Telephone Operators Switched in 1961  
Thursday, March 29, 2001
So I've Heard Column


"Who would have thunk it," chortled Harriet Smith-Davern, remembering the Webster-Dudley telephone exchange switch to direct dial service in 1961, and mentioning 10 digit dialing for local calls, effective Monday .
Ms. Smith-Davern remembers the switch because she helped make it. "I was there, a night operator," she said. "There wasn't much to my role, just a matter of pulling a plug. I made my part of the change and suddenly it was all over."
The Webster-Dudley manual elephone exchange, opened May 1, 1880, and last located in the Larchar/Branch Block on Main Street, turned eerily silent after nearly 81 years of near constant banter. Switchboards were replaced by the whir of electronic equipment in the new dial building on Negus Street, about a quarter mile away. Cables were spliced from an underground manhole at Main and Church Streets in Webster. It was a 30-second requirement--with a lot of before and after the fact labor.
"This was 40 years ago," said Ms. Smith-Davern. "What I remember most was walking out of there that night (after the switch) and thinking 'now what.'"
Ms. Smith-Davern, with a young family, and living in a one-car household, couldn't accept a New England Telephone Co. job offer in Worcester. "It wasn't practical." She subsequently worked in different factories, mostly as a switchboard operator, but remembers her "number please" days fondly. A subscriber would pick up the telephone, an operator would inquire, the caller would enunciate one to several numbers, and a manual connection would be made.
Then, people would talk.
John P. Trull, owner of a Dudley lumber yard, was President of the Webster-Dudley Chamber of Commerce at the time. He placed the first direct dial call, contacting his counterpart in Webster Groves, Mo., then the only other Webster in the country equipped with direct distance dial facilities.
Actually, Mr. Trull, made the call Friday, March 17, at 11 a.m. It was a dual purpose thing, the first direct dial telephone call and a test of the new system. Telephone company crews disconnected the Trull Lumber Co. line, and opened a single line to the new exchange. Mr. Trull, now of Shrewsbury, used a rotary phone to reach the St. Louis suburb.
Dialogue between the chamber presidents ran several minutes, telephone workers removed the dedicated dial system line and Mr. Trull waited about 37 hours before going on dial service along with everyone else in Webster and Dudley. Who actually made the first call after Ms. Smith-Davern and others made the manual to automatic cut is not known. Non-emergency callers were asked to standby in the minutes to midnight, and dial for themselves after 12:02 a.m.
Now, with new technologies creating a demand for more dial numbers, the telephone company will introduce four new overlay area codes. I'm not going to get into the mechanics of this but it translates to 10 digit dialing for local calls in Central Massachusetts.
Ms. Smith-Davern seems to understand telephone company concepts and systems, which is more than I can say. Remembering her final departure from the telephone exchange 40 years ago, she revisited her "now what," thought. It was a personal matter then, but placed against communication gains in the last four decades, she repeated her opening line: "Who would have thunk it."
-oOo-
Regards last week's: "Tip Tickle Rally," the term used by a Civil War correspondent to describe a situation at North Village, where a troop train stopped for 15 or so minutes in 1861, and young ladies in the Slater Co. cotton mill came out to greet the soldiers.
Photographer Curtis Cleaves offers a pretty good guess, "a bribe for a kiss." Verb for a bribe, "tip tickle--grease the palm (slang)," added Carla Manzi, following up on e-mail information provided by Mr. Cleaves.
Stephen H. Charniak, owner of a downtown insurance agency, suggested a "stealing a kiss" scenario, and Norbe
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