September 1 is Emma M. Nutt Day

August 31, 2018 | M. Elwood

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Switchboard Operators

In the early days of telephone communication, switchboard operators were male, often teenage boys whose rudeness and lack of patience with callers was a problem. Alexander Graham Bell realized that women were successfully employed in telegraph offices and believed that their natural grace and calmness would be a good match for the Edwin Holmes Telephone Dispatch Company. Women could also be paid less than male employees, another benefit for Bell's company. Eighteen-year-old Emma Mills Nutt, who had been working at a telegraph office became the first female operator on September 1, 1878. She was followed a few hours later by her sister Stella and within 6 months all of the Bell company's operators were female. The women hired were required to be single, between 17-26 years of age, and had to meet height and arm length requirements. It was a physical job; connecting each call required between 2 and 6 operators who had to kneel, bend and stretch to plug in switches--all while wearing ankle length skirts. The photo above, from the United States Bureau of Labor circa 1910, gives an idea of what the work was like, although the switchboard had been raised off the floor in this photo. 

Emma Nutt worked 54 hours per week and earned $10 per month. She retired in 1915, after remaining with the company for 33 years. 

Telephones or switchboards are featured in these novels:

Cell by Stephen King

Cell by Stephen King

A pulse is sent through the phone system that turns much of the population into violent killers who are somehow connected to each other telepathically. A small group of unaffected survivors join forces to figure out what has happened and whether there's a cure. 

Landline by Rainbow Rowell

Landline by Rainbow Rowell

Neal and Georgie are going through a rough patch in their marriage. It's so rough, in fact, that Neal has taken the kids to spend Christmas at his mother's house in Omaha, Nebraska. Meanwhile at their home in Los Angeles Georgie worries that their relationship may not be salvageable, especially since Neal won't answer his phone. She finally gets through to him when she calls from her mother's landline, but soon realizes she is talking to a much younger version of Neal, who is suffering through another earlier rough patch in his relationship with Georgie. 

One Night at the Call Center by Chetan Bhagat

One Night at the Call Center by Chetan Bhagat

Six friends in India work together at a call center selling appliances to people in the US. The book takes place on American Thanksgiving, but the call center is busy fielding complaints from customers whose appliances have suddenly malfunctioned. 

Slaves of the Switchboard of Doom: a novel of Retropolis by Bradley W. Schenck

Slaves of the Switchboard of Doom: a novel of Retropolis by Bradley W. Schenck

Set in a future similar to the World of Tomorrow imagined at 1939's World's Fair, people connect to the internet through a switchboard similar to the one Emma Nutt used. When group of switchboard operators are suddenly fired, they hire adventurer Dash Kent to find out why. After all, someone needs to connect people with the Info-Net--if the human operators are gone, who is controlling the flow of information?

Talk Dirty to Me by Dakota Cassidy

Talk Dirty to Me by Dakota Cassidy

Dixie Davis has returned to Plum Orchard, Georgia for the funeral of her best friend Landon. She's also wanting to make amends for her past bad behaviour but people aren't willing to forgive her. To her shock, Dixie discovers to that Landon was the owner of Call Girls, a phone sex business that she can inherit if she wins a contest against her handsome ex-fiancé. This is the first book in the Plum Orchard series, which concerns the lives and loves of the employees of Call Girls. 

I wonder if Emma Nutt could even imagine a world of constant, instant contact, phone apps and games, data breaches, viruses and phone sex.   

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