Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

History Revisited - women in the exchange

INFORMATION HUB. The telephone exchange became a centre for community information.
When the first telephone exchange opened in Armidale in August 1901, there were 24 subscribers connected to a 100 line switchboard. By 1910, the number of subscribers had increased to nearly 250.

The new telephone system was far more capital and labour intensive than the telegraph system. Lines had to be connected to premises, phones installed with new switchboards purchased to handle the growing traffic.

In Armidale, the new exchange was open twenty-four hours. This required the appointment of what came to be called telephonists who managed not only the calls, but also the detailed paper work required to ensure proper billing.

The first NSW switch attendants were all men. It was not until August 1896 that the first women were appointed to the Sydney central exchange, all selected from the ranks of the Education Department’s pupil teachers. It would be 1913 before the first female telephonist was employed on the New England Tableland.

The move to employ women was not welcomed by all.

In April 1908, a letter writer in the Sydney Morning Herald complained that females “are physically unfit to endure the strain of much-nerve-wracking work as telephone operating.” However, there were practical reasons for their appointment, for the pay scales were more attractive to girls than boys.

Much later, advances in telecommunications would drain jobs from country areas, but initially the first employment effects were positive. When responsibility for postal, telegraph and telephone services was transferred to the Commonwealth after Federation, the large number of employees in the PMG gave the new Commonwealth a physical presence, its only physical presence, in large parts of Australia.

While the telephone service expanded rapidly, the costs involved in the spread of the required infrastructure meant considerable lags. It would be 1925 before the first telephone call could be made between Sydney and Brisbane. This made the telephone a device first for local communication, while the telegraph or post still carried longer distance traffic.

It is easy to underestimate the importance of improved local communication on the pattern of local life. Both country and town people could ring up and order goods for later collection or delivery. It became much easier to organise meetings and events, something that was used to great effect by those with interests in politics or the advancement of particular causes. The tempo of politics speeded up.

In many country areas, the local telephone exchange became the centre of community information, of gossip about what was going on.

The telephonist became the central person in a hub of information and exchange, the one person who was in contact with nearly everybody and knew what people were doing. She was also the person people depended on to get the news through when something went wrong.

People complained, of course, especially on the party lines with multiple subscribers on a single line where anybody could listen in, but nobody who could afford to pay would have been without the service. 
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 1 July 2015. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because they are not on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013, here for 2014, here for 2015.

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