PORTAGE PATHWAYS: Dialing up a modern marvel in communication 1939

By Roger J. Di Paolo | Record-Courier Editor Published:

Alexander Graham Bell's revolutionary innovation in communication was only six years old when the first telephone service began in Portage County in 1882.

The Midland Telephone Co. began operation in Ravenna, serving 55 customers from a switchboard installed in a room over the First National Bank. Two months later, in December 1882, service was extended to Kent, where the exchange was located in the Kimes block, at the corner of South Water and East Erie streets. It, too, served 55 customers.

The first telephone operators were women -- the Kent operators became known as "the girls at Central" -- and from the start their jobs involved much more than making the proper connections for their customers.

Maude Bowers, who retired in 1962 after 45 years as a telephone operator and supervisor, recalled that when she began her job in Kent with the Portage Telephone Co. in 1917, operators were the first to hear news of births and deaths and often served as "messenger girls" for callers.

"We would get a long distance call for someone who didn't have a phone," she said, "and after work, we'd walk to their home and tell them to call 'long distance.' "

Telephone operators also were the first responders for fire calls. When one came in, she recalled, "the phone operator even cranked the fire siren to alert the volunteer firemen."

First and foremost, however, the telephone operator was the voice on the other end of the line when a caller lifted the telephone receiver. "Number, please?" was the automatic response for a call to be put through.

That changed in 1939, when the Ohio Bell Telephone Co. introduced what the Evening Record described as "the latest development in the science of telephony" to customers in Ravenna and Kent -- dial telephone service.

No longer would a caller have to rely on the operator to make the connection with another caller. Simply dialing the number direct was all that was necessary.

In an age when many of us carry our telephones in our pocket and instant communication is the norm, that might seem more than obvious. But in 1939, it was a considerable change, and news coverage of the switchover reflected that.

New telephone directories, with 4,675 listings, were distributed to customers in Kent, Ravenna and Mantua. A special section at the beginning of the directory included directions on how to dial a call.

"If, after reading the instructions, any subscriber still has trouble placing a dial call, they should dial 'O' for the Operator," the Evening Record reminded readers.

In addition to having to learn how to dial a telephone, customers in Kent and Ravenna also had to contend with another major change: They all received new telephone numbers.

"The mechanisms of dial operation made it necessary to change the telephone numbers of our Kent and Ravenna subscribers," Leon Hubbell, commercial manager for Ohio Bell, told the Evening Record. The changeover to dial service for Mantua customers evidently was made later.

The switch also coincided with a major change for Ohio Bell in Kent, the transfer of the telephone exchange from the Allen Block on North Water Street next to the Kent National Bank, where it had been located for about 30 years. The new office on North DePeyster Street was erected to house the equipment needed for the dial system.

Dial service went into operation at midnight May 27, 1939. There was no interruption in service as the manual switchboard was cut off and the dial equipment went on line.

The next edition of the Evening Record reported that telephone users were "making their dial calls as if they had been doing it for years." Ravenna Mayor Seth Sloan commented that dialing the telephone was "quite a simple matter," but added, "I couldn't help wondering at the marvels of science."

The Record's Roasting Pan column, an unbylined feature written by staff members, struck a dissenting note. "When I call one on the phone nowadays, I'm never sure whom I am going to end up talking to," the writer observed, adding this admonition: "No longer can you lift the telephone, scream 'Fire' or 'Police,' and expect an operator to connect you."

"The science of telephony," for all its marvels, had put an end to that, probably to the relief of women such as Maude Bowers and the successors to the girls at Central.

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