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Telephone exchange

telephone exchange is a telecommunications system used in the public switched

telephone network or in large enterprises. An exchange consists of electronic
components and in older systems also human operators that interconnect (switch)
telephone subscriber lines or virtual circuits of digital systems to
establish telephone calls between subscribers.

In historical perspective, telecommunication terms have been used with different

semantics over time. The term telephone exchange is often used synonymously
with central office (CO), a Bell System term. Often, a central office is defined as a
building used to house the inside plant equipment of potentially several telephone
exchanges, each serving a certain geographical area. Such an area has also been
referred to as the exchange. Central office locations may also be identified in North
America as wire centers, designating a facility from which a telephone obtains dial
tone.[1] For business and billing purposes, telephony carriers also define rate
centers, which in larger cities may be clusters of central offices, to define specified
geographical locations for determining distance measurements.

In the United States and Canada, the Bell System established in the 1940s a
uniform system of identifying central offices with a three-digit central office code,
that was used as a prefix to subscriber telephone numbers. All central offices
within a larger region, typically aggregated by state, were assigned a common
numbering plan area code. With the development of international and transoceanic
telephone trunks, especially driven by direct customer dialing, similar efforts of
systematic organization of the telephone networks occurred in many countries in
the mid-20th century.

For corporate or enterprise use, a private telephone exchange is often referred to as

a private branch exchange (PBX), when it has connections to the public switched
telephone network. A PBX is installed in enterprise facilities, typically collocated
with large office spaces or within an organizational campus to serve the local
private telephone system and any private leased line circuits. Smaller installations
might deploy a PBX or key telephone system in the office of a receptionist.


Tivadar Puskás

1922 diagram of 1877 Boston exchange

1903 manual crosspoint switch

In the era of the electrical telegraph, post offices, railway stations, the more
important governmental centers (ministries), stock exchanges, very few nationally
distributed newspapers, the largest internationally important corporations and
wealthy individuals were the principal users of such telegraphs.[2] Despite the fact
that telephone devices existed before the invention of the telephone exchange, their
success and economical operation would have been impossible on the
same schema and structure of the contemporary telegraph, as prior to the invention
of the telephone exchange switchboard, early telephones were hardwired to and
communicated with only a single other telephone (such as from an individual's
home to the person's business[3]).

A telephone exchange is a telephone system located at service centers (central

offices) responsible for a small geographic area that provided the switching or
interconnection of two or more individual subscriber lines for calls made between
them, rather than requiring direct lines between subscriber stations. This made it
possible for subscribers to call each other at homes, businesses, or public spaces.
These made telephony an available and comfortable communication tool for
everyday use, and it gave the impetus for the creation of a whole new industrial

As with the invention of the telephone itself, the honor of "first telephone
exchange" has several claimants. One of the first to propose a telephone exchange
was Hungarian Tivadar Puskás in 1877 while he was working for Thomas
Edison.[4][5][6][7][8] The first experimental telephone exchange was based on the
ideas of Puskás, and it was built by the Bell Telephone Company in Boston in
1877.[9] The world's first state-administered telephone exchange opened on
November 12, 1877 in Friedrichsberg close to Berlin under the direction
of Heinrich von Stephan.[10] George W. Coy designed and built the first
commercial US telephone exchange which opened in New Haven, Connecticut in
January, 1878. The switchboard was built from "carriage bolts, handles from teapot
lids and bustle wire" and could handle two simultaneous conversations.[11] Charles
Glidden is also credited with establishing an exchange in Lowell, MA. with 50
subscribers in 1878.

In Europe other early telephone exchanges were based in London and Manchester,
both of which opened under Bell patents in 1879.[12]Belgium had its
first International Bell exchange (in Antwerp) a year later.

In 1887 Puskás introduced the multiplex switchboard.[vague]. [13]

Later exchanges consisted of one to several hundred plug boards staffed

by switchboard operators. Each operator sat in front of a vertical panel containing
banks of ¼-inch tip-ring-sleeve (3-conductor) jacks, each of which was the local
termination of a subscriber's telephone line. In front of the jack panel lay a
horizontal panel containing two rows of patch cords, each pair connected to a cord

When a calling party lifted the receiver, the local loop current lit a signal lamp near
the jack.[14] The operator responded by inserting the rear cord (answering cord)
into the subscriber's jack and switched her headset into the circuit to ask, "Number,
please?" For a local call, the operator inserted the front cord of the pair (ringing
cord) into the called party's local jack and started the ringing cycle. For a long
distance call, she plugged into a trunk circuit to connect to another operator in
another bank of boards or at a remote central office. In 1918, the average time to
complete the connection for a long-distance call was 15 minutes.[14]

Early manual switchboards required the operator to operate listening keys and
ringing keys, but by the late 1910s and 1920s, advances in switchboard technology
led to features which allowed the call to be automatically answered immediately as
the operator inserted the answering cord, and ringing would automatically begin as
soon as the operator inserted the ringing cord into the called party’s jack. The
operator would be disconnected from the circuit, allowing her to handle another
call, while the caller heard an audible ringback signal, so that that operator would
not have to periodically report that she was continuing to ring the line.[15]

In the ringdown method, the originating operator called another intermediate

operator who would call the called subscriber, or passed it on to another
intermediate operator.[16] This chain of intermediate operators could complete the
call only if intermediate trunk lines were available between all the centers at the
same time. In 1943 when military calls had priority, a cross-country US call might
take as long as 2 hours to request and schedule in cities that used manual
switchboards for toll calls.

Manual service exchanges[edit]

Main article: Telephone switchboard

1924 PBX switchboard

With manual service, the customer lifts the receiver off-hook and asks
the operator to connect the call to a requested number. Provided that the number is
in the same central office, and located on the operator's switchboard, the operator
connects the call by plugging the ringing cord into the jack corresponding to the
called customer's line. If the called party's line is on a different switchboard in the
same office, or in a different central office, the operator plugs into the trunk for the
destination switchboard or office and asks the operator answering (known as the
"B" operator) to connect the call.

Most urban exchanges provided common-battery service, meaning that the central
office provided power to the subscriber telephone circuits for operation of the
transmitter, as well as for automatic signaling with rotary dials. In common-battery
systems, the pair of wires from a subscriber's telephone to the exchange carry 48V
(nominal) DC potential from the telephone company end across the conductors.
The telephone presents an open circuit when it is on-hook or idle.[18]

When a subscriber's phone is off-hook, it presents an electrical resistance across

the line which causes current to flow through the telephone and wires to the central
office. In a manually operated switchboard, this current flowed through a relay
coil, and actuated a buzzer or a lamp on the operator's switchboard, signaling the
operator to perform service.[18]

In the largest cities, it took many years to convert every office to automatic
equipment, such as a panel switch. During this transition period, once numbers
were standardized to the 2L-4N or 2L-5N format (two-letter exchange name and
either four or five digits), it was possible to dial a number located in a manual
exchange and be connected without requesting operator assistance. The policy of
the Bell System stated that customers in large cities should not need to be
concerned with the type of office, whether they were calling a manual or an
automatic office.