Tag Archives: telephone

Stories from the ‘hello girls’

Jen Kavanagh, Audience Engagement Manager for Information Age, explores the stories from telephone exchange operators in the 1960s.

Today when we pick up the telephone, the automated system makes connecting a call quick and simple. But before this automatic system was introduced in the 1960s, telephone exchange operators had to help us on our way.

Young ladies worked across the country, connecting calls and helping people get in touch with one another. The work required concentration, patience and an excellent manner, but the community created within these exchanges was fun and social once shifts had ended.

Telephone operators busy at work at Enfield Telephone Exchange in 1960

Telephone operators busy at work at Enfield Telephone Exchange in 1960

The last manual telephone exchange was situated in Enfield, north London, marking the end of an era in communication history. A section of the Enfield Exchange forms a part of the Science Museum’s collection, and will be put on display in the Information Age gallery.

To bring this amazing piece of history to life, the Museum has been speaking to ladies who worked as telephone exchange operators in the 1950s and early 1960s, recording their stories through oral history interviews.

These former ‘hello girls’ have given their insight into how the exchanged worked and what the job of an operator involved, but have also shared some wonderful stories about the friends they made and the social life they experience once they’d clocked off.

One of these former operators, Jean Singleton, shared her thoughts on what made a good telephone operator, even if she didn’t feel she was one!

“How do I know? [Laughs] I wasn’t a good telephone operator, I was a naughty telephone operator! Well, first of all, you had to have a nice speaking voice, you couldn’t go there if you were a Cockney, speaking in a Cockney way, or a Northern way, you had to speak the Queens English, or Kings English as it was then.  Which, I suppose I had a decent enough voice. You had to be polite, and the customer sort of was always right, more or less, you know, you didn’t swear back at somebody if they swore at you, you weren’t allowed to do that sort of thing.  If you found you were in trouble with a person on the telephone, you just passed them over to your supervisor, and they would deal with it.”

Another former operator, Rose Young, talks about some of the kit that was used whilst working on the exchange.

“The first headsets were very heavy, you’d have a mouthpiece that came up in front of you on a plastic piece that had a tape on that you hung round your neck.  And then the headpiece was like a metal band with a very heavy earpiece, you had one ear free so that you could hear what was going on around you and one that you covered, that covered your ear, but they were very heavy.”

Visitors to Information Age will have the opportunity to hear more from these amazing ladies through an interactive audio experience which will sit alongside the original section of the Enfield Exchange. We’ll just have to make sure we edit the cheeky bits!

Discover more of these stories in Information Age, an exciting new gallery about the last 200 years of communication that will open in 2014.

Bell’s heart on the line

Alexander Graham Bell in 1876 (Science Museum / Science and Society)

The 14th of February 1876 is a very significant date in the history of the telephone. On that day both Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray filed papers with the US Patent Office for a working telephone. Following a dispute Bell’s patent was granted and published on the 7th of March 1876. Recently some historians have suggested that the dispute may have been resolved so quickly because Bell found a way to incorporate some of Gray’s ideas into his patent applications – but what could have driven Bell to such deception?

Only three months earlier Bell had been forced to make a difficult decision; should he choose to marry the love of his life, or continue work on his telephone? Bell’s day job was teaching deaf people to speak, and his interest in the production of sounds had stimulated an interest in electrical science. He had been researching a ‘harmonic telegraph’ and, since June 1875, investigating the telephone after an accidental discovery that enabled him to transmit and receive sounds. The father of Mabel Hubbard, one of Bell’s students, became interested in Bell’s harmonic telegraph and offered financial support which Bell accepted while also remaining committed to his teaching. Meanwhile Bell was becoming aware that his feelings for Mabel were turning from a teacher and pupil relationship towards those of love for her.

An exact replica of Bell's first telephone made in June 1875 by the same maker, Charles Wiliams Jr. of Boston (Science Museum)

Bell’s decision came in November 1875 when Mabel’s father, Gardiner Hubbard, asked Bell to give up teaching and other researches and devote all his time to the telegraph. If he did so, Hubbard would provide his living expenses enabling Bell to marry. Bell was too proud to accept a handout and rejected the offer, writing:

You are Mabel’s father and I will not urge you to give – nor will I accept it if offered – any pecuniary assistance other than that we agreed upon before my affection for Mabel was known … I shall certainly not relinquish my profession until I find something more profitable (which shall be difficult) nor until I have qualified others to work in the same field.

Fortunately for Bell the Hubbard family accepted the situation and allowed Mabel to make up her own mind. Two days later she and Bell became engaged.

Although Bell had not been prepared to accept Gardiner Hubbard’s money, he took the hint and looked again at the harmonic telegraph. Alongside this work he also continued research into the telephone against Gardiner Hubbard’s wishes, for he was convinced he could make it work. His work on the telephone gained some urgency when he became aware that he had a competitor in Elisha Gray, and furthermore because he still did not have enough money to marry Mabel. Bell’s submission of his patent papers on the 14 February, the same day as Gray submitted his, shows how close the race was. If Bell did indeed make illicit additions to his papers, perhaps it is because he was driven by his desire to marry Mabel Hubbard, which he finally did in July 1877.

Replica of Bell's 'Centennial' telephone transmitter of 1876 (Science Museum)