The evolution of telephone automation

The calls we make so freely today once had to be manually connected. And we’ve come a long way from the IVR systems of the 1970s to competent AI call handlers like Google Duplex.

Today, telephone automation involves a vast number of functions and capabilities. Although you may not pair the two technologies together, automation software helped make the telephone into what it is.

Here, we explore how telephone automation has grown and evolved. Starting from the creation of the telephone itself, to the array of processes we can automate today.

Switchboards, exchanges, and operators

Alexander Graham Bell received the patent for his telephone in 1876. From there, he grew his business — The Telephone Company Ltd.

Early telephones could only connect to one other phone — a direct line between two participants. Great if you only wanted to talk to one other person, ever, on your new phone. But that was far too restrictive.

The answer to this problem came in the form of switchboards, exchanges, and operators. Telephone users would pick up the phone and connect to the exchange. From there the operators (colloquially known as ‘hello girls’) would use the switchboard to connect the caller to their desired recipient.

But, as the demand for telephones — and reliable connections — grew, so too did the need for telephone automation.

Manifesting the automation need

An increase in telephone subscribers (and subsequently, telephone calls) resulted in increased pressure on the switchboard operators. There were simply too many calls for the operators to manage. And, as a result, telephone users wound up stuck in long queues.

This led to a need for more operators, and more switchboards, meaning more costs for the telephone companies. (With more employees to pay.)

As revolutionary as telephones were, their growth was proving unsustainable. And so, attention turned to finding ways to automate the job of telephone operators. Early telephone automation, then, focused on automatically connecting calls.

Telephone automation and the undertaker

One of the most successful means of automatic line switching in telephony came from an unlikely source. Indeed, the invention came from an undertaker in Kansas.

The story goes that Almon B. Strowger did not trust his local telephone operator. She was the wife of his competition and owing to that, Strowger suspected that she was diverting requests for his services to her husband’s business instead.

Frustrated, he set out to create a ‘girl-less, cuss-less telephone’. And he did this by using machinery to automate telephone connections.

Almon Strowger’s design became widely adopted in both the US and across the pond, in Britain. It became known as ‘step-by-step’, as callers would work their way through the exchange, step by step.

How? Through dialling.

Different dialling options

Dialling, then, is one of the earliest forms of telephone automation. It allowed for phones to swap to different lines automatically, thereby removing the need for manual telephone operators to connect calls.

Almon Strowger’s system worked thanks to his creation of the rotary dial. The rotary dial had ten positions, labelled one to zero, and used pulse dialling.

To use it, the caller would place their finger on the desired number and rotate the dial as far as it could go. The dial would then rotate back, and in doing so, send electrical signals (or pulses) down the line. These signals told the exchange which lines to switch to. So, with each number dialled, callers were forging a path through the exchange until the desired recipient’s line was selected.

Dialling has since become a staple part of the telephone experience. Over time, different ways to dial have evolved. Or, as another way of looking at it, new ways to automate telephone connections evolved.

Going digital

Another key moment in the history of telephone automation is the shift from analogue technology to digital. This shift was made possible with the creation and refinement of post code modulation (PCM). This is a method used to represent analogue signals digitally.

At first, digital telephony was too expensive and low-quality to be practical. But, as technology improved, the shift to digital telephony became viable and more stable. It was in 1968 that the first all-digital PCM telephone exchange was opened in the UK. The swap to digital telephony had begun.

This swap has since opened many avenues for telephone automation. Specifically, that is, because it allowed the integration of telephony and computers. For example, as with VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) telephony.

IVR systems

Another form of telephone automation on the rise in the 1970s was interactive voice response, or IVR. IVR used a mixture of Dual-Tone Multi-Frequency (DTMF) decoding, early speech recognition software, and text to speech.

DTMF, otherwise known as Touch-Tone, is what replaced the rotary dial and its pulse dialling system. It works by sending two pure tones (pure sine waves) that are different for each number. DTMF provided callers with a way to reply to early IVR systems. (“Press one for….”)

With interactive voice response, telephone automation branched into conversations and fine-tuned routing. It enabled companies to answer a higher volume of calls, as the IVR system provided basic information before escalating to a live call agent.

IVR marks a shift in what telephone automation would come to focus on. With connecting calls sorted, there were new avenues — like conversation and routing — to explore.

Telephone automation today

Nowadays, telephone automation can join forces with the use of wider automation opportunities. It works through integrating your telephony system with your business process automation software.

For example, ThinkAutomation with its rich Twilio integration.

These days, telephone automation revolves around what you can do with a telephone, rather than removing the need for human operators.

What can modern telephone automation do?

With modern telephone automation, you can automate your outbound calls completely. That is, you can set the triggers of your choice that make a phone call happen automatically.

If this happens, you have options as to how it happens, too. For instance, you could use your automation to bridge a two-way call. (Calling both your customer and your representative to connect the call.)

Or, with automation able to convert text to voice, you could leave simple, informational calls to your automation software. This could prove useful in cases where a customer wants to hear information rather than read it. (Improving your accessibility.)

Telephone automation also includes features like call routing, recording, and reporting. So you can keep track of your business calls, as well as make them.

Telephone automation

Automation has played a huge role in making the telephone what it is today. And now, it’s expanding what we can do with the staple technology.

We can only speculate on what the future holds for telephone automation. Perhaps we will one day see pre-emptive connections, or robots handling the phone lines for us.

For now, telephone automation presents a host of possibilities, and a way to make connections the moment they’re needed.

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