"Armistice Day" Traffic Demands Marked Service on 11 November 1918
Before the Internet, Before Television, there was the telephone. Learn how the World War I Armistice Day Crashed the Bell Telephone System across the United States on 11 November 1918.
THE news that Germany had capitulated to the allied armies and signed an armistice on 11 November was the signal for what was probably the greatest patriotic demonstration in the history of the United States.
There was a general suspension of business, and the telephone business offices in most cities gave the employees a holiday to take part in the general merry-making.
There was one class of telephone employees, however, who celebrated differently, namely, by sticking to their switchboards and handling a deluge of calls.
Bell operators maintained the well-known tradition of "Service First," and many of them, although off duty, volunteered their services and took their places at the switchboards.
Although well accustomed to such work on the part of the operating forces, the press and the public joined in expressing praise for how the ever-faithful operators met the emergency.
The first information of the German surrender came to Chicago by telephone from the Associated Press. Chicago had somewhat outdone itself on 7 November when the report that the armistice had been signed was received at noon.
On 11 November, however, the whistles' shrieking and blowing of horns and general chaos at about 2:00 a. m. aroused people from their beds and the streets were soon filled with cheering thousands.
Any idea of working on such a day as this was probably the last thought in the minds of most of them. Between nine and ten o'clock, people used the telephone more than during any one hour in the city's history.
This rush of conversation was supplemental, and the mad shouting was making the streets chaotic at the same time.
In this one hour of the grand victory celebration, people used the telephone for more than 370,000 calls, which is 62,000 higher than in any other one hour on record.
The nearest approach to this traffic volume was on the day following the presidential election of 1916, while the result was in doubt.
Telephone employees reported at their offices as usual. Still, they were soon excused for the day, and in the telephone buildings as in all other parts of the city were demonstrations of tremendous enthusiasm.
When the whistles began to blow on 7 November, traffic began to leap almost immediately. Many traffic employees who were off duty lost no time calling up because they knew people needed their services.
Many of those at the switchboards disregarded the dismissal bells, and it was necessary to persuade several to go home, as their services would be valuable in the evening.
At the Superior office, managers discovered two-day operators that evening, who had gone home but returned of their own accord.
At Rogers Park, the entire force of evening supervisors called up and volunteered to come in at once.
When the celebration started early on 11 November, numerous operators, supervisors, order clerks, chief operators, and assistant traffic chiefs reported at once, and many night operators gave up their sleep relief.
At the Edgewater office, in addition to operators and supervisors, two assistant traffic chiefs, the day and evening chief operators, two senior supervisors, and one order clerk were on duty at 3:30 a. m.
On both Thursday and Monday, the trouble positions proved very unpopular, as the operators assigned to run them said they felt like slackers to see everyone else working so hard.
The limited transportation facilities made it difficult for many of the workforces to reach their office, and many walked considerable distances. An Edgewater operator was in such a hurry to report at her office that she did not even stop to lace her shoes.
The operating forces were aided mainly by employees from other departments, including matrons, order clerks, and men of the maintenance department, who gave able assistance in cashing nickels and taking down "disconnects." The matrons were warmly welcomed because they served breakfast to the employees.
In the Beverly district, all chief operators had been requested, in case of management sounded the alarm, to be at their respective offices not later than 6:00 am on 11 November.
The Stewart and Prospect chief operators reported at five, and the Beverly chief operators at 5:30. At Stewart, one of the Supervisors was at a party and immediately came to the office after the alarm sounded.
Two operators reported before six, and two others called and offered their services. All the operators who were called and requested to report at six or before the regular time did so. There were no absentees, and the traffic was very heavy.
At Prospect, two girls reported voluntarily at 3:30, worked until nine, and returned in the evening. The senior supervisor and two operators came of their own accord at four.
One supervisor reported at 4:45, although scheduled to be off duty. There was only one absentee at this office. At the South Chicago office, two operators called and offered their services.
There was only one absentee at this office. The evening chief operator had spent the night at Indiana Harbor and telephoned bright and early to see if her supervisor would need her.
Five Pullman girls called in after the tidings were sounded and offered their services. A Stewart operator living near Pullman also telephoned and offered her services. There were no absentees at this office.
The Beverley office was no exception to the rule, and all the operators who were requested to report early did so, and there were no absentees.
Two Wentworth operators whose regular time is 9:00 a. m. voluntarily reported for duty at three and two 7:00 a. m. girls came at five. One Oakland girl who was due at nine came at 4:45, and another at 5:30. Five Hyde Park A. E. operators called the chief operator at eight and asked if they could assist. Three Yards operators voluntarily came in two hours early.
A considerable increase in the night traffic was noticed in the Central district offices immediately after the whistles began to blow. It came first from the newspaper lines in the Main and Central offices. A gradually increasing traffic followed it on the nickel lines and from various outlying exchanges handling calls for the newspapers.
The traffic continued heavy for an hour and a half or two hours and then subsided until about 6:00 am when there was another very noticeable increase in all service classes. It reached its maximum about 10:00 am, and there was then a general decrease because of the rapid closing of the various business establishments throughout the downtown districts.
The night forces in the Central district offices were instructed to call off regular sleep reliefs and staff the boards to the very best advantage, giving preference to the newspaper and government telephones.
As in the other districts, many operators volunteered their services, and those who were asked to come in early did so. With but one exception, the day chief operators reported before 7:30.
In the Western district, all the day chief operators made a special effort to reach their offices unusually early. The first on duty arrived a few minutes after five, and many were an hour and a half and two hours early.
Two day supervisors reported for duty at 3:05, and five other operators and supervisors in the office arrived between six and 6:30. One evening operator worked three or four hours in the morning in addition to her regular evening tour.
Another office reports the arrival of two operators between three and four, and in another, the repair clerks who were scheduled to be off duty for the day came in early and worked all day.
When she found the streetcars blocked, one operator hailed a passing auto truck loaded with merrymakers and came to the office on it.
The Chicago Telephone Company's suburban exchanges were not one whit behind the city of Chicago, and all of them were swamped with traffic. Their operators showed the same spirit of loyalty as those in Chicago.
Throughout the country, the same conditions prevailed. For hours the flying fingers kept time to the blaze of white lights across the great switchboards.
Indianapolis celebrated on 7 November, but it was merely a warming up for the big event on 11 November. At all the Bell exchanges in the city, the operators came early or off duty simply because they knew their supervisors would need them.
In Columbus, Ohio, a happy party of Bell employees rigged a giant twelve-inch gong on one of the company trucks' fenders. It adorned with flags, a bevy of pretty girls made the circuit of the crowd, the constantly ringing gong loudly proclaiming their approach.
The same peace celebration reports came from Detroit and the rest of the Michigan State Telephone Company's territory. It is unnecessary to give details as Bell's operating forces are animated by the same spirit everywhere.
While other people had a good time, the telephone traffic forces were working the hardest. Traffic broke records, and at many places throughout the whole state, there was general rejoicing.
The Milwaukee Daily Sentinel says that the busiest place in Milwaukee when the great peace news came was the Broadway office of the Wisconsin Telephone Company, and it was the same way all over the state.
Not only was every light on the Broadway exchange lighted, but the trunk lines which connect the various exchanges were all busy. Operators could do nothing but repeat, endlessly, "Germany has surrendered. Call back again and I'll try to get you a line."
As the company had received the news sometime before the papers were out, special operators were put on and held in readiness, but the operators could hardly handle the calls even then.
"We cannot say too much for our girls." said F. M. McEniry, commercial superintendent. "One and all they stood by like soldiers. Although there has never been a situation like this before, there was not a sign of hysterics or impatience. After the excitement of the first few moments they all settled down to the business in hand."
For more than three hours, the seventy-two operators were unable to cope with the situation. About ten minutes after people received the news report, Germany surrendered practically every light on the switchboard in all the telephone exchanges in the city flashed almost simultaneously.
On 7 November, one of the news associations sent out the false report to the effect that the armistice had been signed spread through Cleveland like wildfire, resulting in the highest peak load the city has ever experienced.
So great was the load at the Main office that the 100-ampere fuse "blew out" twice. The service interruption did not exceed twenty seconds in either case, as one of the wire chief's forces was at the fuse panel at the time.
Clifford Arrick, '"Armistice Day" Traffic the Freak Demands That Marked Service on November 11, 1918, ' in Telephone Engineer, Chicago: Electricity Magazine Corporation, December 1918. Vol. XX, No. 6, pp. 256-257