Long before the advent of the virtual PBX, call routing was handled by a manual process in which physical lines would need to be connected by hand. These switchboards – also known as cord boards, due to the way in which cords were used to connect calls – were the source of quite a bit of comedy back in the day. The very first switchboards in large cities were floor-to-ceiling affairs where young boys would scramble up and down to connect calls. Later, more-compact switchboards were typically operated by women. It’s these setups that gave us much of the switchboard comedy of the past.
Lily Tomlin’s “One Ringy-dingy” served as a sort of bookend piece, the skit chopped up and placed between other skits. The black comedy about the “omneepotent” (“That’s ‘potent’ with an ‘omni’ in front of it.”) Ma Bell certainly makes a strong argument for the eventual breakup of the telephone monopoly.
Carol Burnett gave a memorable rendition of the gossipy switchboard operator, but the queen of the cord boards has to be Rosalind Russel in the 1958 film “Auntie Mame.” Russel’s operator dealt comically with chaos and tangled wires – and she left the viewer with choice quotes like “…there’s no such place as San Francisco…”. Clearly, managing a switchboard was not for neophytes, and the fact that most calls were routed swiftly and correctly says a lot about the competence of those who operated them.
It wasn’t long before such operators were almost entirely replaced by the automated PBX. That automation has since gone digital, with auto attendant services and virtual PBXs that may be adjusted over the web. Today, making a call from San Francisco to “Mr. Blibliblibli” happens without tangled cords or comical mishaps.
Photo credit: “T” altered art.
Originally published May 06, 2009, updated Sep 13, 2022