in 1919 with four rural lines and eight local lines. By 1964 she was handling 20 rural lines and 22 local.

So what does all of this mean? What is a switchboard operator anyway? Well, in the time before direct dialing, telephone exchanges or switchboards were the only way for people to communicate by phone. The typical telephone switchboard consisted of a vertical panel displaying an array of jacks with a desk in front containing rows of switches and plugs attached to cables that retracted when not in use. When a call came in, the operator at the desk was able to flip a switch and plug into the appropriate cord circuit in order to both receive calls and connect callers to their desired numbers. The jacks lit up when customers connected.

I remember visiting Mrs. Scott in her snug switchboard room. It smelled of old wood and rubber. I think she lived in the back. She had the knack of being kind, friendly and all business at the same time. This unassuming lady with sensible shoes and cardigan sweaters was the life-blood of the community in so many ways. Need a doctor? Call Mrs. Scott. See a fire? Call Mrs. Scott. Need to call your Grandma in Manitoba? Call Mrs. Scott and wait for her to connect across cities with different operators. In emergencies, she would often administer first aid, help deliver babies or provide comfort until a doctor arrived. She was on call 24/7.

The operator’s assistance was required for everything other than calling within a shared party line. Yes, a party line. When I was a kid, everyone in small towns and rural areas had to share a telephone line with two to ten neighbours. I think we had about five neighbours on our party line. We had an old wall-mounted phone in the kitchen with a receiver and a hand-crank. All of those sharing the line had a simple telephone number and a morse code type ring. Our telephone number was 603 and our ring was two shorts and a long. This system came with a few unwritten rules and required a lot of mutual respect.

Since we could all hear our neighbours’ phones ringing, it was assumed that we wouldn’t listen to their conversations. Of course, some people just couldn’t resist the temptation. One or two made a hobby of ‘rubbernecking’ calls. You could hear them breathing! The one rule that we all abided by was that no one would make late-night calls to their neighbours or the operator unless there was an emergency. Our sanity and survival as a community depended on it.

Mrs. Scott knew everyone in the community, their joys and their struggles. Shared telephone lines intimately connected neighbours in ways we could never imagine today. If you asked anyone under 40 (maybe even older) today to describe a switchboard, they probably wouldn’t know where to begin. Advancements in technology have brought us closer together globally. Advancement is a good thing. Right? Now we don’t even have to answer our cell phones. We can just text. No need to waste time.

Why do I feel a sense of longing for the good old days of Mrs. Scott, the switchboard, the party line? Maybe she was the glue that kept the community from becoming polarized. Maybe she was the balm that healed us when we needed it.