The Anatomy of Long-Distance Call 66 Years Ago

The Anatomy of Long-Distance Call 66 Years Ago
Blaine McCartney/The Wyoming Tribune Eagle via AP
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Sgt. Joe Friday of the radio and television series Dragnet serves as an excellent example of how far we have come by constantly improving technology. And it is a reminder of why we should not be afraid of new technologies, even though they may make some jobs obsolete.

Today we mark an anniversary of something that most millennials would probably have a hard time wrapping their head around – the anniversary of the first coast-to-coast direct-dial phone call. In an era when almost everyone carries a cell phone, and many do not have landlines at all, it is hard to believe that just 66 years ago we needed the assistance of a long-distance operator to make a call to another city. Completing a long-distance call cost time and money, with individual calls handled by several operators in different cities.

Take one call made by the Sgt. Friday character, on the radio version of the program. Based in Los Angeles, he placed a person-to-person long-distance call to a small town in Utah. Local calls within the Los Angeles area had long been direct dial, but a long-distance call, especially to a tiny town in another state, was a complex manual effort. First, Friday had to call the long-distance operator in Los Angeles, and give her (about 98 percent were women) the name and phone number of the party he wanted to reach. The operator then called a rate and route operator, who responded that the call should be routed through Salt Lake City and Mount Pleasant, Utah. The call, like all long-distance calls at that time, had a rate step, a number which the long-distance operator would quote to obtain the rate of the first three minutes and each additional minute.

The Los Angeles long-distance operator then plugged into a direct trunk to the Salt Lake City inward operator and asked her for Mount Pleasant. The Salt Lake operator rang the Mount Pleasant inward operator, and the Los Angeles operator asked the Mount Pleasant inward operator for Fountain Green, the town Sgt. Friday was calling. The Mount Pleasant operator rang the small town of Fountain Green, and the Los Angeles operator gave the local operator the number and name of the party Sgt. Friday was trying to reach there. The Fountain Green operator then rang the number, a party line where a specific ringing pattern summoned one of the subscribers sharing the line. A man answered; the Los Angeles operator asked for the called party and told him that Los Angeles was calling.

Hard to believe, but a telephone conversation between two participants required the assistance of five operators. The time it took just to make a long-distance connection at that time often exceeded the length of the call, as long-distance charges (inflated to keep down the costs of local calls) caused people to make as few long-distance calls as possible and to keep them as short as possible.

The process was unwieldy, costly and time-consuming. But on November 11, 1951, new ground was broken. The mayor of Englewood, New Jersey called the mayor of Alameda, California. They were connected automatically in 18 seconds. The inauguration of direct long-distance dialing made calls easier, cheaper and faster. It also caused a great many jobs to be shed. In the late 1940s, more than 350,000 operators worked for AT&T. But the introduction of increasingly sophisticated automatic switching devices reduced the need for operators.

Just like today, many looked at the change, and instead of seeing improved service for consumers only saw jobs that had been eliminated. Unions argued that AT&T had created what they called technological unemployment on a mass scale.

In fact, this was a two-fer for the economy. It brought efficiency, with people placing their own long-distance calls faster and far less expensively than the operator-driven system had allowed. And by eliminating jobs, it freed up hundreds of thousands of people to perform other tasks. People worried today about the elimination of jobs through the introduction of new technologies should consider this: Hundreds of thousands of jobs were eliminated by the introduction of direct dialing. But unemployment rates today are the same as they were 70 years ago. The modernization of cumbersome calling technologies didn’t cause mass unemployment. It just allowed society to make better use of the labor force we have.

The myth is that improved technology makes us poorer by eliminating jobs. But the fact is, it makes us better off, leading to more efficient wealth production and more people available to perform other tasks. Never mind the myth. As Joe Friday would say: “Just the facts, ma’am.”

Allan Golombek is a Senior Director at the White House Writers Group. 

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