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Alberta's Telephone Heritage
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The Role of the Operator

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411 old system prior to 1975.Telephone operators were generally women. Their voices carried better on early equipment and the women were found to be more patient, helpful and polite than the men and boys who tried the work in the earliest telephone systems in the United States.

In Alberta, companies kept costs down in the beginning by bringing in operators for day and early evening shifts only. Until 1894, there was no telephone service in Edmonton after 8:00 p.m. Even when 24-hour service was introduced it was only offered Monday through Saturday. On Sunday, the telephone office remained open for only two hours.

The starting wage for an Edmonton operator in 1908 was $30 per month.

In Edmonton and Calgary, automatic switching equipment changed the role of the operators. Callers could place local calls themselves and needed operators only for long-distance or toll calls.

In 1908, with the arrival of automatic switching in Alberta, urban operators no longer had to connect local calls, but a special team of operators was retained to provide information to the public. The operators remained quite popular, as many callers found it easier to ask the operator for directory assistance than to find a phone number in the listings. Operators would also give out the correct time, a service which they provided many times throughout the day to numerous callers. In the days before radio, it was not unusual for operators to be overwhelmed by calls from sports fans during Edmonton Eskimos hockey and Edmonton Grads basketball games.


Listen!
Interview: Mr. Alf Want Listen!

 


The information service was re-named "directory assistance" to discourage general calls about how to change diapers or cook turkeys. These calls were a drain on staff time. Of all the services provided by telephone operators, however, easy and fast directory assistance remained the most popular for years. By 1972, an amazing 80 percent of directory assistance calls were placed to request numbers that were already listed in the telephone book. It was in that year that a 25 cent charge was finally introduced for these types of calls.


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Interview: Frieda Lauchrey Listen!

 


In rural areas, automatic switching arrived in the middle of the 20th century and operators continued to connect local calls for decades. In some small centres, the operator’s living quarters were located in the telephone office, and she slept in the same room as the switchboard so she could handle calls through the night when necessary.

The rural operator was a respected member of the community who knew everyone and provided many custom services, such as calling the doctor wherever he was, or waking people in time to catch an early train.

But there were other duties performed by operators, and some of them were lifesaving.

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