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16.04.2011

The Museum of Telephone History. ‘First Channel’ report

This is a remarkable date in the history of telecommunications in Russia. 75 years ago on the 14th April 1936 the first phone call from Moscow was heard in New York. It took many efforts of specialists on both sides of the ocean to make this happen. At that time, to call from the Soviet Union to the USA was possible only through London. The problems were not so much technical as political. For many years telephone conversations with America were the privilege of a very small circle of Russian citizens.

All of the museum’s exhibits are telephones. Except one! The transatlantic cable. Through this cable, on the other side of the ocean, they could hear the nervous tone of Moscow.

It is well known that the switchboard room at the time was thick with cigarette smoke. There were nerves all day: due to the time difference, the experiment was set to take place at 7pm. The caller was a telecommunications industry head himself. Until the end, nobody believed in the success of the ‘call’.

At those times Europe and America spoke through London. Connection speed depended on the operator’s fluency. On the other side of the world, in New York, the call was answered by an ordinary telephone-telegraph company engineer on duty and, instead of the usual American ‘hello’, he said ‘bonjour’. This is because, at that time, French was the officially accepted language for international telecommunications.

From then on, only females became telephone operators. Not ladies, but ‘mademoiselle New York’, ‘mademoiselle Berlin’ or ‘mademoiselle Rome’. The ‘telephone assistant’ ladies of the telephone stations used French when speaking as operators. Even in London girls at switchboards pretended they didn’t understand English. It was later discovered that they were paid additionally to speak French.

Olga Luchko headed the International Switchboard Department for nearly half a century. She could recognize countries by their voice. She personally selected Moscow’s telephone lady operators. Apart from having expert knowledge of foreign languages, a particular tact was required, as well as tone selection, good hearing, clear speech, geographical knowledge, ability to work with complicated technology and, on top of all that, an understanding of politics.

Politicians, Internal Affair Ministry workers – they were always connected first. Highly important or classified information wasn’t trusted even to specialized telephone lines. Diplomats still used the embassies to make telephone calls right up until the Caribbean crisis. Every minute counted, not just every hour! It became clear that the usual telephone conversation would be inadequate (due to the fact that classified messages would first need to be coded, then subsequently decoded). This would ordinarily require several hours. It was decided: Khruschev will respond to Kennedy by radio. Why on earth, though, would the US President tune in to a Moscow radio program? An International observer in America received a phone call: “I was woken up and told that I had only half an hour to make sure the President heard the transmission”, remembers Zorin.

Valentin Zorin and senator Edward Kennedy (the President’s brother) were already friends and became even closer thereafter. Khruschev was heard in the White House and across the whole of America. The television channels momentarily ceased broadcasting for this emergency news edition. Kennedy and Khruschev subsequently set up a direct telephone line. It still works today!

Not all Americans, however, could talk with Moscovites. In fact not all Moscovites could call Moscow! “Calling home wouldn’t even cross your mind”, remembers Lidiya Skoblikova, the legendary Soviet speed-skater. In the Urals, where her relatives waited for results from the 1960 Winter Olympics from Squaw Valley, news of her event seemed to take forever! Lidiya’s mother heard first over the radio that her daughter had become a legend.

Telephone lines were always open for journalists. Although each had to wait ones turn! At 3.00am TASS had control of the headset, then Pravda and Izvestiya. Telephone operators were privy to all the news first. The same applied to match results.

“Without you we are but a line without a tongue – we wouldn’t be heard”, correspondents used to say on ‘thank-you telegrams’ to the telephone lady operators. At that time, because telephone conversations were rare and demanded strict adherence to the subject matter, those short minutes of conversation were priceless. The greatest luxury is the luxury of people’s communication.