"Vaticano, prego": holy telephone operators and exchange engineers

05/26/2006 - 00:00 AM

  • "Vaticano, prego": holy telephone operators and exchange engineers
- + Text size
Print

Vaticano, prego?” was how the telephone operators in cassocks answered the phones at the Vatican City switchboard after it was installed in 1930.

The Vatican was at the forefront of telephone innovation in the earliest days of the industry. In 1886, Giovanni Battista Marzi set up the world’s first automatic telephone system linking 10 telephones in the Vatican’s Apostolic Library, six years before Almon Strowger came up with the invention that was to become Italy’s most widely-used automatic telephone system.
A few decades later, Pius XI asked Guglielmo Marconi to install Italy’s first radio link to connect the Vatican and the papal villas at Castel Gandolfo.
However, the Vatican only installed its first standard telephone service after the Lateran Treaty was signed. Thereafter, a number of Vatican offices and residences were connected to Rome’s telephone network.
The Vatican's first telephone exchange, connected to 360 phones, was installed at the Belvedere after a donation by American Catholics in 1930. Twelve switchboard operators staffed the system in two shifts. Only one switchboard operator was on duty at night, when demand was much lower.
This switchboard system remained in operation until 1960, when it was replaced by a 1,500-number “Pentaconta” exchange. Capacity was subsequently upgraded to 3,000.
The Vatican City State Telephone Service was in charge of researching, installing and managing all telecommunications installations at the Vatican. Since July 5, 1948 it has been run by members of the Società S. Paolo religious order. As well as over 30 laymen, the Society of St. Paul employs a number of priests and many nuns (Suore Pie Discepole del Divin Maestro), who are experts in foreign languages.
Many telephone service managers made a name for themselves as scholars and inventors. The most famous manager of them all was Don Lorenzo Manfredi, who was born in the 1910s in the province of Reggio Emilia, and earned acclaim for his work in physics and electronics. In 1935 he invented the first cathode ray tube for multiple simultaneous transmissions. He took up his position as head of the Vatican City State Telephone Service in 1949.

Sources:
SIP picture archive; A. Alongi, Ruolo della Cominicazione Sociale della Santa Sede, graduate thesis, Faculty of Political Science, University of Catania, 2004-2005.