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Operators Were Standing By

In 1878, the world’s first telephone exchange opened in New Haven. The first telephone subscriber was John E. Todd, Class of 1855, pastor of the Church of the Redeemer. (Coincidentally, his home on Church Street later became the site of the Southern New England Telephone Company’s headquarters.)


By 1911, the telephone was “here to stay and not just a crazy fad.”

Over the years Yale offices and departments also became individual subscribers. The university did not establish its own service until 1911, when, according to a 1936 article in the Yale Daily News, President Arthur Twining Hadley '76 and Yale College dean Frederick Scheetz Jones '84, '96MA, became convinced that the telephone was “here to stay and not just a crazy fad.” In 1912, the Yale treasurer reported: “The University Private Branch Telephone Exchange was opened for service in the early autumn of 1911, connecting all Departments of the University and allied interests, such as the undergraduate papers, associations, etc.” That year, Yale truly entered the modern age by installing two additional communication tools—the addressograph and the mimeograph—and by replacing gas with electricity for lighting the college buildings.

The exchange was installed in the Round House, a small building on Elm Street in the Berkeley Oval, a dormitory complex. (Berkeley College was later built on the site of the Oval.) Known as the PBX, the Yale exchange was so successful in its first year of operation that at the beginning of the new college year additional switchboard facilities were provided. The number of telephones had grown in the departments by more than 33 percent, and overall by 43 percent. There were about 250,000 calls connected through the exchange during the college year. The treasurer remarked on the increased ease of communications between departments and greater efficiency, especially for those farthest removed from the university center, such as the forestry and medical schools and the infirmary. The centralized exchange was also less expensive than when each department arranged for its own telephone service.

The News noted that the first operators, all women, were “middle-aged and matronly.” Then, as the number of calls increased, highly trained younger women were hired. In 1913, the News reported that students could place calls in the Round House or use the pay telephone stations that began to appear in some of the residence hall entryways. The students welcomed the convenience of hall telephones—at first. But complaints about having to answer telephones became so numerous that the News held a survey that year. The students grumbled most about calls from women seeking (other) men: “Every call means going to someone’s room, discovering that he is out, assuring the sweet inquirer that you really have no idea when he will be in, don’t expect to see him tonight, don’t think he has gone to Bridgeport, and don’t know when he will be back if he has. If you get off here you will be lucky. Ten to one there are more seniors she knows and would speak to, per-haps in the topmost part of Welch or Connecticut.”


A local woman who found a pink grasshopper wanted to know what to do with it.

In 1932, when the Berkeley Oval was demolished, the Yale PBX of SNET moved to a large room in the basement of Wright Hall. The switchboard ran along the entire length of the wall facing the Old Campus, with a massive dynamo in one corner. Seven operators kept the service going around the clock, with two women working together at a time. Operators were trained for every sort of emergency. For example, said one operator, “whenever there is a social function at Woolsey at least one subscriber calls up to ask what he should wear.” There were countless calls about the availability of tickets for university events. An operator reported that the speaker might even lose his temper when the “telephone girl” informed him that she could not personally take care of his request.

The operators also received excited calls for help from the community. A frantic shoemaker complained that a student had gone off without paying his bill and insisted that he be located. A local woman who found a pink grasshopper wanted to know what to do with it. By 1936, the 80-line switchboards and 1,800 exchanges handled 4,500 calls a day, some from as far away as Honolulu and Berlin. Perhaps the most impressive talent of the operators was their ability, when a caller knew only the name of the party, to connect to the correct extension number without looking it up. They committed most of the names and numbers to memory.

The Round House “telephone girl” is memorialized in a small 1930s relief sculpture on the north wall of Berkeley College where the exchange once stood. In faux Egyptian style, it depicts a woman seated on a small bench. She wears headphones and holds up a line to be plugged into the unseen switchboard. At the left there is a small carving of the Round House. This is the first sculpture on the Yale campus that honors a woman.  the end


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