588. How does a telephone switching system work? Why was it so hard to trace telephone calls? In movies we see people pulling wires in order to trace the origin of a call. - AZ
Before the advent of electronic telephone switching systems, the automatic switching was done by electromechanical relays. These remarkable devices were essentially 10-position rotary switches that were turned by a series of electric pulses—the same pulses that were produced by the rotary dial of a telephone. When you dialed a "5", your telephone produced a series of 5 brief pulses of electric current and one of these relays advanced 5 positions before stopping. Each number that you dialed affected a different relay so that your called was routed through one relay for each digit in the number that you called. To trace a called, someone had to follow the wires from relay to relay in order to determine what position each relay was in. From those positions, they could determine what number had been dialed. The first few digits of the telephone number determine which exchange (which local switching system) was being called, so those first relays were located in the caller's telephone exchange building. The last few digits determine which number in the answerer's exchange was being called, so those relays were located in the answerer's telephone exchange. As you can imagine, finding your way through all those relays and wires in at least two different buildings was quite a job.