Long before cells phones, mobile phones and cordless phones, telephones were connected to the wall and to a central mainframe. Calls went through wires instead of satellite waves. People depended on telephone operators to get many of their phone calls to where they wanted them to go. It really wasn’t that long ago, just 45 years, okay, maybe it was a long time ago. In 1969 I started working as a long distance telephone operator in the downtown office. These were the old cordboards and I worked on them for 8 years.
Placing a long distance call then took some effort. You had to call the operator and give her the number and wait to see if the call would go through. Sometimes it did, often it didn’t. There were only so many circuits that went through and they usually had to relayed from one large town to the next.
Really small towns, most people didn’t have phones in their homes. Their phone system was called a Ring Down. We had to call first to larger and they transferred the call to the small town Ring Down operator. She would take the message for the person and then send someone to get them, then they would call back in reverse… small town calling larger town and then calling Seattle and we called the original caller and they could complete their phone call.
Eventually, it became easier and cheaper to dial direct, but people still called the operator. But calling overseas still was not available on direct dial. I was able to speak enough French, Japanese and Spanish to make calls to countries that spoke those languages so that was one of my primary jobs. Those calls were much like the ring down calls. First we had to call New York City, they then relayed the call the main city of the country, such as Paris, they then relayed to the town operator, who then relayed it to the person the call was for. It could take up an hour to compete one call. Because of that people would usually write a letter to their family in the foreign country letting them know when they would be calling so that they would be there to receive the call.
I also was the Ship-to-Shore Marine operator. At that time, boaters could talk to each other on their radios, but if they want to talk to a landline, they had to go through the operator first. That was fun and interesting, such as listening to the names of the different boats. I often talked to my dad on his boat, too, and completed calls for him. I also was one of the Marine Weather Operators, broadcasting the weather forecast for boaters from Long Beach to Neah Bay and on the Strait and down to Puget Sound. The Portland operator did the forecast from Long Beach south along the Oregon coast. So if a boater was going down the coast, they would listen to us first and then be asked to be connected to the Portland operator.
Looking back, it really was a fun job. When they moved all operating systems to the computer boards, about 1973, it really was an end of an era. After playing with cordboards, the computer boards were very boring. I resisted moving to them so much, that I was one of the two last operators on the cord boards. The attached picture is of me on the last night the cordboards were working. I lasted on the computer boards for just a few months and I put in for a transfer and moved to data systems, which is where I met my husband. That job at the time was fun and educational too, but if I were ever to go back to work at the phone company, I would only do it if I could be a cordboard operator again.