Were you a switchboard operator?

Many Starts at 60 readers have told us that their first job was as a switchboard operator, so today we thought
via YouTube

Many Starts at 60 readers have told us that their first job was as a switchboard operator, so today we thought we’d take a look back at this formerly very crucial profession.

Do you remember the manual telephone switchboards, which you would use to calls by inserting a pair of phone plugs into the appropriate jacks? Each pair of plugs was part of a cord circuit with a switch associated that let you take the call. Each jack had a light above it that lit when the telephone receiver was lifted.

The switchboard itself had a high back panel, which consisted of rows of female jacks, and on the table or desk area in front of the operator were columns of keys, lamps and cords. Each column had a front key and a rear key, a front lamp and a rear lamp, followed by a front cord and a rear cord, making up a cord circuit. The front key was the “talk” key, which allowed the operator to speak with the person on the particular cord pair. The rear key on older “manual” boards and PBXs was used to physically ring a telephone. Each of the keys had three positions: back, normal and forward.

When a call was received, a jack lamp lit up on the back panel and the operator responded by placing the rear cord into the corresponding jack and putting the front key forward.

You might remember all those calls you had coming through – people trying to call long distance, or someone trying to find out what the time was! If the person wanted to call an extension, the operator placed the front cord in the associated jack and pulled the front key backwards to ring the called person. After connecting, the operator leaft both cords “up” with the keys in the normal position so the people could talk. You knew when they had finished their conversation because the light on the supervision lamps went off.

It was a very fast process that required a lot of skill and patience, and there are surely some very fond memories.

Have a watch below and tell us what memories it triggers!


  1. Jemima  

    From the late ’60’s to early ’90’s, I did switchboard ‘relief’ on various types of switchboards. The calls involved mostly overseas calls. I did enjoy it, as each Company was different, but it was not my ‘ideal’ job!

  2. From 1968 to 1972 I worked as a longboard operator for General Telephone in Southern California – yes except for part-time after school it was my first full time job. I remember timing long distance calls, counting coins deposited from pay phones. Funnily enough I worked from 1999 to 2008 as a telephone operator for MOBILE phones – so times change – now happily Im retired

  3. Jan  

    I worked in the Howick Telephone Exchange in 1965-67, sometimes taking on others’ shifts and working 7 days whilst I saved to go overseas. It was tiring work with only a 20 minute break during our shifts but we were a pretty happy bunch. I remember my late mum waiting outside at break time with a hot dinner on a plate, covered with a saucepan lid and wrapped in a teatowel so I’d get a good meal.

  4. Barbara Chapman  

    In the mid sixties I worked as a telephonist at the Adelaide Telephone exchange in South Australia for the PMG (Post Master General’s Department). I had just left school at age 15 and thoroughly enjoyed it. The exchange was semi automatic not with cords and lights but switches and lights. We had codes for all the towns in Australia and I still recall the code numbers when travelling through certain towns in SA. Being able to work the international or directory areas meant you were more senior in the organisation. We worked shift work with 4 and 6 hour shifts working a 36 hour week. In 1966 I went on an exchange with telephonists from Launceston Tasmania for 6 months. They came to Adelaide and myself and another girl went to Launceston. It was great fun, except the switchboards in Launceston were plugs and lights, a step back in time for us modern girls from Adelaide. I had to leave the exchange in 1967 as I was getting married and married girls could not work in the Public service.

  5. June Walker  

    I started working as a switchboard operator when I was 14′ and a half in 1954. The town was Dural which was on the outskirts of Sydney in Australia.. it was the a country town but it is now a suburb of Sydney.

    It was a Magnito Telephone Exchange with cords and plugs. The customers had phones with handles. They would turn the handle which would cause a shutter to drop down in the exchange. The exchange girl or boy would then pick up a plug attached to the end of a set of cords and put it into the hole exposed by the shutter and say “number please” etc.

    We took pride in our work and unlike today, we kept our customers informed.

  6. Jenny  

    I did that in 58 in a big firm in London just loved it. We had 60 lines and 300 extensions nd very busy. I liked it because therewas no backlog of work to catch up on the next day loved talking to people

  7. Joan Marshall  

    Thank God for modern technology !

  8. Kevin  

    The cord and plug switchboard was still seen at a company in Melbourne till about 15 years ago. Need I say they were stuck in a time warp but made nice products.

    Back in the 60s our company with many radio technicians had a corded swithboard and when I knew the operator on a shift, once I dialed out and rang the company. The operator asked who I wanted to speak to and I replied with my name. In her best company voice the operator said “that line is busy sir”, and was subsequently met with the reply “yes I know, it’s Kevin speaking.”

    About that time superglue was becoming available in stores and I witnessed an extension ringing, whereby the person at that desk picked up the receiver only to find the receiver was glued to the telephone. Of course everyone in the office had been advised to expect to see that happening.

  9. regina townsend  

    i started as a switchboard operator when i was 15 working for the PMG(post masters general)…i have had a career in telstra for 27 years retired now work part time for AFP(australian federal police ) as a switchboard operator…the full circle…and I have loved every minute of it.

    • Hello Regina. Lot of years since I saw you, back in the day in Corryong and Tallangatta if I have not mistaken you for someone else ! Still keep in touch with the girls from Corryong, and ‘Ganno’ of course.

  10. Colleen  

    I was a telephonist from 15 yrs old till the exchange at Gloucester,NSW,Australia went Automatic.
    I loved the work and still remember most of the phrases we had to learn and use.
    I was very proud of my work and rose to the Supervisor position for a number of years before having my children and coming back till auto came.

  11. I worked for the GPO in Sydney in the mid to late 1960s. I started at the NSW trunks, also at Customs House and the Navy stores (in Randwick) and then to interstate and then to international. I can still remember the excitement of plugging in, dialing out a number and hearing a phone ring on the other side of the world. I also worked on the instant message machine (can’t remember the name of it now) the forerunner of chat! We used it for booking calls. I had to leave when I got married (as you did in those days) but then when I moved to Queensland I worked on the state government switchboard at CITEC for the police HQ and in Adelaide Street. Of course those positions are long gone now, but it was good fun.

  12. Elaine Davis  

    I worked in the Rockhampton Telephone Exchange from 1960 and then had to leave before I had my first child in 1972 as we could not stay on as that was the rule with the PMG then. I loved my job there.

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