The Dial Switchboard: A Piece of Small-Town History in Hazleton

Authored by Gina Coticchio

This is the rotary switchboard which is found in the Hazleton Historical Society Museum. The dial switchboard came to Hazleton in 1954. All the original wiring and phone book is still intact.

The first manual switchboard came about in 1878 and Hazleton, Pennsylvania got its first dial switchboard in 1954. At 11:59pm on April 24the switchboard was up and running in this small town (The Plain Speaker 1954). The Bell telephone company decided to invest in this small town by opening up a building on W. Green St. in Hazleton; with the new switchboard, converting to dial service was costing them $1.5 million (The Plain Speaker 1954). According to Tom Gabos, who is the president of the Hazleton Historical Society Museum, “this switchboard came from the corner of W. Green Street, right across from where our library now is” (Tom Gabos, pers. comm, September 2019). This new technology that was coming to Hazleton was welcomed with open arms. Once word got around of the new switchboard technology, Hazleton was booming with people who wanted to see how this technology would work. By 1940, the population of Hazleton was just over 38,000 (City of Hazleton Pennsylvania, n.d.). By 1953, about 14,000 people were using telephone technology (The Plain Speaker 1954). This is a little under half of what the population was in Hazleton back in 1940. 

Being such a small town, the switchboard was very beneficial to Hazleton and its economy. With this change over to the dial telephone and switchboard, new jobs were being created. Switching to the new switchboard was a huge task, as over 70 men were asked to do the job, with only having just a few seconds to switch over from the old switchboard to the new dial one (The Plain Speaker 1954). As the years went on, jobs were still in demand for the switchboard. This lasted well into the 20th century (“The telephone switchboard connected the country,” StateTech, September 21, 2017). 

As you can see in the picture above, there are many wires coming out of the switchboard. The switchboard operator, who was always almost a woman, would have to work with these tandem trunk wires. The operator would have to plug in the correct wire to the correct city code in order to connect the call (“The telephone switchboard connected the country,” StateTech, September 21, 2017). In the Bell building in Hazleton, there was what they called the ‘operators room.’ In this room was where, 

Girls sit at switchboards answering calls…here by means of hundreds of little electric light buttons… when one button is lighted a number is desired, when two, a conversation is going on. With a small switch, the operator can cut in on the conversation. When a pair of buttons go out, the call was completed and the operator can pull out the plug wires… (The Plain Speaker 1949).

 This new technology was better than the old, but still had to be done manually. 

Though it may not seem like it, Hazleton getting the dial switchboard has something in common with the Vincentian values that St. John’s has. The switchboard brought many jobs to a community where many households struggled. Hazleton was a coal mining town. Many women stayed home while their husbands would be at work, struggling to make ends meet. St. John’s mission statement says, “…Foster a worldview and to further efforts towards global harmony and development” (St. John’s University 2019). This idea can be tied to starting in a small-town community to try to make it better; the Bell company was, I think, unconsciously trying to make this struggling town better. 

References

City of Hazleton Pennsylvania. 2019. “History.”  https://www.hazletoncity.org/Life/history-of-hazleton.htm

Gabos, Tom. 2019. Interview by Gina Coticchio. Phone interview. September 2019. 

St. John’s University. 2019. “Our Mission.” https://www.stjohns.edu/about/our-mission

The Plain Speaker. 1949. “Bell telephone has guides to aid Penna week visitors.” October 21, 1949.

The Plain Speaker. 1954. “Dial phones for Hazleton.” April 24, 1954.

The Plain Speaker. 1954. “Dial telephoning starts tonight at midnight, massive operation must be completed in just a few seconds.” April 24, 1954.

Van Wagenen, Juliet. 2017. “The telephone switchboard connected the country.” StateTech,September 21, 2017. http://statetechmagazine.com/article/2017/09/telephone-switchboard-connected-country

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