CHAPTER IV. THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE ART

Boys, as operators, proved to be most com- plete and consistent failures. Their sins of omission and commission would fill a book. What with whittling the switchboards, swearing at subscribers, playing tricks with the wires, and roaring on all occasions like young bulls of Bashan, the boys in the first exchanges did their full share in adding to the troubles of the business. Nothing could be done with them. They were immune to all schemes of discipline. Like the MYSTERIOUS NOISES they could not be controlled, and by general consent they were abolished. In place of the noisy and obstreperous boy came the docile, soft-voiced girl.

If ever the rush of women into the business world was an unmixed blessing, it was when the boys of the telephone exchanges were superseded by girls. Here at its best was shown the influence of the feminine touch. The quiet voice, pitched high, the deft fingers, the patient courtesy and attentiveness - these qualities were precisely what the gentle telephone required in its attendants. Girls were easier to train; they did not waste time in retaliatory conversation; they were more careful; and they were much more likely to give "the soft answer that turneth away wrath."

A telephone call under the boy regime meant Bedlam and five minutes; afterwards, under the girl regime, it meant silence and twenty seconds. Instead of the incessant tangle and tumult, there came a new species of exchange - a quiet, tense place, in which several score of young ladies sit and answer the language of the switchboard lights. Now and then, not often, the signal lamps flash too quickly for these expert phonists. During the panic of 1907 there was one mad hour when almost every telephone in Wall Street region was being rung up by some desperate speculator. The switchboards were ablaze with lights. A few girls lost their heads. One fainted and was carried to the rest-room. But the others flung the flying shuttles of talk until, in a single exchange fifteen thousand conversations had been made possible in sixty minutes. There are always girls in reserve for such explosive occasions, and when the hands of any operator are seen to tremble, and she has a warning red spot on each cheek, she is taken off and given a recess until she recovers her poise.

These telephone girls are the human part of a great communication machine. They are weaving a web of talk that changes into a new pattern every minute. How many possible combinations there are with the five million telephones of the Bell System, or what unthinkable mileage of conversation, no one has ever dared to guess. But whoever has once seen the long line of white arms waving back and forth in front of the switchboard lights must feel that he has looked upon the very pulse of the city's life.

In 1902 the New York Telephone Company started a school, the first of its kind in the world, for the education of these telephone girls. This school is hidden amid ranges of skyscrapers, but seventeen thousand girls discover it in the course of the year. It is a most particular and exclusive school. It accepts fewer than two thousand of these girls, and rejects over fifteen thousand. Not more than one girl in every eight can measure up to its standards; and it cheerfully refuses as many students in a year as would make three Yales or Harvards.

This school is unique, too, in the fact that it charges no fees, pays every student five dollars a week, and then provides her with a job when she graduates. But it demands that every girl shall be in good health, quick-handed, clear-voiced, and with a certain poise and alertness of manner. Presence of mind, which, in Herbert Spencer's opinion, ought to be taught in every university, is in various ways drilled into the temperament of the telephone girl. She is also taught the knack of concentration, so that she may carry the switchboard situation in her head, as a chess- player carries in his head the arrangement of the chess-men. And she is much more welcome at this strange school if she is young and has never worked in other trades, where less speed and vigilance are required.

No matter how many millions of dollars may be spent upon cables and switchboards, the quality of telephone service depends upon the girl at the exchange end of the wire. It is she who meets the public at every point. She is the de- spatcher of all the talk trains; she is the ruler of the wire highways; and she is expected to give every passenger-voice an instantaneous express to its destination. More is demanded from her than from any other servant of the public. Her clients refuse to stand in line and quietly wait their turn, as they are quite willing to do in stores and theatres and barber shops and railway stations and everywhere else. They do not see her at work and they do not know what her work is. They do not notice that she answers a call in an average time of three and a half seconds. They are in a hurry, or they would not be at the telephone; and each second is a minute long. Any delay is a direct personal affront that makes a vivid impression upon their minds. And they are not apt to remember that most of the delays and blunders are being made, not by the expert girls, but by the careless people who persist in calling wrong numbers and in ignoring the niceties of telephone etiquette.