John Walker [Autodesk] on the phone system

Rohit Khare (
Wed, 16 Jul 1997 22:25:13 -0400

The development of the U.S. telephone network in the twentieth century
provides an excellent example of how management and engineering can,
together, solve problems. In the year 1900 there were about a million
telephones in the country. By 1985 more than 135 million were installed.
Building a system to connect every residence and business across a
continent, providing service so reliable it becomes taken for granted, is
one of the most outstanding management achievements of all time. Yet it
never could have happened without continuing engineering developments to
surmount obstacles which otherwise would have curtailed its growth:
problems no amount of management, however competent, could have ameliorated

Consider: in 1902 every thousand telephones required 22 operators. The Bell
System employed 30,000 operators then, making connections among the 1.3
million telephones that existed. Had this ratio remained constant, the
dream of a telephone in every house, on every desk in every business, would
have remained only a dream for it would have required, by 1985, three
million operators plugging and unplugging cables just to keep the phones
working. About 3% of the entire labour force would be telephone operators.
Even if that many could somehow be hired and trained, the salary costs
would price phone service out of reach of most people.

No amount of management could overcome this limitation. But a series of
incremental engineering fixes, starting with automated switchboards for
human operators, then direct dial telephones, and finally direct worldwide
dialing reduced the demand for operators to a level where universal
telephone service became a reality. The managers wisely realised they
needed an engineering fix, funded the search for one, and when it was
found, managed the transition to the new system and its ongoing operation

The engineers, likewise, realised that while they could fix a large part of
the problem, they couldn't do it all. Had they sought to eliminate
operators entirely, they would never have found a workable system. Instead,
they automated what they could and relied on a well-managed organisation of
human beings to handle the balance. Indeed, the number of operators
employed by the Bell System has grown steadily over the years, reaching
160,000 by 1970. But the engineering fixes had, through time, reduced the
requirement from 22 operators per thousand phones to about 1.7.

Rohit Khare /// MCI Internet Architecture (BOS) ///
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