☎️ Meeting My Muse: A Switchboard Operator’s Story
Interview with Carol Bartle of the Tacoma Pioneer Telephone Museum
When I started The Switchboard, I named this newsletter in honor of the patient Switchboard Operators who connected telephone calls in the past. Recently, I wondered if it might be possible to meet one of my muses today.
Thanks to the Telecommunications History Group whose mission is “to acquire, preserve, and promote the rich heritage of the telecommunications industry and to connect that past to evolving technologies and cultures,” it happened — virtually! Its President Peter Amstein suggested I call Carol Bartle of the Tacoma Pioneer Telephone Museum. This article shares what I learned from our conversation.
In This Article
🪙 A Day in the life of a Switchboard Operator
📞 Communications advice for the present from the past
🙏🏽 Gratitude for telephone technology
Once upon a time, before email, Zoom and Slack, the telephone served as one of our primary modes of business communications. Calls were connected by Switchboard Operators who required “concentration, good interpersonal skills and quick hands” according to London’s Science Museum. The operators required the utmost confidentiality as they often heard private conversations. For virtual tours of this telephone technology, consider exploring The Smithsonian’s collection or the Museum of Communication Frankfurt in partnership with Google Arts and Culture.
To experience the Hollywood version of a typical switchboard room, the opening scene of Mrs. Maisel (Season 2) offers a classic portrayal — a chaotic, boisterous room filled with calm and focused operators. The job exuded energy, thrill and purpose — it was their role to connect people with the information they needed or find the right channel to get them there.
With the passage of time, the invention of technologies and the evolution of job responsibilities, I observe parallels between this past work and the current role of internal communications professionals. We connect people, distribute information and empower employees to learn about each other, their work and the company’s mission.
Today, when we send a company email newsletter, host a virtual meeting or distribute major announcements, the digital, automated processes make connecting and sharing quick, impactful and efficient (most of the time). Behind the scenes, much like the telephone exchange operators, we are drafting, planning and strategizing. Along the way, we also cultivate experiences that make work meaningful with a vibrant culture of employee events, diversity initiatives and learning opportunities.
Below is my conversation with Carol, a former Switchboard Operator from Tacoma, Washington. She volunteers with the Tacoma Pioneer Telephone Museum. Take a short virtual tour of the museum and experience her enthusiasm in this video:
Could you tell us about your role as a Switchboard Operator?
I started in 1962. We went through six weeks of training before we could even take a call! We couldn't say phone, it was the telephone. That first year that I was a Telephone Operator, every long-distance call went through us. We didn’t have “Dial 1.” Everything was done with pencil and paper with little paper tickets.
We wrote down the city that you were calling, your telephone number and the number you were calling. You could choose between person to person or station to station. I used a calculagraph and could take up to 11 calls. There were green and red handles to know when to start or stop.
With pay telephones, we would have to listen really closely for the sounds of the coins — a quarter made a thunk sound, a dime was ding ding and a nickel was ding! It was very challenging. We were also the Operators who answered questions about thawing turkeys and the names of shops. It was always really interesting work!
What inspired you to pursue your career path?
At my high school, they had a career day. Someone came from the telephone company. I was so excited that you could get paid to talk! Until then, I was told, “Carol does great work, but she talks too much!”
They actually sent someone to my home to talk to my parents and me to see if I was the right kind of girl to work for the telephone company — they didn't want just anybody. For the first four years, I was an operator. Then, I transferred to business marketing where I was a customer instructor so whenever a large business customer signed up, I trained them how to use their switchboard. Once a year, I taught a telephone etiquette class.
As a frustrated stand-up comedian (I can't keep late hours — 9:00 pm is late for me), it was fine for me because I could be funny during the day. I made it entertaining as I taught etiquette! I even started to walk out of one class and made everyone gasp, only to return and turn around the perspective of one student who didn’t want to be there! In the end, she didn’t want to leave.
Do you have a memorable story of your work as a Switchboard operator?
We were basically 911 — there was no 911 then. If you had a huge problem, you'd dial 0 for the Operator. I remember that someone’s water heater exploded and she called me asking for help. I didn’t know what to do! It was really scary, and I hope it all worked out.
How has the telephone industry changed since your career began?
What used to take a whole floor of equipment is now the size of a refrigerator! The fourth floor used to be where all the operators were — there were hundreds of employees who would come and go every day. They aren’t there anymore.
Now, your phone is in your pocket, but it used to be on the wall. We had a step-by-step which looked like mailboxes and each one was a particular number from 0 to 9. Each one had to go up and over to the number, it took forever! Now, you just press a few buttons and a call can happen so fast.
What advice would you give people today to be better communicators?
If you are going to place a business call, be ready to have a pencil and paper in front of you. When you call, don’t start out with your name. Say where you are calling from first, then your name. The minute you say something else, they will forget your name.
If you are letting someone know that there’s a call, the person who picks up the phone should say that person's name and ask how they can help you!
Even if you are working from home, you still represent your company when you are getting calls from customers or from other employees. You still need to be nice to them. Never say “I don't know!” instead say “I don't have that information right here, but I can certainly get that for you. Let me take your name and number and call you back.”
Thank you for reading. Feel free to comment on Carol’s story or give it a heart. ❤️
☎️ Every edition of The Switchboard is personally curated by me — Julia Levy. This post is based on a live interview conversation and edited for publication. Learn more about why I write.
This was so much fun to read. When I was in high school in 1970, my summer job was as a switchboard operator on Long Island (Bell Telephone) along with some other high school friends. We were temporary employees, trained and covered vacations of the full-time operators. They still used cord boards and we would compete to fan them out the best and fastest with incoming calls. I worked summers for 6 years and by around the third year we’d switched to consoles. It’s the job that helped put me through college. My grandmother was a telephone operator in Brooklyn from rge 1940’s till she retired in the 1960’s. She had the stories!