Operator, please

In the late 1960s I kept a little diary for about two years, in which I recorded not so much what I did day by day, but what curious or unexpected things happened. I just found this diary, and was most amused by some of the entries. The entry for this date in September 1966 describes a day in the house of a schoolfriend I was visiting. I wanted to make a phone call to my parents, and in those days, at least in parts of Ireland, this required calling the operator and asking her (invariably) to place the call. All that went well, and my mother answered the phone.  I spoke German with my mother, and about 30 seconds into the conversation we were interrupted by the operator, still on the line, with ‘Speak English, please.’

It would be difficult for the younger generation today to understand how complicated phone calls could be back then. An almost impossible task was to use a pay phone, which required having the exact money to hand needed for a three-minute call as advised by the operator, and proficiency in working out when to push Button A, or if it had not worked, Button B. But the presence of the operator on your calls had particular charms. Some of these operators throughout the country were important social figures, dispensing advice and commentary during other people’s phone calls and being, as a result, extraordinarily well informed. I miss that. Change and innovation is not always good.

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21 Comments on “Operator, please”

  1. Wendymr Says:

    It’s actually surprising, in retrospect, to realise how long this old system of making phone calls persisted. I can remember working as a receptionist in the summer of 1983 and making calls via the operator to customers ‘down the country’. To this day I still remember the several-times-weekly calls to Killorglin 67!

    Placing a call to another country was a completely different story, and it could often take all morning to get the office in France on the phone: booking the call via the international operator, waiting for her to call me back to say the line was available, then dealing with a French operator before finally getting the receptionist in Paris. Then I had to hope that the person in my office who wanted the call was still available!

    That time also pre-dated any kind of affordable electronic storage; I also spent time that summer scanning documents onto microfilm – which is not scanning as we understand it now, but placing a document very carefully onto a microfilm machine (in a darkened room) and holding it extremely steady while the machine took an image of it. Any shakiness would result in a blurry document, which meant I had to do the whole batch again.

  2. Trich Says:

    Lovely stories, that brought back memories.
    Well done 🙂

  3. anna notaro Says:

    I wonder what is the true object of nostalgia here thd phone operator i.e. the old technology or the little boy i.e. childhood …what we miss growing up is the way we were, the way we felt then towards the world and the people close to us, the sense of wonder when faced by what we reckoned were unusual events…contemporary technology has certainly the capacity to cause wonder in little boys and girls’ eyes it’s only us who cannot feel that way anymore..

  4. You wanted to be overheard?

    That’s more than nostalgia webmeister.


  5. upmg Says:

    My Aunt was a Telephone Exchange Supervisor in Waterford City and I remember visiting her at work and seeing her room full of women making the connections you spoke about. It was a busy communications hub and quite fascinating to see the manual dexterity required.

  6. John Carter Says:

    I think Anna has opened a path into what this blog is all about. It’s not about phones.

  7. John Carter Says:

    Continuing on in this (highly speculative) psyco-analytic vein, who exactly is ‘the operator’?

    I draw your attention to this blog’s title.

  8. no-name Says:

    So did you switch to English?

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