|1900 AT&T Logo|
But back in the 1960’s when the Prats arrived in Maryland there were only three ways to communicate person-to-person over long distances. There was the expensive long distance telephone for voice, the super-expensive telegram for short urgent text messages, and the super-cheap but slow written letter.
|Four youngest Prats and Peanuts at Arlington Road|
|The seven Lopez children dressed for the Spanish winter|
“Do you think we can give them a call?” someone asked. “It would be great to hear their voices!”
Benito Prats did some mental calculations regarding upcoming bills versus his next paycheck, and then went to get his reel-to-reel tape recorder and magnetic pickup microphone and plugged it in near the phone in the living room. He attached the microphone, a small cylindrical object maybe an inch around with a rubber suction cup, near the earpiece of the black rotary-dial telephone handset and plugged its cord into the tape recorder. He turned on the tape recorder, picked up the handset and dialed zero for the operator.
|A 3M Wollensak Tape Recorder|
|Bell System Model 500|
|A magnetic pickup|
on a telephone
“I’d like to place a call to Spain,” Benito told her.
“I’ll get you International,” she said, meaning an international operator. Benito was familiar with the international operators. They worked on his periodic calls to his mother in Camaguey Cuba. They would take down the particulars of his call and call him back when one of the 24 lines on the 20 year old undersea cable from Key West to Havana was available. The call back was sometimes days later, sometimes in the middle of the night. But on this day he was hoping for a same-day call to Spain. And you never knew, but it might be an immediate call, meaning that they would connect the call while you waited on the line.
Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone—the AT&T-owned Bell System company that had the monopoly in Maryland, and Verizon’s ancestor—had recently introduced dialing for long distance calls to phones in the U.S. and Canada. Before that you would dial zero for the operator and the operator would dial the call for you. But even in 1969 international calls still had to be placed through the operator, and the operator had to set up the call the same way they had been set up since the invention of the telephone: manually.
|Laying the telephone cable by ship in the 1960s|
|1960s telephone operators at work|
For Bell’s telephone to work, a wire or wire-equivalent has to be physically connected between two telephones (and no others) for the duration of the call. This is no longer the case now that voice calls travel over the internet, but until a few years ago, that was the only way phones could work. It was called circuit-switching. If you were calling someone in your town this was easy: on your request your telephone’s wire was connected to the other phone’s wire and you were good to go. By the 1920’s this was automated and building-sized mechanical machines took instructions from the telephone dial and connected the two sets of wires together for the duration of your call. Not only that, but the equipment would also ring the bell at the distant telephone for you. No more cranking to ring the bell.
But consider a call between two distant towns. Your wire had to be connected to a wire going to the next town, there that wire was connected to another wire going to the town a bit further away, and finally the local wire to the telephone you were calling at the distant town was added to the circuit. Then you could talk. Even when this was finally mechanized it took a number seconds, and you could hear clicking as the machines set up each of the connections before you finally heard the ringing begin. But in 1969 there was no automation yet for international calls.
When Benito dialed zero for the operator that afternoon in 1969, automatic equipment routed his call to a dozen or more identical cord switchboards called “multiples” in the C&P toll office in a large seven-story building on Georgia Avenue in Silver Spring where seated in front of each multiple was an operator wearing a headset.
|The C&P Telephone Building in Silver Spring, MD.|
Today it is the Verizon Building.
|A very busy switchboard|
Notice the plugs of unused cords standing up
on the shelf at the bottom of the photograph.
The operator’s job at its most basic was quite simple: to complete a circuit between two of the many jacks in front of her using one of the cords from her shelf. The complexity of the job was to figure out which circuits had to be connected when, and to figure out when they were no longer needed and could be unplugged. Lamps over the jacks and next to each cord, and questions and answers over her headset, guided her in her job.
|A Western Electric Panel Office from the 1960s|
This machine responds to telephone dials to connect
calls. Equipment like this in Bethesda and Silver
Spring routed Benito's call to the operator.
From then on for this call, no more machines. As a matter of fact, the machine that connected Benito to the operator knew enough to not do anything else with his line now that it was connected to an operator. If Benito were to hang up and pick up the phone again, he could not get dial tone for another call. The machine was deliberately paralyzed now that the operator had the line. His telephone was under her control and would continue under her control until she unplugged from his line.
After plugging one end of a cord in to the blinking jack she pushed the cord’s talk switch away from her to connect her headset to the cord and announced, “Operator.”
|140 West Street, New York|
Then known as the New York Telephone
Building, today it is the Verizon Building
She finds a jack that did not “click” in her headset when she touched it, meaning that the line was not in use, and she pushed the plug in all the way while saying to Benito “I’ll get you International.” She pulls the ringing switch to get the attention of the international operator at the other end of the line. Nothing rings at the other end, instead a lamp lights over a jack on each operator position in New York.
What if there had not been a free trunk line to New York? She would have told him “all circuits are busy now” and would have asked for his number to call him back when a line became free. This was lucrative revenue for the phone company. Now that they knew that someone wanted to spend a lot of money to call Spain, they would most certainly call back when a line became free. But so far, so good. There was an idle trunk line to New York. This might be an immediate call to Spain, not a call-back later in the day. Keep your fingers crossed!
A New York operator plugs into the line from Washington. Benito hears a new voice.“International Operator. What country?”
“Spain,” he replies.
“Spain. What city?”
“Victoria. What number in Victoria?”
“No, it is Vitoria, there is no ‘C’ in Vitoria. V-I-T-O-R-I-A.” Benito corrected.
“I’m sorry. Vitoria. V-I-T-O-R-I-A. What number in Vitoria?”
|Operator Writing a Ticket for the Call|
Like her counterpart in Silver Spring, this operator had been first to plug into a jack labeled Washington whose lamp had been blinking. This particular international operator would be in charge of his call until the call was over. The operator in Silver Spring had one of her cords tied up for the duration, but now that New York had answered, the operator in Silver Spring was free to attend to other calls with her other cords while visually monitoring the lamps for Benito’s cord to see when to pull the plugs out, or to come back on the line if summoned. Remember: until Silver Spring pulls her cord from Benito’s jack, his telephone was hard wired to New York and could not be used for any other purpose. If the house caught fire he would have to tell the New York operator about it, or flash his switchhook furiously to get Silver Springs’ attention. Ever seen that in old movies, the furious switchhook flashing?
What number did Benito give the operator? The Lopez had just moved in to their apartment in Vitoria and their telephone had not been installed yet. You would think this would have been a problem, but not really. It would be a real problem today because of automation, but it was no problem at all 49 years ago. Elia Maria had written Mariana to tell her of the move and to give her sister her new mailing address and fill her in on the latest happenings. She wrote that it could take a month or two before her telephone got installed (par for the course for state-owned telephone companies like Spain’s back then) so she gave her the phone number of the little convenience store at the end of the block. That’s the number Benito gave the operator. The answer to her next question would reveal how this call was going to proceed.
|A male telephone operator|
The 1972 Equal Rights Amendment, although never
ratified, nudged AT&T to hire male operators for the
first time starting in the late 1970s.
This was shorthand for the type of call, she wanted to know if this was a “station to station” or “person to person” call. Billing for a station-to-station call started when the distant telephone was answered. Person to person calls started billing when the person you asked for came to the phone. Person-to-person calls were more expensive. Station to station calls to Europe in 1969 in the evening and on weekends were $12 for the first 3 minutes and $10 for each additional 3 minutes. Person to person calls to Europe were $20 for the first three minutes and $10 for each additional 3 minutes. $20 in 1969 is $128 in 2018 dollars! Someone had to pay for all that manual work needed to set up a call. You did not call internationally very often unless you were very rich.
Benito said “person” and she asked, “name?” He said “I want to speak to Manuel or Elia Lopez. They live down the street at number 20 Generalissimo Avenue.”
“I’m Dr. Benito Prats.“ After that she had one final question:
He replied, “Oliver 2-8324”.
She wrote that down and said “thank you.” signaling that she was finished with the questions.
Imagine that last question! That question was a most important question because someone had to pay the $250 or so (today’s dollars) this call was going to cost. But operators had no way to know where Benito was calling from because automation had robbed them of a direct wire to his telephone. Mechanical equipment had connected Benito to the operator, so no caller ID. He could have given the wrong number, or she could have written it down wrong. So built in to the price of long distance calls was enough money to cover the overhead of tracking you down to collect that large sum if they got it wrong the first time!
We are now probably into the third minute after Benito dialed zero and the call was far from ready. All questions have been asked and answered. Now she reads everything back to Benito, and then she says, “hold the line please” and gets to work arranging for the connection of all the wires needed to make up a circuit to the telephone in Vitoria. She left the talk key on Benito’s cord on—they always did that for some reason—and you could hear exactly how she and her colleagues in Spain worked their magic.
|Posts, telegraphs and telephones|
In telephone operator etiquette, “hold the line, please” meant “don’t talk to the operator again until the operator addresses you directly.” If you bothered the operator while she was working on your call she would repeat “hold the line please” and this time she would use a different cord to set up the call and you’d be on silent hold until the call was ready. I kept mum and covered the receiver with my hand. I found operator chatter fascinating.
Looking at her ticket one more time, she goes to work. She looks for an unused line on the row of jacks labeled “Paris” and plugs the other end of the cord in. I hear the click. She and I wait silently.
After a few seconds I hear a French voice say “Pari Internacional.” Operators identify themselves to each other by their location and duty station.
|PTT Headquarters, Paris|
Posts, Telegraphs and Telephones was the government
agency in charge of France's telephone service in 1969
By using a direct circuit to Paris, our call to Spain used TAT-4, AT&T’s newest Trans-Atlantic Telephone cable that went into service in 1965. This cable carried 138 voice circuits from the beach at Tuckerton New Jersey to Saint-Hilaire-de-Riez, in west-central France. Another cable recently completed, this one to be called TAT-5 from Rhode Island to Cadiz in Spain, would not go into service for a few more months.
|The Spanish Telephone Company|
Telefonica Logo in 1969
Another brief wait and then a Castillian-accented voice loudly says “Madrid internacional!”
|Telefonica Building, Madrid|
This 1929 building was one of the
first skyscrapers in Europe and is
still the tallest building on the
Gran Via in Madrid. The inter-
national switchboard was in this
New York says “Doctor Benito Prats in Washington is calling for Manuel or Elia Lopez at 20 Generalisimo Avenue. The number in Vitoria is,” and she speaks the number slowly and clearly. Madrid reads it back in Spanish-accented English, New York says “yes operator” and Madrid says “hold the line.”
Some more clicks, and a different voice says in Spanish, “Rutas.” She is the routes operator and Madrid International needs to ask for the route to Vitoria, because on her switchboard there are no direct circuits from Madrid to Vitoria. The routes operator has maps and directories of interurban trunks and looks up one or more possible routes to the destination city.
“¿Madrid a Vitoria?” —I need the route from Madrid to Vitoria, the Madrid international operator asks the routes operator using shorthand.
I was hearing all this for the first time a long time ago in 1969, and I heard it a second time maybe fifteen years ago when I found the tape in Benito’s file cabinets in his garage at Mayfair Manor and played it on my ancient Lafayette tape deck. But the tape is now gone (and so is the tape deck) and I can’t remember the route operator’s response. What I do remember is that the route was three hops. A glance at a Google map gives me some likely city names I will use to recreate the dialog that follows.
“Madrid a Vitoria,” repeats the routes operator. After a few seconds pause she continues “Valladolid y Burgos,” naming two cities between Madrid and Vitoria. She also adds, “tambien por Zaragoza y Logroño,” naming an alternate route.
Madrid International pulls her plug from Routes and plugs into an idle trunk to Valladolid. Silence for a few seconds, then I hear the Valladolid interurbano operator answering with the name of her city. Long distance telephone service is called interurban telephone service in Spain.
“Burgos.” Connect me with Burgos, orders the Madrid operator by simply naming the city.
“Burgos. A sus ordenes.” — To Burgos right away, replies Valladolid and she plugs the other end of her cord into an idle trunk to Burgos.
|Central Burgos Interurbano|
In addition to housing the switchboard, customers
could walk in and pay cash to place a long
distance or international call from a casilla,
one of the telephone booths inside.
“Todas a Vitoria ocupadas.” Burgos announces that all trunks lines to Vitoria are in use.
“Madrid internacional. Desocupame una.” Madrid identifies herself and asks that Burgos disconnect one of them. That does not sound kosher to me.
“No tengo autorizacion.” I’m not authorized, responds Burgos.
Madrid does not waste a minute pulling rank. “¡Soy la operadora internacional!” she exclaims forcefully, and continues in rapid-fire Spanish, “Disconnect any one of them and give me a line to Vitoria immediately!”
The New York operator is listening to all of this along with me. I’m amused at this outburst. The New York operator may not understand a word of Spanish, though, but she certainly understands that there is some conflict. She does not say a word. She is not being addressed.
|Route of the call in Europe|
The lines are shown straight, but in reality they
would snake here and there on poles by the
side of highways, in the air between microwave
towers, and via underground cables.
While Madrid international was working with the other Spanish operators, the New York operator could not work on any other call because she never knew when Madrid was going to switch to English to tell her that the call was ready, or tell her that the call could not be completed. New York was listening quietly along with me.
This was the moment of truth for this call. We were one hop away from Vitoria. Would our call to Spain become a scheduled call for later in the day when lines became available? Or would the Madrid operator pull down the circuit she was building up through Valladolid and try again via Zaragoza? Or would the Burgos operator yield, disconnect an ongoing call in mid-sentence, and give the line to Madrid? That last choice did not seem to me to be according to the rules, and the Burgos operator had already said she was not authorized to disconnect an ongoing call.
|Interurban (Long Distance) telephone office in Vitoria|
Madrid gave Vitoria the number of the convenience store on Generalisimo Avenue. We were almost there! I hear dial-tone for an instant, then silence while Victoria dials the call, and then ringing.
|Typical corner shop of the era|
It was the Madrid operator who spoke. “I have an international call from the United States,” she said in Spanish. “Could you please send for Mr. Manuel Lopez or Mrs. Elia lopez at No. 20 Generalisimo Avenue.” It was a question spoken in the form of a command.
“Si como no,” was the response. He was saying “yes of course” and his response was followed by a clunk as he puts the receiver down on the counter. Then I hear him faintly, calling out in Spanish “Juanito! Juanito! Run over to No. 20 and tell Mr. or Mrs. Lopez that they have a telephone call from the United States! Hurry!”
Madrid switches to English and says “waiting for your party.”
Before I can respond New York says “thank you, operator” and then to me, “Dr. Prats, we are waiting for your party.”
I’m not Dr. Prats but I say something like, “O.K., thank you,” and continue waiting.
|15 minute 1941 AT&T informercial "Long Distance"|
Shown in theaters back then between features.
This video shows some of the procedures
described in this article. By the 1960's you could
no longer dial the long distance operator directly.
You dialed zero and your local operator dialed your
call, or got you another operator who could complete
Probably a year later all this manual work setting up a call to Vitoria would be history. Telefonica was busy building out its Red Automatica Nacional, its long distance dialing network in Spain. They were converting some 10% of their telephones to long distance dialing every year, and they had been at it for some time. Madrid international operator could have quickly dialed the call to the convenience store in Vitoria directly from Madrid if we had been calling a city that was already on the new network. But in 1969 Vitoria was not yet connected to the new network.
The wait was a number of minutes while Juanito ran down the street to fetch the Lopez' to the phone. Finally I hear someone pick up the receiver from the counter and say “¿que hay?”, the Cuban telephone greeting for “Hello?” Compared with the fading and noisy calls to Cuba, I remember this call to be surprisingly clear. The Madrid operator responds to Elia Maria in Spanish.
|Spanish Telephone of the Era|
“Yes I am,” Elia Maria says in Spanish.
With that the Madrid operator switches to English. “New York, I have your party on the line.” She pulls back her talk key and drops off the call.
“Papi! Mami! It’s Elia Maria!” I shout, holding the receiver in the air. Mariana was closer and she grabs the phone from me. Benito hands me his wrist watch and says “six minutes.” I know what he means and memorize the location of the minutes and seconds hands and watch intently as they continue to revolve. My job now is to let him know when six minutes are up.
The adults in the room take their turn on the phone, as do Elia Maria and Manolo at the other end. No speakerphones back then! Six minutes are almost up. I signal my dad. He holds up three fingers. I continue timing. Just shy of three minutes later I signal him again. He grabs the phone from someone in mid-sentence and says into the receiver in Spanish, “Sorry, we’re out of time,” and hangs up.
This was not considered rude. Everyone knew long distance calls were very expensive and if you went over the next charge was for another full three minutes, whether you used them or not.
This was not considered rude. Everyone knew long distance calls were very expensive and if you went over the next charge was for another full three minutes, whether you used them or not.
The phone rings back almost immediately. I answer: “Hello?”
“This is the operator. Are you through?”
“Yes we are,” I reply.
“Thank you,” she says, and pushes the paper ticket into her clock again to record the call end time, then drops it into a slot on her shelf. She pulls both her plugs from the jacks and the cord retracts into her desktop, its plugs pointing up at the ready for the next call. The line goes silent and I hang up. The Silver Spring operator notices both cord lamps for our cord are now blinking and pulls down both her plugs. The telephone bell quietly dings once, probably from stray current. Our telephone is now an automatic dialing telephone again.
|A French Operator|
Eight operators and Juanito the store clerk (or was he the shopkeeper’s son?) had worked as a team to set up this call. A very scarce and therefore expensive resource, a circuit on the undersea cable from New Jersey to France was used for more than 15 minutes without revenue to setup this nine minute call. Is the $250 in today’s money that this call cost a fair value what with the manpower (womanpower?) used and the investment on the undersea cable? Or is it excessive? You decide. AT&T did not hide the fact that its long distance revenues, mostly paid by businesses, subsidized its free local calls and $6/mo residential subscriptions.
|A C&P Bill from 1983|
I could not find one from the
1960s. By the mid 1970s they
were sending multi-page
invoices in envelopes, but
they were still postcard
|A year later at the Lopez' on Arlington Road|
Lopez boys on he right, Manolo in the white
shirt watching TV. Author behind Juan Antonio
Martinez on the right.
That’s the end of the Person to Person to Spain story. Now a quick postscript regarding calls to Cuba mentioned briefly in that story.
The U.S. embargo that President Kennedy and the U.S. Congress imposed on Cuba in the 1960s, still ongoing today, has prevented AT&T from settling with the Cuban telephone company for completing long distance calls on the undersea cable from Key West to Havana. Benito paid C&P for every call to Camaguey and all AT&T could do because of the embargo was to record each call on a ledger showing how money it owed to the Cuban Telephone Company. This ledger continued to fill year after year.
|1950 AT&T film "Cable to Cuba" (10 minutes)|
The 125 mile 1950 Key West to Havana cable finally failed hard in 1987 and AT&T was not at all interested in replacing it. Today U.S. calls to Cuba are routed via Canada then across to Italy and back. But because of the embargo that AT&T-Cuba revenue ledger is still open, waiting to be settled—and probably because of its age, to be settled in gold francs, not U.S. dollars (Gold francs were specified by telephone companies for international transactions back then to protect against inflation because the franc’s value was tied to the price of gold. Since 1930 one gold franc is worth the current value of 0.290322 grams of fine gold.)
Despite the thousands upon thousands of expensive calls Cuban exiles placed back to their families and the collect calls from Cuba they accepted until the Key West cable failed in 1987, that ledger on AT&T’s books shows that the Cuban Telephone Company owes AT&T many millions of dollars, not the other way around. What!?!
|Cuban Telephone Company Building|
Recent photo of 1926 building. When
it was built, it was the tallest building
in Havana. Circuits of the 1950 Key West
Cable terminated in a cord switchboard
After about 10 years of not getting paid, Southern Bell Telephone, AT&T’s subsidiary in charge of the Key West cable, ordered the cable to be shut down. The U.S. State Department intervened and AT&T compromised. After that time, AT&T would only accept collect calls (calls where the called party pays) from Cuba. The Cuban government’s free calls were over, Calls inbound to Cuba from the U.S. after that time started to reduce, but never managed to fully reverse that ledger’s debits before the cable failed 37 years after it was laid.
Cuba still owes AT&T a lot of money.
Cuba still owes AT&T a lot of money.