Carriers are bailing out millions of customers.
Starting in January, AT&T customers with digital landlines will not be able to dial 411 or 0 to reach an operator or get directory service. AT&T ends carrier service for wireless callers in 2021, though customers with home phone landlines can still access carrier and directory help. Verizon, T-Mobile, and other major carriers still offer these services for a fee.
In a notice on AT&T’s website, the company directed customers to look up addresses and phone numbers on Google or online directories.
“Nearly all of these customers have access to the Internet to find this information,” an AT&T spokesman said.
But a century ago, the function of the operator was Google. Everyone knows it’s “information”.
“Carriers were the Internet before the Internet. There’s a wonderful cycle there,” said Josh Lauer, an associate professor of media studies at the University of New Hampshire who is writing a book on the cultural history of the phone.
In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, carrier services were a selling point to customers. The carrier is a key link in the dominant Bell System, the telecommunications network owned by AT&T.
Operators became the early face of the telephone, the people behind the emerging and sophisticated technology. The job is filled mostly by single, middle-class white women, often referred to as “Hello Girls.” The Bell System, known as Ma Bell, advertises its army of mostly female operators as mean and attentive — “smiling voices” — to attract and keep customers.
Back in the 20th century, AT&T provided weather, bus schedules, sports scores, times and dates, election results, and other information requests.
“Phone users interpreted her as an effective way of locating any information,” wrote Emma Goodmann, assistant professor of communications at Clark University, in her 2019 paper on the history of telephone operators.
During Orson Welles’ broadcast of “War of the Worlds” on Halloween 1938, residents of New Jersey believed Martians were invading and frantically called operators for information about the invasion and separated them from their loved ones before the end of the world get in touch.
Thirty years later, a Bell company says a customer called to ask an operator if he was a mammal, “like a whale,” while a woman wondered how to keep squirrels out of her house, Goodman said.
Advances in technology such as the internet and smartphones, the deregulation of the telecommunications industry in the 1980s, and other factors contributed to the near extinction of human operators. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there will be fewer than 4,000 telephone operators in 2021, down from a peak of about 420,000 in the 1970s.
But people still called the operator and asked for help with the number.
“The use of 411 is not insignificant,” the FCC said in a 2019 report. The FCC estimated at the time that 71 million calls were made to 411 each year.
In 1878, two years after Alexander Graham Bell patented the telephone, the first telephone exchange was invented in New Haven, Connecticut.
It is designed to handle business communications, not social calls between local residents. Doctors, police, banks and post offices were the first subscribers.
To connect a call, an operator at the exchange takes the caller’s request and actually inserts one line into another.
Bell and other telephone exchanges spread all over the Northeast. Initially, telephone companies employed mostly men and boys to answer calls. But being an operator quickly became a gendered job.
Male managers believe that women are better suited to take and take calls from rude customers because they are perceived as more submissive and polite. Companies can also pay them less than men.
In a 1994 paper called “When Women Are Converted,” Kenneth Lipartito, a history professor at Florida International University, wrote that telephone companies look for female operators who will show their customers ” Comfortable and elegant image”.
Companies reject black and minority workers with accents, and policies prohibit female operators from marrying. By 1900, more than 80 percent of the operators were single, American-born white women.
Operator work is frantic and repetitive.
Workers must scan thousands of minijacks, keeping an eye out for lights that indicate new and ended calls. During peak hours, operators handle hundreds of calls an hour, Lipartito said.
The training is also very strict, and the procedures are also very strict. Women were asked to adjust their voices to sound more polite when answering the phone and to speak to the caller in a recognized language.
A 1926 AT&T video “Training in Service” says: “By training in the art of variation, she acquires the gentle qualities of consistent courtesy.”
Although many of Bell’s independent telephone competitors began using “female-free” automatic attendants in the first decades of the 20th century, the Bell system remained committed to human operators. According to Bell, automation cannot provide the same level of personal service.
“She’s one of the 250,000 girls who give you great service 24/7. She’s your telephone operator,” reads a typical Bell Systems magazine ad.
Operators played a vital role because phone books were often inaccurate and customers could not be expected to remember updated numbers and addresses.
Carriers have also unwittingly become catch-all bags of information during the first decades of communication. People often call the operator for directions, time and weather, baseball scores and other questions.
In the early twentieth century, telephone companies began to separate requests for information from requests for phone numbers.
In 1968, the Bell System changed the name of its information service to “Directory Service” because too many people took the name too literally.
“When she was called ‘Information,’ people kept calling her that for the wrong reasons,” said a Bell ad at the time. “Now we call her ‘Number Lookup’ and expect you to only call her numbers you can’t find in the phone book.”
Strikes, competition for labor, and rising wages during and after World War I prompted Bell to accelerate its automation plans.
In 1920, fewer than 5 percent of Bell exchanges had automatic switchboards. Ten years later, more than 30 percent are automated, according to a 2019 article by the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond.
The development of the automatic switchboard gave birth to the direct-dial telephone in the 1920s. (University of New Hampshire’s Lauer said the “0” for operator appeared on dial phones. On newer Bell dials, “Operator” was printed in place of the “0.” The use of “411” also appeared on the dial in the Era .The “0” becomes the general number for operator assistance, and “411” is the number for directory assistance. Later, if you dial “0” and ask for directory assistance, the operator will transfer you to “411.”)
But the gradual adoption of electronic switchboards and direct-dial telephones did not eliminate the need for human operators.
The automatic switchboard is mainly used for making local calls. Decades after the introduction of direct-dial telephones, operators were still handling long-distance calls, long-distance calls, and calls from the police and fire departments. This meant that until about the 1970s, the number of operator positions continued to increase.
Directory services were also largely free to customers until the 1970s, when AT&T began charging customers to curb “abuse” of the service and shift the high cost of hiring a carrier and processing time-consuming information lookups.
“Some people just don’t want to bother looking up phone numbers themselves,” the AT&T chairman complained in 1974.
The breakup of AT&T and the deregulation of the telecommunications industry in the 1980s changed carriers and directory services. Phone companies began cutting operator lines, automating service and charging customers for calls.
Demand for directory services has plummeted as companies have raised prices. At the same time, the advent of the internet and smartphones replaced these services for most callers.
In 1984, there were 220,000 telephone operators. Ten years later, there were 165,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. By 2004, at the dawn of the smartphone age, 56,000 people were employed as telephone operators.
David McGarty, president of American Directory Services, which serves major carriers, has seen the transformation of carriers firsthand.
Since it began in 1996, calls to operators have dropped an average of 3 percent a year, for an overall reduction of about 90 percent, he said.
“We were content to ride the Titanic,” he said.
While operator services may be all but obsolete, it’s important to consider the emergencies in which callers may need to contact an operator and customers who still rely on these services, such as low-income callers, seniors and people with disabilities, said Edward Tenner, Smithsonian Lemelson Technology Historian at the Center for Invention and Innovation Research. (AT&T says it will still offer free directory assistance to elderly customers and people with disabilities.)
“Tragedies often happen in exceptional circumstances,” he said.
He also expressed sympathy for people who are forced to keep up with technological change, whether they like it or not.
“There are a lot of people who, for various reasons, haven’t adapted,” Tanner said. “Why force them to migrate to the web if they don’t want to?”