To See That It Keeps on Working, 1940
“Dial WE 1212 for the weather” became a familiar phrase in American cities during the middle decades of the 20th century. Users could dial up the number and hear an automated recording of the day’s forecast. Logs showed that calls came most often between 7 and 9 a.m. Then, as now, the weather forecast was essential to choosing clothes and planning the day.
The Weather Bureau introduced automatic telephone service to select cities during the fiscal year 1939-40. The automated service was intended to take some of the strain off staff manning telephone lines at local offices. During the 1920s and 1930s, even in normal weather, individual weather stations averaged more than 100 calls a day. In addition to the basic forecast, callers asked for weather information related to fairs, weather insurance, street-flushing, snow removal, baseball games, and other weather sensitive outdoor events.
In New York City, “the Weather Bureau was frequently accused of never answering the telephone,” wrote the city’s Weather Bureau Official-In-Charge. “Unanswered calls became so numerous that the Telephone Company was compelled to investigate the matter.” Automated service was inaugurated on April 8, 1939, modeled on the time service.
This picture was taken by a news wire service on April 17, 1940, in Detroit, one of the earlier cities to receive automatic service, along with Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, New York and Newark. World War II likely put a stop to the installation of new automatic systems, but Cleveland and Philadelphia got telephone service in 1950.
According to the caption on the back of the print,
“To make certain that ‘all is right’, and stays right, and that the weather forecast recording and reproducing apparatus will continue to answer any and every call to ‘WEather 1212’ for ‘the weather’, Senior Switchman L.J. Kennedy, left, checks up on the ‘repeaters’, while Switchman Frank Ingraham, right, is making a relay adjustment. Crews of men, working in shifts, have this work as part of their duties.”
This is the rare photograph that highlights maintenance. Historians of technology have recently discovered maintenance as a research topic. One of the challenges we face is that upkeep is not often the subject of compelling pictures. Images of the invention, manufacture, or the use of technologies tend to get circulated much more widely than pictures of maintenance. This photo also offers a touch of irony. The maintenance workers here serve to humanize a machine that is literally designed to dehumanize communication. Without the men, this picture is much less engaging, but these men are also never supposed to be heard by the weather-curious public.
- “Forty Thousand Calls a Day,” “The BREEZE,” Volume 4, No. 3, April 10, 1947. P. 1, 4.
- Donald R. Whitnah, A History of the United States Weather Bureau (University of Illinois Press, 1961): 157-58, 229.
- The Maintainers Blog
Photography taken by an unknown newspaper photography service, April 17, 1940. Image scanned from a print in my personal collection.