The Path to Public Service at SEAS
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To most students Lehman Hall is a cash register citadel, the barred castle of the Bursar. It also houses one of the University's most used and least talked-about services--the headquarters of the University telephone system. Operators working below street level answer day and night whenever anyone dials KI 7-7600, and people do that at the rate of 6,700 a day.
There are now about 8,000 phone extensions in the system, and 500 more instruments connected on these lines. This is quite different from the situation up to 1908 when there were only two telephones in the College, in the Dean's Office and in the Publications Department. That year the first switchboard went into operation in University 3. It had only 40 stations, and no power for ringing bells, so operators had to use hand cranks. When the women complained about this added labor, the Buildings and Grounds Department replied that putting in power would require "needless expense." Finally, in 1911 the discontented operators won their fight, and since then bells have been rung electrically.
By 1926 a new and larger switchboard had been installed on the top floor of Lehman Hall, but had to move to its present location because of vibrations from Square traffic on the higher floor. Increasing use of the University system led to installation of an automatic dial system in 1948. The shiny steel equipment and colored wires now occupy the room next to the switchboard, which employs four operators during the day and one at night. Besides calls to College buildings, users of the system can call graduate schools, Radcliffe and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology directly on University lines.
Lehman headquarters does more than answer KI 7-7600 calls. Those small red lamps attached to various buildings around the College are also part of the telephone system. These, when lit, summon University policemen; near each light is a telephone connected like the light, directly with the switchboard. Even when there is no particular trouble brewing, and there usually isn't, the policeman must call in once every hour during the day, and every half-hour from midnight to dawn. When there is a really big disturbance, like last fall's Square riot, the switchboard becomes an intelligence center, directing police and telling curious people "why all those boys are out in the Square at this time of night."
Perhaps the greatest task over handled by the staff was the "checking in" after the Coconut Grove fire in 1940. Every serviceman in the New England District as well as civilian College students had to report to the University switchboard. While there is nothing quite so glamorous in the way of public service these days, operators are often called on to do more than put the right plug in the right hole for many callers. Of people wanting information, contest enterers are the most demanding; they ply the Harvard operators with an infinite variety of obscure queries. And then there are those who just want to know where a street in Cambridge is, or, as in the case of at least one youthful student, what to wear to a formal dance.
Somehow though, the operators usually come up with the right answers. There may not be a shortcut to knowledge but KI 7-7600 comes close.
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