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IN THIS AGE of cell-
Today, cellphone signals bounce off towers or satellites. In the early days of the telephone, all service went through a switchboard. And it was the operator, sometimes called the central operator or simply "central," who connected one person with another.
Three members of my extended family were operators, so I often got firsthand lessons in what went on at those switchboards.
Operators were called on to perform a multitude of tasks, not the least of which was giving the time. These days we flip open our cellphones to see what time it is, but 50 years ago many people called the operator to get the correct time.
"Operator, can you give me the correct time?"
"It is now 12:15."
That's how it went. Sometimes the same person would call 10 times a day to check the time. Some homes didn't even have clocks. They depended solely on the telephone operator.
My mother-in-law was an operator in Big Stone Gap in the late 1940s, and she recalls giving folks the correct time numerous times during every work shift.
Operators in Big Stone Gap were also in charge of ringing the fire bell. Fire reports came directly in to the switchboard. It was the operator's job to get locations and directions. Then she (operators were almost exclusively women) would ring the alarm that summoned the volunteer firemen.
But that was not the end of the story. Once the alarm sounded, a dozen people might call the operator out of pure curiosity and ask, "Where's the fire, Betty?"
As in Mayberry (where the operator was Sarah), everyone knew the operator's name.
In some small towns the switchboard was in the operator's home--an especially convenient arrangement in rainy or snowy weather.
Until the mid- to late 1950s, operators for small independent telephone companies made call connections by hand, plugging the appropriate cords into the switchboard.