Getting Robocalls? Blame the Measles.

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Barbara Craig
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So who’s responsible for those nuisance robocalls?  Here’s some surprising history—going back to Alexander Graham Bell’s time and a case of measles. 

In 1879, it was a mere 3 years after Alexander Graham Bell made the first phone call. The Lowell (Massachusetts) District Telephone Company hired teenage boys to run its switchboard.

“Give me John Smith,” a subscriber would request, and the lad on duty would plug the call into John Smith’s line.

However, as time went by, changes had to be made. Young women were hired to handle the switchboard when it was discovered that the women’s voices were better adapted for the work than the boys’ voices. They also were more polite to callers.

Once the women took over the switchboard and the public began to accept the idea of the telephone, business improved for the company. By late 1880, four operators were on duty at the switchboard. The phone company had over 200 subscribers!

Alas, in December, a few days before Christmas, the trouble started. One of the operators phoned in sick.

Back then, a sick operator—even if she were away from work for only a day—rocked the foundation of the brand-new telephone company. She knew the name of each and every subscriber in the Lowell area; a temporary replacement would need to learn them.

As it was, the remaining three switchboard operators managed to keep things going—until the next day, when a second operator, phoned in sick.

At this point, company president W. A. Ingham put through an emergency call to Dr. Moses Greeley Parker, who, in addition to being the best doctor in town, also happened to be a big stockholder in the Lowell District Telephone Company.

“If you can’t get these two women back on the job in a hurry, we’ll be out of business, ” Ingham told him. “Those other two operators will collapse from exhaustion.”

So Dr. Parker visited the two ill telephone operators and then went directly to the phone company office.

“You’ll have to train substitute operators,” the doctor informed Ingham. “They both have the measles.”

“It will take weeks to train substitutes,” stated Ingham. “The new girls will have to memorize more than 200 names.”

“Well,” Dr. Parker interrupted, “instead of names, why don’t you just use numbers?

“Numbers, Doctor?” responded Ingham. “I don’t know what you mean.”

“It’s rather simple, Ingham,” said the doctor smoothly. “Instead of identifying your subscribers by name, identify them by numbers and put a corresponding number over each one’s hole on the switchboard. For example, I had the first phone in town, and I am in the first hole position on your board. I can be Number One!” 

Ingham began to get the message, but he scoffed at the idea. “Our subscribers,” he said, “will never accept your idea, Dr. Parker. People have names. They are not numbers.”

“Be that as it may,” countered Parker, “but it’s either numbers or we go out of business if those other operators get the measles.”

So, numbers it became, and robocalls we now have.                         


About The Author

Catherine Boeckmann

Catherine Boeckmann loves nature, stargazing, and gardening so it’s not surprising that she and The Old Farmer’s Almanac found each other. She leads digital content for the Almanac website, and is also a certified master gardener in the state of Indiana. Read More from Catherine Boeckmann

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