The Wire Chief

The Wire Chief . . .



. . . And His Wire Center

The Wire Chief ruled the Wire Centers.    Wire Chiefs were found both at civilian telephone companies and railroad communications organizations.  A Wire Chief truly and distinctly had significant say over the maintenance, operation and supervision of telegraph and telephone systems, wires and equipment, as well as all those personnel who reported to him.  At Railroads, Class A-1, A-2 and A-3 Offices these officials predominated.


Whether Bell Companies or Burlington, Quincy Railway, their responsibilities rang with the very phones they answered each day. Here are some of the combined duties for these men–and in the early days–men ruled the telegraph and communications management and administrative offices:


  • Basic comprehension of electricity and magnetism’s fundamentals.
  • Voltage storage system understanding: both primary and secondary batteries
  • Motor and rectifier knowledge and principles.
  • Comprehension as to how to properly read and apply tables showing guages and resistances of conductors: open wire or multi-pair cables.
  • A clear understanding of the mechanical construction and electrical operation of all apparatus used in the wire center territory.
  • Proper current values’ comprehension where testing apparatus was used in the wire center
  • Breadth of knowledge where electrical testing was concerned and knowledge of the most up-to-date procedures.
  • A Wire Chief must [in the earlier days] be trained and have knowledge of telegraph and be able to be a competent telegrapher.

Contact information for section linemen and their responsibilities.

Now, it took guts and a stout constitution to manage a wire center.  The duties were not light; nor were they simply and purely administrative.  He had to be conversant with the latest in operating his wire center effectively and efficiently. Apparatus used by his personnel was kept at peak efficiency.  


When outages occurred, when lines went down, apparatus failed, the Wire Chief in a rail center had to provide preferential maintenance treatment to those circuits where train centralized control was paramount.  Dispatching trains without mishap was more important than getting leased aerial wire for a competing telegraph company back up in the air.


Inspection, either by trusted and trained colleagues, or by himself–had to be undertaken, so as to materially improve any potential outside plant liabilities, causing future outages or poor service.  He judged the character and condition of equipment, terminals, cross connect cabinets, apparatus, switches, batteries, bus, and any foreign systems which might potentially cause mishap to existing property wire plant and take appropriate action with superiors to correct this problem.


Testing was an absolute must.  His trusted test board clerk would continually appraise him of questionable electrical values on circuits, lines, equipment and correct any abnormality.  He would then request his I & M (Installation & Maintenance) personnel to dispatch installers, splicers, signalmen to take corrective action.  He would approve budgets for his wire center in order to purchase needed equipment, hardware, poles and line materials.  Stocking necessary shelves with equipment, should they be long-term or consumable items, was important, so they would be on hand in an emergency situation.

Naturally, in so being thus acquainted, the Wire Chief was knowledgeable of fault (short circuit) testing, which had been approved by the railroad or telco.

Here are some of the approved and frequent test procedures:


Graphic charts of wires and circuits, test board chart of wires and test offices by routes which also show wire assignments;

Diagrams showing location of wires on poles;

Record of linemen’s, installers, splicers‘ headquarters, territory, duty times, telephone contact information, means of transportation and etc.;

Working time tables (if a railroad);

List of all offices and duty hours;

Drawings showing face layout and circuits of all switchboards in assigned territory;

Details of all main battery(ies).

Record of all multi-pair cable systems and routes;

Record of conductivity measurements, insulation tests, current and capacity readings; 

Record of past and potential line troubles;

Daily record of general operating conditions;

Daily record of operating conditions on individual circuits.

Must be trained to operate the Switchboard Volt-Mil-
Ammeter, Special Bridge Testing Sets, alternating current test sets and other approved testing apparatus which may be furnished. 


Naturally, upon inspecting lines himself–as well as reviewing PLRs (Pole Line Records)–the Wire Chief would be quite familiar with the regional or local layout of his responsible system within the company [I might add, PLRs also included aerial cable as well as buried and underground cable and facilities].  He might also be close to competitor companies, or foreign wire centers operated by transportation, Bell or Independent companies, with a good relationship with their supervisory representatives.  His dealings with them might be indirect or very direct, requiring visits to new construction, links with their systems, and installation or removal of outside plant investment.  This included such issues such as the conductivity capabilities of his line wire investment, the stability of any insulated wires and to make tests to locate problem potential areas.


Grounding and bonding were essential to the well-run Wire Center, both for inside and outside plant hardware and equipment.  Tests were performed frequently, to ensure this satisfactory operation and to send the appropriate personnel to correct any deficiencies.


To have his clerks perform daily tests and record the findings, of each operating open wire or multi-pair cable system.  Also, to assist in assigning splicers and installers to not only clear good working pairs, but to possibly open defective pairs and clear other frogged circuits, if necessary.


Because the PLRs were so necessary to the locating and mending of potential and real problems, their currency was a must.  He usually was responsible to his superiors for clerks within his Wire Center to maintain trustworthy and up-to-date records, specifications and approved construction.  Also to supervise his outside plant engineers with obtaining necessary clearances, joint use contracts, right-of-way easements with property owners, inspections, permits to bore, push pipe, bury or place manholes, handholes or associated conduit.  To ease negotiations for land and equipment placing, with farmers, landowners, businesses and local governments.


Wire Chiefs were the ultimate decision-maker in assigning emergency tasks to competent linemen, installers, signalmen and splicers to remedy trouble; they would issue instructions in the event of service interruptions to quickly restore service.  Naturally, they also prioritized the circuits to be recovered and restored, so that emergency circuits would perform under demanding situations of weather, climate or man-made mishap.  He would require constant monitoring of the restoration efforts so that in all practicable ways, the problems might be responsibly corrected and trouble cleared.


For it was the regrettable duty for the Wire Chief to report any failure by his work force organization and to see to it that it was not only technically run competently, but with a glistening tour-de-force positive administrative record as well–and with restraint and good judgement.  He was to report to his superiors the prompt instructions given to his subordinates and whether they carried out their duties ably, making judgements at critical times to ensure service was restored or re-routed.


To monitor weather conditions and prepare personnel for any abnormal climatological situation or storm potential. 

Lineman’s Trouble Report to Wire Chief

Special tests performed on open wire and aerial cable needed to be recorded.

Trouble reportage and record of repair.


Center of Attention: the Desk of the Wire Chief


Let’s look at the numerous responsibilities of the Wire Chief, which did not differ significantly from company to company, in the telecom world.


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Switchboard at Wire Chief’s Office within a small exchange.  Note the “distributing frame” behind the switchboard.  This is where the individual pairs are identified to each subscriber and (with both open wire or cables) numbered.

 (Courtesy, Museum of Independent Telephony, Abilene, Kansas, 2016).

In the early days, around the turn of the last century, the automatic equipment we know today, either in early electromechanical or later, solid state switching, did not exist.  There was a need to perform manual switching at local exchanges through the plug-in boards operated by a (usually) woman operator.   In the early days, men were operators, but it was found women were far more efficient at this task, which is another story in and of itself.  


The Wire Center not only connected the receiver of the placed telephone call to the caller, but allowed constant monitoring of the system, to insure proper operation.  That involved many testing procedures carried out at the Wire Center with the “test panel” equipment which for the longest time was consolidated within the operator’s switchboard and also at a separate console, known widely as the “Wire Chief’s Desk.”  


Some of the larger toll wire centers had incorporated into the Wire Chief’s Desk, a test apparatus called the “Morse Panel.”  This was used for line tests of telegraph systems and operators at the switchboard were not involved in this work.  The smaller centers, as the one pictured above, usually did not handle much telegraph work and so such “Morse Panels” were not used.


His desk was placed in a very conspicuous, central position within the room.  This allowed him (and later, “her”), to access the incoming toll lines through “cut-off” jacks.  Some wire centers had direct trunks to the toll board and test panel.  The cut-off jacks had to be wired through the room to the desk, involving the addition of further resistance to the circuits, because they were usually connected through a multi-pair cable.  Also, with the use of more jacks, the mechanical problems associated with wear and tear, would cause the jacks to misalign and thus the connections were fraught with static and poor contact.  


The second method was a good, sound provisioning for test work, although the Wire Chief had to request the Operator at the Switchboard to set up the test connection herself.  Otherwise, the “combined” equipment of the second process, was a more “tried and true” method of test preparation for larger exchanges.


Among the tests which could be undertaken were voltage measurements (both high and low scale), telegraph test equipment (the Morse Board), a listening key, testing for ringing current on the line, bridge connections, battery quality and ability for testing both relays and test lamp indications.  There were also means where the Wire Chief could reach other operators at other toll boards through what was then called, “inter-position” trunks.  This meant the Chief’s telephone could communicate between wire centers.  He had a telephone separate from others, where a pilot and night alarm, was also available.


Cable drop off point at Depot/Wire Center for midwestern railway company


Morse Board 

Let’s discriminate between telegraph and telephone Wire Chief testing responsibilities before we plow into the deeper topic of test boards at the wire center.  

Telegraph testing at the smaller offices, as we mentioned previously, was not a major responsibility of the Wire Chief, so we’ll contain our discussion to larger Wire Center test organizations.  The “Morse Board”.  Sometimes, this author has found, earlier telegraphers at railways–particularly–used the phrase: “Test & Morse Board.”

There were two types of these “boards,” one of which was called the “cord & plug” board and the other called the “cordless board.”  Medium-sized wire centers promoted the use of the first type–and that was the first employed in the early years of the telephone plant; the second was more consistent with larger wire centers, and developed with the expansion of telephone systems.  Here are the differences between the two.

Connections for tests were made with a test cord which was plugged into a separate connection to perform a test or tests.  The “cordless” type used a few cords only to make the general layout