Before automation, before smart assistants, was Emma Nutt



These days, many of us enjoy the convenience and accessibility of smart assistants. We ask them for information on the regular — whether it be the news, the weather or a new joke. People talk to chatbots, smart speakers, and their phones like they’re friends.

But it wasn’t always so easy. Before the days of automation, AI and voice recognition, real people had to connect us both to each other and to information. Think telephone operators and “human computers”. As technology advanced, the need for these roles slowly disappeared.

The impact of displaced roles, however, remains evident in the tech of today. In fact, early telephony had a significant hand in shaping the way we interact with — and view — our modern AI tools.

How? It all dates back to Emma Nutt.


Early telephony

Today, telephones are omnipresent in the world around us. Almost everyone carries a mobile phone with them. The ability to talk to the people we need to, whenever we need to, is something we take for granted. But connecting a call wasn’t always so seamless.

Early phones had no rotary dials or keys. And so, came the need for a telephone operator to make the desired connection manually. Unless you shared a direct line with the person you wished to speak with, an operator would need to connect your call for you.

The first telephone operators were teenage boys, hired from the telegraph office. The logic here was that teenage boys were fit and primed for physical labour.

Unfortunately, the issue was that as well as the physical labour required to operate the switchboards, operators also needed to talk to people. This live contact was a task not quite so well suited to a bunch of teenagers. The boys would fight, play pranks and swear at customers.

And so, the search for more suitable telephone operators turned to women, who were small and worked for less money. Along came Emma Nutt.


Emma Nutt

Emma Mills Nutt, born in July 1860, was the first female telephone operator. Like the teenage boys initially hired for the job, Nutt started out working in the telegraph office. Until, that is, Alexander Graham Bell hired her.

And so, in 1878, Emma Nutt began her new role as a telephone operator. Emma was chosen to replace unruly teens, but also because of cost. Women were much cheaper to hire than men. Her pay was $10 a month, and she worked 54 hours a week.

Nutt excelled at her new job and set an example for what all telephone operators should be. She was patient with her customers and adept at the technical side of her tasks. It’s also believed that Emma Nutt could remember every number in the telephone directory of the New England Telephone Company.

Plus, the caller response to her soothing, gentle voice was overwhelmingly positive. As such, Emma Nutt was the first of the female voices that met callers at the end of the telephone. But she wouldn’t be the last.


Telephone operators

So, what exactly were the roles and responsibilities of Emma Nutt, and the women that followed her? Telephone operators operated the switchboards. They helped customers by connecting calls.

Many were also tasked with making sure that the telephone system worked smoothly. This meant that alongside helping callers, they’d complete technical work. For instance, testing lines and reporting them for repair, splicing cables, adjusting the hardware and so on.

Beyond connecting calls, though, telephone operators also provided information to callers. Customers could connect with their operator to find out the names and addresses of other local customers. They could often find out the latest news, weather forecast or sports results. Telephone operators like Emma Nutt would even tell you what time it was.

Particularly early on, in the 1880s-1890s, they would often serve the same small group of customers every day. As such, local telephone operators would become quite familiar. They’d create a sense of trust and friendship with their callers, and so they’d also become a good source of gossip.


Women and technology

Little did Emma Nutt know, her first day on the job sparked a legacy that continues today. Within six months of Nutt starting her job as a telephone operator, all Bell telephone operators were women. Indeed, the role of the telephone operator became a female-dominated profession.

And so, the technology adopted a welcoming female voice for every caller.

Telephones aren’t the only time that women served behind machines, however. After Emma and the telephone, women would go on to fill a diverse mix of technology roles.

For example, computers were not always machines, but people that would complete calculations by hand. It was a role often held by women since the late 19th century. For instance, Annie Easley, a computer scientist for NASA, started her 34-year long career as a human computer. Or, consider the  ENIAC programmers, six women that were all human computers chosen to work on ENIAC.

Another example comes from the first chatbot, ELIZA, which was also considered female. This marks another female ‘voice’ for technology, if artificial.


Smart speakers and female voices

These days, you wouldn’t use a telephone operator to ask for information or connect calls. But you might ask your smart assistant. And, just as those that spoke to Emma Nutt, you’d get a helpful answer from a female voice. (At least by default.)

Siri, Google, Cortana and Alexa — they all come with a distinctly female voice. If you need directions, GPS systems also tend to skew towards female voices. Many fictional AI programs are female, such as GLaDOS and Cortana in video games. (Portal and Halo, respectively.) The Starfleet computers in Star Trek provide another pop-culture example.

The reasons why our technology is so often classed as female is a nuanced one. It’s something that’s full of discussion and controversy when it comes to gender politics.

But, one contributing reason may be as simple as it’s what we’re used to — whether that’s due to underlying sexism, or not. Our technology, like our phones, have always had a female voice. Like that of Emma Nutt.


Before it all, was Emma Nutt

When 18-year old Emma Nutt walked into her new job on September 1, 1878, she became a key part of the history of technology. Her friendly, popular voice made a lasting impression, and may even have impacted the way we interact with our devices nowadays.

Emma’s success in her role as an operator marks the start of the use of the female voice in technology. For better or worse, that’s a trend that we still see in modern technology.


Useful links

A history of automation: The rise of robots and AI

AI and the Wizard of Oz

The awkward interplay of man vs machine