Elizabeth Bruton

What we talk about when we talk about telephones

These notes, which have been provided by Elizabeth Bruton, are based on the paper ‘What we talk about when we talk about telephones’. The notes are not a transcript of the recording but have been posted here to make the talk accessible to a broad range of individuals.

Information Age gallery overview: https://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/see-and-do/information-age

Opened by Queen Elizabeth II in October 2014 (where she sent her first tweet), the Information Age gallery at the Science Museum uses the generous space of the largest single gallery in the museum to celebrate more than 200 years of innovation in information and communication technologies.  The gallery was made possible by funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund and the lead principal sponsor was BT.

An elliptical raised walkway surrounds the gallery, where – in pride of place at the centre of the gallery is the Rugby tuning coil, an extraordinary and magnificent 6m-tall structure of wood and copper and once the largest radio transmitter in the world.

In Information Age, objects, interpretation and multimedia evocatively bring to live remarkable moments in history, told through the eyes of those who invented, operated or were affected by the new wave of technology, from the first BBC radio broadcast in 1922 to the dawn of digital TV.

Information Age explores how wireless technology saved many lives on the Titanic and spread news of the disaster to the world within hours. Visitors can also hear the personal stories of the operators who worked on the Enfield Telephone Exchange, the last manual telephone switchboard.

The gallery consists of six themed zones relating to different types of innovations and networks relating to information and communication technologies:

  1. Cable: The telegraph gave rise to the first global communication network, radically shrinking our world.  Visitors can explore how cables still play a vital role in an increasingly wireless world.
  2. Broadcast: Television and radio networks transformed the spread of information. Here visitors can explore thermionic valves, the first radio transmitter, and television’s digital transformation.  Visitor can explore the cultural impact and experience of broadcast radio and television, particularly through the lens of the BBC
  3. Exchange – more on this later
  4. Constellation: This tells the story of the satellite networks relaying information between earth and space, delivering data to parts of the world that other technologies cannot reach.
  5. Web: Computer networks criss-cross the planet, transmitting vast amounts of data at high speed. Visitors can explore the objects that have revolutionised the flow of information.
  6. Cell: Mobile phones have transformed from communication machines into versatile computing devices.  Visitors can explore their development.


Objects on display: https://collection.sciencemuseumgroup.org.uk/search/museum/science-museum/gallery/information-age-gallery:-exchange

Exchange explores how the telephone gave rise to new forms of behaviour and social etiquette, transforming working lives and relationships. Visitors can explore the objects and pioneers behind this world-changing technology.

Object: 1961-94 Pt1 Section of a CB1 manual telephone exchange switchboard with positions for three operators, unknown maker, British, 1925-1960.  See also: https://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/objects-and-stories/goodbye-hello-girls-automating-telephone-exchange

The centrepiece object on display in the first section of Exchange is 1961-94 Pt1 Section of a CB1 manual telephone exchange switchboard with positions for three operators, unknown maker, British, 1925-1960. In use at Enfield Telephone Exchange 22 July 1925 to 5 October 1960.  It was donated by the General Post Office (GPO).

Before the days of automatic telephone exchanges, anyone picking up the telephone to make a call would hear ‘Number please’ from the usually female telephone operator, sometimes known as ‘Hello Girls’.  This would be followed by “Hold the line please” as she expertly removed and inserted jack plugs to connect the call.

If the number was on the operator’s switchboard, they would connect the call by plugging the ringing cable into the relevant jack. If not, they would transfer the call to the correct exchange, where another operator would be able to connect the caller.

For those of you who have seen the Marvelous Mrs Maisel on Amazon Prime, the opening scene of the second series is a department store’s internal telephone exchange with Midge Maisel being one of the operators.

In Britain and well as the US and elsewhere, telecommunications was one of the first technical careers to provide opportunities for women – first as telegraph operators and later in manual telephone exchanges.

Manual telephone exchanges provide employment of hundreds of women, as they were seen as being more suited to the polite nature of the work, as well as being cheaper labour than men.  The job of a switchboard operator took concentration, good interpersonal skills and quick hands.

Manual telephone exchanges provided a new employment opportunity for women: one that gave them some economic independence and an identity outside the home.  Hundreds of operators worked on each switchboard in towns and cities, and the service was efficient and largely confidential.

In smaller neighbourhoods, the switchboard might be operated by a single individual. The village postmistress’s ability to listen in on private conversations (strictly forbidden but difficult to prevent) soon taught phone users to be careful what they said.

The telephone exchange on display in Information Age is from Enfield, London and was installed in 1925.  It was the last manual exchange to run in London and was converted to an automatic exchange in October 1961.  One day it was a busy switchboard, operated round the clock by dozens of women. The next it was a museum piece.  Sections of the switchboard had already been earmarked to go to the Science Museum, to stand as reminders of an age when connecting a call required human intervention.

We have included oral history with former telephone operators alongside the object on display and some of these can be read in a blog post, which I will link to in the description of this audio content.  See: https://blog.sciencemuseum.org.uk/life-on-the-exchange-stories-from-the-hello-girls/

From fact to fiction: Female telephone operators were also a popular subject in fiction including Murder in the Telephone Exchange by June Wright (1948); Switchboard Operators by Carol Lake (1994), a collection of short stories based around a switchboard; and Girls on the Line by Aimie K. Runyan (2018).  More recently, they were shown on screen in the ongoing Netflix Spanish-language series Cable Girls (2017-present).

The Exchange section of the Information Age gallery uses authentic objects and related personal stories told through the medium of sound, that is oral history interviews, to tell the engaging story of the manual telephone exchanges and the usually female human bodies, hands and voices used to operate them.