But a century ago, the operator functioned as Google. Everyone knew it as “Information.”
“The operator was the internet before the internet. There’s a wonderful circularity there,” said Josh Lauer, an associate professor of media studies at the University of New Hampshire who is writing a book on the cultural history of the telephone.
Operator services were a selling point to customers during the late 1800s and early 1900s. The operator was the essential link in the dominant Bell System, owned by American Telephone & Telegraph (AT&T), telecommunications network.
The operator became the early face of the telephone, a human behind an emerging and complex technology. The job came to be occupied mostly by single, middle-class White women, often known as “Hello Girls.” The Bell System, known as Ma Bell, advertised its mostly female ranks of operators as servile and attentive – “The Voice with a Smile” – to attract and maintain customers.
Well into the 20th century, AT&T offered weather, bus schedules, sports scores, time and date, election results and other information requests.
“Telephone users interpreted her as an efficient way to locate any information,” wrote Emily Goodmann, an assistant professor of communication at Clarke University, in her 2019 paper on the history of telephone operators.
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