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Long-distance calls: No operator necessary

If the telephone wasn't born in Canada, it was certainly conceived here. In 1874, in Brantford, Ont., inventor Alexander Graham Bell first described the scientific principle that would convey the human voice over wires. By the Second World War, Canadians led the world in talking by telephone. Later they reached out to each other and around the globe with long distance calling, transatlantic connections and predictions for the future.

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The "voice with a smile" is fading away. Telephone operators once played a central role for callers, making local connections before the era of the dial telephone. Now, with a new continent-wide system of numbered area codes, operators are no longer needed to connect long-distance calls either. Under "Direct Distance Dialing," or DDD, subscribers make their own connections. A Bell spokesman explains the procedure on CBC Radio's Assignment.

DDD isn't the only innovation at Bell. Betty Hughes, the company's head operator, describes the newest in telephone accessories. They include telephones with night lights, answering devices, volume control and spring cords to avoid unsightly tangled-up cables. 
• In the earliest years of the telephone, companies hired teenage boys to work as switchboard operators. Boys made good telegraph operators, but they were often rude to telephone customers, pulling pranks and hanging up. The companies soon switched to young women, who were calmer and friendlier. They were also more cost-effective: pay rates for women were lower than those for men.

• Canada's first female telephone operator was Lillian W. Camp, who started in 1880 and worked for Bell in Montreal for 50 years.

• During the Second World War, women were also trained to work as telephone technicians at Bell Canada.

• For many years, Bell promoted its patient, courteous and efficient team of operators as "the voice with a smile."

• When DDD was introduced in May 1958, the Globe and Mail asked whether operators would be thrown out of work. Bell answered, "The growth of the business has increased our need for operators and we expect this will continue to be the case. Without DDD we would be unable to recruit enough operators to handle your long distance calls as speedily and efficiently as at present."

• Bell also said mechanization was the only way to meet demand for better long-distance service.

• The operator's voice wasn't entirely absent from the DDD procedure. After the subscriber dialed, the operator asked, "Your number, please?" to confirm it, then the call went through.

• Upon the initial rollout of DDD service, callers in Toronto could direct-dial places 80 to 110 kilometres away. Ottawa and Kitchener also had DDD from the start, while Montreal was added several months later.

• To promote the DDD service, telephone companies unveiled a slogan: "Spin the dial, span the nation."

• Area codes in Canada and the United States were introduced with the North American Numbering Plan (NANP) in 1947. Developed by AT&T and Bell Laboratories in the United States, the plan had 86 codes with room to expand to 144.

• The NANP was a way for telephone companies to deal with an ever-expanding demand for telephones and telephone services.
Medium: Radio
Program: Assignment
Broadcast Date: Aug. 29, 1957
Guest(s): Betty Hughes, Reg Redman
Host: Maria Barrett, Bill McNeil
Reporter: John Mackin
Duration: 6:54

Last updated: November 5, 2014

Page consulted on November 5, 2014

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