1920 - The Beginning of Dial Service

Up to 1920, the Bell System had established a standard of customer service throughout the country using operators and switchboards. Meanwhile, independent telephone companies had been replacing their switchboards with machine switching systems. Bell initially resisted this change. It was felt that operators could provide a better quality of service at a reasonable cost.
Through aggressive competition throughout the country, a Bell company would occasionally buy out an existing independent company. In some cases, when the independent company had been using machine switching, the Bell company would remove it and convert the customers back to manual service.
One of the factors that finally caused Bell to change its direction was a major operator strike in 1920. This strike was devastating to the company and showed company management a vulnerability that they had not known existed.
|A Panel Selector Frame

The Panel Switching System

Bell System's answer was the Panel Switching System. This system was developed by Bell Laboratories to satisfy the requirement for a dial system for larger cities. The first Panel switching machine was installed in Omaha, Nebraska in 1921.
The machine was quite a beast. It consisted of aisle-after-aisle of frames containing motor-driven selector rods and contact banks. For its day, it was quite a technical marvel. Following a successful trial in Omaha, Panel machines began to be installed in cities all over North America.


1923 - Atlanta's First Dial Service

Western Electric Dial Candlestick Phone - c.1923At midnight on July 28, 1923, a Panel switching machine began operation in the Auburn Avenue building in Downtown Atlanta, converting the Walnut office to dial service. The machine was reported to have cost over 2 million dollars. That's 1923 dollars!
The first dial phones were candlestick phones.

To place a call, you lifted the receiver, waited for dial tone, then dialed. The dial tone was a much lower pitched tone than what we hear today. If the switching equipment was busy, dial tone might take several seconds to come on.
 An Early Dial Tone
This was a radical change for telephone customers at the time. Not being used to dialing and dial tones, many people forgot to wait for the strange tone and dialed too soon. This resulted in wrong numbers or calls that did not go through. This was especially true in the first couple of days of the new dial service.
Editorial Cartoon - The Atlanta Journal 1923
A cartoon appeared in the newspaper poking fun at the confusion caused by people learning how to use the new dial service.
Depiction of 1923 Telephone Dial Face with Number Card Showing the Walnut Office Name

6 Digit Dialing

The numbering plan chosen for Atlanta was the 6 digit system of two letters and 4 numbers. Using this system, you dialed the first two letters of the office name followed by the 4 digit number within the office.
When office names were printed in telephone directories and on telephone dials, the first two letters were always capitalized. This was done to emphasize that you dialed only those two letters. An example might be MAin 0134, for which you would dial M-A-0-1-3-4. For numbers less than 1000, leading zeroes had to be dialed and were therefore printed. Telephone listings prior to dial service did not include leading zeros.

Party line letters were still used in the manual offices. For HEmlock 2345-J, you would dial H-E-2-3-4-5-J. This meant that private numbers were six digits long and party line numbers in manual offices required a seventh pull of the dial. So, when calling a manual office, the switching equipment always had to wait for a few seconds after the sixth digit in case there was a seventh.

Over the next several years, many downtown businesses were switched to Walnut in order to take advantage of dial service. With Ivy, Walnut and Hemlock, it looked like offices were going to be named after trees. But this practice didn't continue.
As a part of the implementation of dial service, the Decatur, West, and East Point offices were given new names. Decatur became "Dearborn", West became "Raymond", and East Point became "Fairfax". By this time, it had become the policy of Bell telephone companies not to use actual town names as central office names. This tended to cause confusion when placing Long Distance calls. So a standard set of approved names was developed and used nationwide.

The Hurt Building

When Southern Bell moved the Ivy central office out of the 56 Marietta Street building, company headquarters remained there. Then in 1924, headquarters were moved to the Hurt Building. The Hurt Building was an office building built in 1914. The building contained multiple tenants. Southern Bell leased an increasing amount of space in the building over the next several decades.

The City's Second Dial Office, "Main"

Western Electric 202 Cradle Phone - Introduced in 1927In 1928, a second Panel Switching Machine was opened in the Auburn Avenue building and the Main office became the second office in town to be converted to dial service. Prior to this, Main was located in the Pryor Street building.
At this point, most Downtown customers had dial service while the rest of the city did not. The remaining Downtown manual office, Ivy, probably served mostly residential customers and party lines.

Calling from Dial Offices to Manual Offices

Manual and dial offices coexisted for almost thirty years. So procedures for handling calls between them had to be developed.
From the beginning, it was determined that customers should not have to be concerned with which offices were manual and which were dial other than their own office. This information would be constantly changing as offices were converted to dial service and confusion would result. So the answer was to have dial customers dial all of their calls, regardless of type of office.
If you were on the Main office and dialed a Walnut number, the call was completed entirely on automatic equipment. If you dialed a Hemlock number, the automatic equipment connected the call to the Hemlock office where a "B" operator connected the incoming trunk to the desired number. Either way, you heard the usual ringing tone or busy signal.
To make this work, some of the "B" operator positions in each of the manual offices had to be modified to add Call Indicators. A Call Indicator was a numerical readout of the dialed number. The number was sent automatically from the Panel switching equipment in the originating office to the call indicator equipment in the terminating manual office.

Calling from Manual Offices to Dial Offices

It is not known exactly how manual-to-dial calls were handled in Atlanta. It is most likely that "B" operator positions were installed in the dial offices. These operator positions served in the same role as the "B" positions in the manual office, except that instead of plugging a cord into a jack associated with the called number, the Panel office "B" operator keyed the number into the machine, which then made the connection. This system involved the least amount of change to the operating procedures in the manual offices.
Another system that came into use in some cities involved adding dials to each of the manual office "A" operator positions. This enabled these operators to complete calls to dial offices without requiring the services of a "B" operator.

1929 - Long Distance Expansion

51 Ivy Building around 1961 with 14 FloorsIn 1929, the new 51 Ivy Street building was opened. This was an Art Deco style building similar to others built during this period in New York and Chicago. The building was planned to be 21 floors but was originally built to only 6. It was later expanded to 14 floors as in the photo. Southern Bell and AT&T occupied it jointly. The building became well known as "51 Ivy".
Prior to the opening of 51 Ivy, long distance calls were handled by special Long Distance Operator positions in the Auburn Avenue building. The 51 Ivy building allowed many more Long Distance positions to be added. Atlanta was becoming a major center for long distance traffic in the Southeast.

Long Distance Circuits in 1929

Long Distance Operators in Atlanta in 1929 had a limited number of circuits available to other cities. To Birmingham and Macon, there were 15 circuits. To New York, there were 7. To Chicago, Cincinnati, and Miami, there were 5 circuits each. For Detroit, St. Louis, and Dallas, there was a single circuit.

Placing Long Distance Calls in 1929

There were essentially two types of long distance calls during this time period: Short Haul, and Long Haul. Calls within about 30 miles were considered Short Haul. These calls could generally be handled by the "A" Operator in your central office. If you were served by a manual office, you would simply ask for the town name and number, just like with a local call. If you had dial service, you would dial "0" for your local "A" Operator for these types of calls.
Long-Haul calls were handled through the Long Distance Operators in the 51 Ivy Building. Throughout the Bell System, procedures for handing these calls were quite elaborate. The system in use in 1929 was referred to as the "Callback System", which meant that you would be called back when your call was ready. This system involved many steps and 5 or more operators per call.
To initiate a Long Distance call, if you were served by a manual office, such as Hemlock, you picked up your telephone and said "Long Distance!". If you had dial service, you dialed "110". An operator then answered "Long Distance!".
The first Long Distance operator you talked to was called the Recording Operator. She would record the details of your call on a ticket. In many cases you would not have known the telephone number of the person you were calling, only the City and the name of the person or business that you wanted. After taking down this information, the Recording Operator would ask you to hang up and wait to be called back.
In some places, a young lady on roller skates picked up the tickets from the Recording Operators and delivered them to other operators for handling. This could have been the case in Atlanta. Regardless, the ticket would next go to a Directory Operator, who had telephone directories for most major cities. She looked up the telephone number of the party you were calling and wrote it on the ticket.
The next stop was the Routing Operator, who looked up the route to the destination city. A call to Buffalo, for example, would have been routed through New York City. The ticket with the routing information was then passed on to the Outward Operator.
The Outward Operator, also known as a Line Operator, placed the actual call to the distant city. The Outward operator had access to trunks going to the first city required according to the routing on the ticket. If all trunks were busy, the Outward Operator would hold on to the ticket until a trunk became available. The operator would then ring the operator in that city. If the destination city required routing through intermediate points, the Outward Operator asked to be connected to each of the cities shown on the ticket until the desired city was reached.
The operator answering the call in another city was called the Inward Operator. The Inward Operator had access to trunks going to the central offices in that city. Using one of these trunks, the Inward Operator would connect to "B" Operator in the called party's central office and ask for the number.
The Inward Operator stayed on the line to insure that the called party could be reached. If the party was not available, she could ask where they might be reached and ring another number in the same office or in another office.
Once the called party was finally on the line, the Atlanta Outward Operator would connect back to your central office and ring you back.
This elaborate process was necessary because there were so few trunks available between cities. This system allowed tickets to be queued up, waiting for trunks to become available. This used the limited trunks efficiently.
Over the years, as more and more circuits became available when technology improved, the Callback system was used less and less until it was finally eliminated in favor of the "straightforward" system. The Straightforward system allowed a call to be set up over the network from operator to operator while you waited. This system was also sometimes known as the CLR (Combined Line and Recording) system since the Recording Operator and Line Operator functions were combined.

1931 - More Dial Service

The Great Depression officially started as a result of the crash of the New York Stock Market in 1929. While it probably took a couple of years for the result of this to ripple down, it had a major impact on the telephone business in general. It is interesting how this is not apparent when you look at the number of new offices constructed during the 30s. The number of telephones was supposed to have decreased during this time as people could not afford to have them.

The first Step-by-Step Offices

In 1931, four new dial offices, Cherokee, Raymond, Vernon, and Calhoun were opened. These all used the Step-by-Step switching system.
Step-by-Step SelectorsThe Step-by-Step system, also known as the Strowger system, had been invented in the early part of the 1900s and was the switching system of choice with independent telephone companies. The Bell System too, had made a determination that Step-by-Step was a more economical system than Panel for small cities and towns. But due to patent restrictions on the Step-by-Step system held by The Automatic Electric Company, The Bell System had been unable to manufacture the equipment. Following the signing of an agreement between the two companies around 1930, Western Electric, the manufacturing arm of The Bell System was licensed to begin manufacturing the equipment.
Step-by-Step gets its name from the way that it switches calls; one step at a time. If you were inclined to notice these things, you could hear a loud click after each digit. When dialing in a Panel office, you usually did not hear any loud clicks or connection sounds until you had dialed the complete number. On all types of equipment during this era, however, you often heard soft clicking and whiring sounds in the background.
It was an unusual decision on Southern Bell's part to change directions in Atlanta and begin using Step-by-Step here. No other city in North America installed Step-by-Step once a Panel network had been started. Panel and Step-by-Step systems were like oil and water. The type of signaling used between Panel machines was completely incompatible with the signaling required in Step-by-Step offices. Mixing the two in the same local network required expensive auxiliary equipment.
The first Step-by-Step machine to be installed was located in a new building in Buckhead at the corner of Peachtree and Roswell Roads. The office name given was Cherokee. Customers of the new Cherokee office had previously been served out of the Hemlock office.
The second new machine was installed in a new building on Gordon Street (Now M.L.K Drive). This machine replaced the Raymond manual office, keeping the name Raymond.
Following an addition to the Crescent Avenue building, which housed the Hemlock office, the third new machine was installed there. The Vernon dial office provided service for new customers in the same area as Hemlock. The Hemlock manual office remained in service.
 Ringing Sound from the Vernon Step-by-Step Office
 Dial Tone from an Atlanta Step-by-Step office.
The fourth new machine installed in 1931 replaced the manual office in East Point. This office, called Calhoun, replaced the Fairfax office. All customers were switched at the same time.
Coinciding with the new dial offices, the Ivy manual office downtown was renamed Jackson. Individual telephone numbers did not change. The reason for this change is unknown.
In 1934, a new dial office called Cypress was opened in the Auburn Avenue building along with the Walnut, Main, and Jackson offices. This office, like the other offices installed around this time in the city used the Step-by-Step system. This meant that there were now three different switching technologies in use in the same building: Manual, Panel, and Step.
In 1937, the Dearborn Office in Decatur was converted from manual to dial service.
When manual offices were converted to dial service, customers with private lines usually kept the same number. Party line customers always had to be assigned new numbers because party line letters were not used in the dial office and each party had to have a different number.
By 1940, the majority of the city was served by dial offices. Remaining manual offices were Jackson, Hemlock, and Belmont. These offices remained manual for ten more years.
Sometime between 1933 and 1944, a second dial office called Atwood was added to the Crescent Avenue Office and a second dial office called "CRescent" was added to the Decatur central office. Strangely, the name Crescent was the name of the street where the Hemlock central office was located but it had nothing to do with that office.

In the telephone directory listings during this period, there is a note under the name "Ansley" that says to also see "Ainslie". In a Southern Dialect, it is possible for both words to be pronounced the same way.

1941 - Further Dial Conversion

World War II brought a noticeable slowdown to new construction during the 1940s. But some progress did occur in the later part of the decade.
During The War, The Telephone Company placed ads in magazines and newspapers requesting that people limit their Long Distance calls to five minutes.
1946 Sample Telephone Numbers

The Jackson Office Conversion

Depiction of 1946 Telephone Dial Face with Number Card Showing the Lamar Office Name
In 1946, the Jackson Office was split into two offices. The new Lamar dial office was opened in the Auburn Avenue building and took over all of the private line customers on the Jackson office. These customers kept the same last 4 digits in the Lamar office.
Most people may not have noticed. But since Lamar (LA) and Jackson (JA) both correspond to "52" on the dial, people could have continued to dial the name Jackson. So the reason for the name change is unclear.
The old Jackson manual office retained the party line customers and was renamed Alpine. These customers got to keep their existing last 4 digits and party line letters in the Alpine office.
Then in 1949, the Alpine office was converted to dial service keeping the same office name but all of the Alpine subscribers got new numbers.

The Belmont Office Conversion

The Belmont office was converted to dial service in 1947. It appears that private line customers' numbers did not change. Party line customers would have had their last 4 digits changed.

New Emerson, Evergreen and Dixie Offices

In 1949, the EMerson office was added to the Crescent Avenue building in Midtown. This was the third office name in this building. The VErnon and HEmlock offices remained.
The same year, the EVergreen office was added to the Decatur central office building, accompanying DEarborn and CRescent.
Also this year, the new DIxie office opened in a new building at Lakewood on the southeast side of town. This office was originally supposed to be called FIlmore. But local residents objected because Filmore was the name of a Yankee officer during the Civil War. So the name was changed to DIxie. Since both FIlmore and DIxie translated to "34" on the dial, this did not require any equipment changes.

51 Ivy Building Expansion

Starting in 1947, a major expansion was started on the 51 Ivy Building to raise it from its initial 6 floors to 14 floors. This expansion was completed in 1949. On October 9, Southern Bell conducted an open house to show off the new facility to the press and the public. The 7th floor of the enlarged building initially contained a large number of additional Long Distance operator positions.

1950 - Extended Area Service

Community Dial Offices

During this period, small offices existed in many communities and towns outside of Atlanta. Some were still manual and some were dial offices. Towns like Marietta and Smyrna were manual until about 1950 when they were converted to dial service. Smaller communities, like Woodstock had dial service earlier than that. It was decided early on that it was inefficient to hire switchboard operators for very low traffic offices in small communities. So small Step-by-Step machines were installed in these places and referred to as Community Dial Offices or "CDOs". The CDOs usually had 4-digit dialing within the community only. All other calls were Long Distance and were placed through an operator working in a nearby town. In the case of Woodstock, for example, operators in Marietta provided this service.
The equipment installed in Community Dial Offices was generally No. 355A Step-by-Step. This differed slightly from the Step-by-Step equipment that was installed in larger offices in Atlanta and towns like Marietta. The larger offices were known as No. 1 Step-by-Step. The two versions had different sized racks and different power plants. The dial tones, busy signals and ringback tones sounded very different.

Local Service to Clarkston and Chamblee

On December 3, 1950, the first Extended Area Service became available. You could now dial Clarkston and Chamblee as local calls. To place a call to Clarkston or Chamblee, you dialed "21" plus the 4 digit Clarkston or Chamblee number. At this time, the Chamblee office area included Dunwoody and the Clarkston office area included Tucker. Prior to this, all these areas were Long Distance. Other places, like Smyrna and Marietta were still long distance in 1950.

In 1952, Extended Area service was expanded to include Smyrna and the dialing instructions for these calls were changed. The previous code of "21" for EAS calls was changed to a single digit "4". At this point, Smyrna, Clarkston, and Chamblee did not have office names. Telephone numbers in Clarkston and Chamblee telephone numbers were changed to 5 digits. Smyrna was already 5 digits. The first digits of each of these offices were different. So the routing was as follows:
Clarkston4 + 3-XXXX
Smyrna4 + 5-XXXX
Chamblee4 + 7-XXXX


1951 - The End of Manual Service

Western Electric 302 Telephone - Introduced in 1937In June of 1951, the Hemlock office was removed from service, bringing the era of manual service in Atlanta to an end. There were several articles in the newspaper about the operators' jobs coming to an end. All of the operators were given new jobs in other locations. Many became Long Distance Operators in the 51 Ivy building.
You might think people were nostalgic about giving up the last manual service. Some people did prefer to talk to a human being instead of dialing into a machine. But in general, subscribers felt a sense of relief to be rid of the old service. During busy periods, operators were slow to answer. Operators also made occasional mistakes, connecting customers to wrong numbers.
For several years, some of the customers served by the Hemlock office had been requesting to have their numbers changed in order to have dial service. But as a general rule, Southern Bell would not do this. When Hemlock was finally retired, customers were given new numbers on a new dial office called Elgin.
Outside of Atlanta, manual offices remained for a few more years. Some Georgia towns may have had manual service as late as 1960.


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