The operators at 110 who knew it all

11/08/2004 - 00:00 AM

  • The operators at 110 who knew it all
- + Text size
Print

“In what year was the Château Cambresis treaty signed? How long do tortoises live? How many Tour of Switzerland race stages did Koblet win? What is the distribution of religions across Africa?”… In the 1950s, telephone subscribers could count on the “efficiency and kindness” of the young ladies at the 110 Telephone Answering Service to find out answers to all these questions and more.Articles in the “Selezionando…” in-house magazine confirm that between the mid-Fifties and early Sixties, operators working for the service were kept up to date about what was on in the theatre, at the cinema, on the radio and on television; they knew about national and international events and sporting events, thanks to access to encyclopedias, yearbooks, dictionaries, and a whole library of other books, not to mention a newspaper cuttings library containing many thousands of items. If they were unable to answer the caller’s question right away, operators could pass the query on to a specialist, and then call back later with the answer. The women of 110 were well-educated (a minimum of school-leaver’s certificate was required; many were college graduates), and many of them could speak languages other than Italian. The job left plenty of scope for organizing and managing sources of information. These “Telephone informers”, as they were dubbed in the “Selezionando…” magazine, did a very different job to the operators who came before them. Telephone usage in Italian households boomed in the 1950s, and the telephone companies upgraded their infrastructure and raised the standards of their staff in order to handle increasing demand. They also ran campaigns to promote new habits and inform people of new ways to use the phone. All five of Italy’s telephone companies offered so-called “Special” or “Auxiliary services”. Although some of these services had been available since the 1920s, they only really took off in the postwar years. Customers could call 110 to find out train times, get information on sports events, find out about the football pools, weather forecasts, stock market listings, Lotto results, place names, and theatre and film times; they could order a taxi, get breakdown assistance, arrange a wakeup call, or find out about the very latest news. Indeed, customers could pose any question to the “Answering Service” operators, even the oddest and most arcane. In the year from 1953 to 1954, the number of calls handled by STIPEL, TELVE and TIMO company 110 services (covering northern Italy and part of central Italy) leapt up from 6,668,365 to 8,283,930. By 1957, a total of around 4.5 million queries were fielded in Milan alone – at that time, Milan had Europe’s third-highest telephone density – of which 1.1 million were handled by the “Answering Service”, at an average rate of 12,000 calls per day. A brand-new telephone exchange, dedicated exclusively to “Special Services”, opened in Milan in June 1957. The exchange housed 32 women to answer queries to the 110 service, and offered four reference posts, four mobile carrels, and three kardex trolleys on a rail system for rapid information research. Sixty-three telephone operators worked there on a daily basis, supported by a further three instructors and information processing specialists. Nowadays, people find answers to difficult questions by consulting search engines on the internet, rather than the young ladies at 110. Nevertheless, Call Center operators continue to be a mine of information.