Saturday, September 01, 2012

Happy Emma M. Nutt Day!

Celebrated: Worldwide, or it should be

Today we celebrate the world's telephone operators, in honor of Emma Mills Nutt (1860-1915), who became the first female telephone operator in 1878, when Alexander Graham Bell hired her for Boston's Edwin Holmes Telephone Company (later the New England Telephone Company). Emma's sister, Stella, was the second female telephone operator - that's her in the foreground of this photo, while Emma stands behind her. Miss Nutt earned $10.00 a month, a respectable sum when the median household income for a family of four was $116/year.

Early users hailed the introduction of female telephone operators, who had better manners and warmer, more pleasant voices than male telegraph operators, and surely made the new technology seem easier and less intimidating. Becoming a phone operator was an attractive career for many young women, including my great-aunt Agnes Colloton, who worked for New York Telephone before her marriage and after her widowhood. When Aunt Agnes talked about work, she described a world of, by and for women — in her early working years, the switchboard room was a women-only zone, where men were not allowed and operators would occasionally strip down to their slips when the weather got really hot. Aunt Agnes was one of the first women I knew who worked outside the home, and it can't be a coincidence that my twin sister used to tell people she wanted to be a telephone operator when she grew up.

It's hard to imagine a four-year-old saying anything like that today. "Telephone operator" has all but disappeared from the jobs available to American workers. Telephone service is almost entirely automated now. Even directory information minimizes human contact, and if you do speak with a human, chances are good that that person isn't in the United States. Major corporations have automated and outsourced their telephone reception, with results that verge on the surreal. Last month I decided to quit using a major shipping service entirely after, among other things, being unable to reach a live human being by telephone.

This is not just an economic loss, but a human one. The fact that machines can replace many human functions does not mean that they should, even when it saves money. In hiring Emma Nutt, Alexander Graham Bell understood that friendly, well-trained people are a company's best advertising, and the most valuable service that any business can provide.

Reports vary about when Miss Nutt retired — some books say 1911, some say 1915 — but either way, her career spanned more than 30 years. It's a bittersweet tribute that her name was used for EMMA, the first virtual receptionist system, introduced by Preferred Voice in 1998. Miss Nutt, who reportedly memorized every number in the New England Telephone network, would never have wanted to be replaced by a machine.


Anonymous said...

Notable but not as inportant is International Bacon Day or Bacon Day, an unofficial observance held on the Saturday before Labor Day in the United States.


lgonse said...

Thank you so much for this. I had not heard of it until I saw it on a list of funny events on my calendar. This turned out to not be funny, but very interesting and understandable for being commemorated.

I like your research and the photo you provided and have passed them along with a link to your page to family and on Twitter.