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Telephone exchanges in South Melbourne

Telephone exchanges in South Melbourne
Robin Grow

Newspapers in 1920 stated their opinion that the day was not far distant when the telephone would be installed in every home, just as the water, mains and sewers are connected in the cities.

Telephones were part of the massive technological advances of the 19th century, and they had quickly replaced the use of telegraphs and messenger boys in the business community.

They came into existence in 1877 and arrived in Victoria in 1880, when the first Australian telephone exchange opened in Melbourne. It was privately owned and operated by the Melbourne Telephone Exchange Co. Ltd, with calls initially able to be made directly from one subscriber to another.

Switchboard equipment was then introduced, with exchanges, extensive wiring, and telephone poles, which added to the tangled street forest of poles and wires. Soon more exchanges were developed, becoming able to host large numbers of lines.

In the late 19th century, as an increasing number of residents of Melbourne took the opportunity to subscribe, even more exchanges were required. In 1887 the Post Office took over the operations of the rapidly expanding telephone network.

Exchanges required switchboard operators whose job was to receive calls from subscribers and connect them to the slot allocated on the switchboard for the required number. Originally the tasks were laborious, noisy, and slow, but exchanges were models of ingenuity and improvements soon demonstrated rapid changes, although there was a heavy workload. Soon each operator had 1000 connecting slots representing subscribers, all within an arm’s length.

Their tasks were originally carried out by men, as were early secretarial roles, but it soon became apparent that women operators were more efficient and able to operate the equipment with more dexterity. In every test taken, women attendants had proved their superiority over their stronger rivals and by 1910, female operators were timed at an average of seven seconds per call, while very vexatious delays often occurred when male attendants were on duty. 

The first exchange in South Melbourne was on the corner of Bank St and Green Place, behind the South Melbourne Town Hall. A new exchange was approved in 1922, managing 7000 subscribers and in 1927 an automatic exchange was introduced in Bank St (on the border of the block later occupied by the new Park Towers high-rise tower), necessitating a change of numbers for subscribers.

The numbers changed again in 1937, with addition of the prefix X to numbers in South Melbourne, and the introduction of a “dial tone” that indicated that the line was in order.

By this time many large businesses managed their own switchboards for multiple internal lines, telephone directories “White Pages” and “Yellow Pages” became common, as did phone boxes on streets.

The South Melbourne exchange played a major role in connecting businesses and citizens. •

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