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A telephone exchange would make an excellent subject for the artist. He delights to paint us a row of Venetian bead-stringers or a band of Sevillian cigarette-makers, but why does he shirk a bevy of English girls working a telephone exchange? Let us peep into one of these retired haunts, where the modern Fates are cutting and joining the lines of electric speech between man and man in a great city.

The scene is a long, handsome room or gallery, with a singular piece of furniture in the shape of an L occupying the middle. This is the switchboard, in which the wires from the offices and homes of the subscribers are concentrated like the nerves in a ganglion. It is known as the "multiple switchboard," an American invention, and is divided into sections, over which the operators preside. The lines of all the subscribers are brought to each section, so that the operator can cross-connect any two lines in the whole system without leaving her chair. Each section of the board is, in fact, an epitome of the whole, but it is physically impossible for a single operator to make all the connections of a large exchange, and the work is distributed amongst them.

A multiplicity of wires is therefore needed to connect, say, two thousand subscribers. These are all concealed, however, at the back of the board, and in charge of the electricians. The young lady operators have nothing to do with these, and so much the better for them, as it would puzzle their minds a good deal worse than a ravelled skein of thread. Their duty is to sit in front of the board in comfortable seats at a long table and make the needful connections. The call signal of a subscriber is given by the drop of a disc bearing his number. The operator then asks the subscriber by telephone what he wants, and on hearing the number of the other subscriber he wishes to speak with, she takes up a pair of brass plugs coupled by a flexible conductor and joins the lines of the subscribers on the switchboard by simply thrusting the plugs into holes corresponding to the wires. The subscribers are then free to talk with each other undisturbed, and the end of the conversation is signalled to the operator.

Every instant the call discs are dropping, the connecting plugs are thrust into the holes, and the girls are asking, "Hullo! Hullo!" "Are you there?" "Who are you?" "Have you finished?" Yet all this constant activity goes on quietly, deftly - we might say elegantly - and in comparative silence, for the low tones of the girlish voices are soft and pleasing, and the harsher sounds of the subscribers are unheard in the room by all save the operator who attends to him.

from: "The Story of Electricity”
By John Munro, 1896.

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