Steve Woods

Emma M. Nutt : The First Telephone Operator

In What Day is it? on September 1, 2009 at 12:15 pm

Emma M. Nutt131 years ago to this day, Emma M. Nutt took the job as the very first female telephone operator in history, for the Edwin Holmes Telephone Dispatch Company.  Remember good old fashioned telephone operators? Well, Boston native Emma did this job for over 30 years, enjoying every minute of it.

This may come as a shock to many, but telephone operator-hood did not start with women. Initially, young men were hired to do the job. Very young men. They shirked their responsibilities, were rude to (or even played pranks on) the callers, and often were found enmeshed in fist-fights, while other operators cheered them on.  As opposed to today, wherein young men are scions of responsibility and politeness. But I digress.

Emma’s soothing voice, cultured manner of speech, and incredible patience encouraged her company to replace the young men with women, who had to be single, aged 17-26, prim and proper in appearance, and had to be of tall enough stature to reach all phone switch sockets. As with many good-paying positions at the time, African American and Jewish women were not allowed to be operators. Eventually, Emma was hired by Alexander Graham Bell himself, and is said to be able to remember every single phone number in the New England Telephone Company directory.

Before automated telephone exchanges were invented, a human being was required for all calls other than those through a shared “party” line. Callers dialed into a central operator at a “switching office,” and the operator connected you to the appropriate line to complete the connection. Because the operator’s headphones were directly patched into any connection to “facilitate the process,” many operators ultimately found themselves fired from not resisting the urge to listen in on a multitude of private conversations.

Direct-dialing systems were put into place around 1920, reducing labor costs and ensuring customer privacy. Traditional switching office operators rapidly began to disappear off the American communications landscape, relegated to be called upon only when the automated systems failed.

The synthesized speech system created by Philips Electronics for automated telephone services was named after Emma, in honor of her service.

Today is also Lily Tomlin’s birthday. Lily was aware of the connection between the day of her arrival in the World and Emma M. Nutt Day. It was the reason she chose to play an old-fashioned phone operator to the hilt.

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