What do barbers and surgeons have in
common? Why did the first computer
programmer never get to program a
computer? And why did making a telephone
call once mean being cursed at by drunk
teenagers? The answers all lie in the
downright weird origins of the boring
professions we take for granted today.
1.Flight Attendants
Today, the stereotypical flight attendant is a
beautiful woman in a tight skirt. But the very
first flight attendants were exclusively male.
Known as “couriers,” they often included the
young sons of the businessmen who
sponsored early flights. As air travel became
more common, the responsibility of attending
to passengers and serving drinks actually fell
to the co-pilot. Professional flight attendants
were only hired again in the 1930s, when the
first female flight attendants are recorded.
The women in question were actually nurses,
since airlines believed passengers would feel
much safer with medical assistance to hand.
The very first female flight attendant was
Ellen Church, who was both a pilot and a
registered nurse. Since airlines refused to
hire a female pilot at the time, Church
convinced a reluctant Boeing Air Transport
(now United Airlines) to hire her and seven
other nurses as attendants. As well as
assisting with airsickness, Church argued that
female flight attendants would help deal with
nervous passengers, telling the airline that it
“would be good psychology to have women up
in the air. How is a man going to say he is
afraid to fly when a woman is working on the
When World War II broke out, most nurses
left to serve with the military, prompting
airlines to begin hiring ordinary women to
replace them. Men only became flight
attendants again in the 1960s and have not
regained their dominance to date
Professional barbers date back at least to
Ancient Egypt, where wealthy nobles kept
personal barbers on staff. In Ancient Greece
and Rome, the barbershop was known as a
fountain of gossip and political debate. But
things really got interesting in medieval
Europe, where barbers started performing
surgeries as well as cutting hair.
It all started in AD 1163, when the pope
issued a degree banning members of the
clergy from shedding blood. This was a
problem for priests and monks, who often
carried out bloodletting and other minor
surgical procedures. Instead, they turned to
barbers, who already carried razors and were
stationed at many monasteries to keep the
monks clean-shaven. Since medical doctors
viewed bloodletting as beneath them, they
were happy to let barbers take it over
entirely, along with other unpleasant
procedures like amputations and lancing
Barber-surgeons became even more
prominent due to the bubonic plague, which
caused a high mortality rate among trained
medical doctors. In England, the barbers and
surgeons were originally two separate guilds,
but grew together until Henry VIII merged
them in 1540. Ambroise Pare, considered the
father of modern surgery, started out as a
barber. It has even been suggested that the
familiar red and white barber pole originally
symbolized bloody bandages . Of course, the
emergence of modern medicine clashed with
the idea of an informally trained barber-
surgeon, causing barbers to be gradually
forbidden from carrying out medical
procedures during the 18th century.
3 Soccer Referees
Early soccer matches had no referee. Instead,
the captains of the two teams were
responsible for settling all disagreements on
the field. As football became more
competitive, each side would bring an umpire
to the pitch. The two umpires ran around the
field observing the game as it progressed, but
did not interfere in disagreements except
when asked by the players.
Since the umpires were on the payroll of the
competing teams, they often got into lengthy
disagreements, prompting the introduction of
a neutral referee appointed by both teams.
The referee watched the game from the
touchline and acted as the timekeeper. He did
not interfere in the game, although he had
the power to warn players and even send
them off for repeated rough play. Instead, he
was only consulted when the two umpires
could not reach an agreement.
In 1891, the laws of the game were amended
to give the referee the final say on the pitch,
effectively creating the modern referee. The
two umpires evolved into the linesmen or
assistant referees. However, the referee
would have to wait until the 1970 World Cup
to get his familiar red and yellow cards,
which were modeled on traffic lights and
introduced to help avoid confusion over
whether a player had been sent off or not.
4 Telephone Operators
In the early days of the phone, people
couldn’t simply dial a number and expect to
be connected. Instead, they would first call
their telephone operating center, where a
telephone operator would manually operate a
switchboard to route the call to the intended
recipient. A particularly complicated call
might require up to six operators furiously
plugging switches into wall-sized
The first call operators were young teenage
boys . Telephone companies knew that
working a switchboard was hard work and
thought teenage boys would have the
dexterity, energy, and reflexes needed. More
importantly, they were cheap.
Unfortunately, there were some predictable
problems with employing only teenagers. The
boys soon developed a reputation for playing
practical jokes on callers , including ending
their calls without warning and deliberately
connecting two strangers together to enjoy the
resulting confusion. They also had a tendency
to swear at customers and were known for
fighting and drinking alcohol while working.
The whole thing was such a disaster that Bell
eventually fired all of its teenage male
operators en masse, replacing them with
young women, who were considered more
genteel and equally cheap. Other telephone
companies followed suit and men only
became operators again after equal rights
legislation was passed in the 1970s.
5 Computer Programming
Today, we think of computer programmers as
young male geeks. But the first computer
programmers were usually women. In fact,
arguably the world’s first computer
programmer was Ada Lovelace , a female
mathematician and the daughter of Lord
Byron. Lovelace was a close friend and
colleague of Charles Babbage, who first
conceived of a programmable computer. While
translating an article on Babbage, Lovelace
wrote an algorithm that would prompt
Babbage’s “Analytical Engine” to perform
mathematical calculations. This is considered
the first program. Lovelace was also the first
to suggest that computers had applications
beyond performing calculations, since it was
possible to represent any type of data using
only numbers. Unfortunately, Babbage never
actually built his computer, so Lovelace’s
work remained theoretical .
In the 1940s, the University of Pennsylvania
developed the ENIAC machine (pictured
above), one of the first electronic computers.
Six women were hired to “set up”
computations on the machine, becoming the
first practical computer programmers in the
process. Women continued to dominate the
field into the 1960s, with Cosmopolitan
magazine declaring that programming offered
some of the best opportunities for women to
develop a career. A leading female computer
scientist, Dr. Grace Hopper, even told the
magazine that women were naturals at
programming, since it was “just like planning
a dinner.” Meanwhile, men preferred to stick
to hardware, which was seen as more
prestigious than “clerical” software work.
Sadly, male programmers eventually came to
dominate the field by making deliberate
efforts to force their female counterparts out.
Among other things, they formed male-only
professional associations and encouraged
hiring requirements that benefited men, who
were more likely to have studied math at
school and university. Male programmers also
pushed for the introduction of personality
profiles for job candidates, which were
slanted toward male applicants. Incidentally,
those same personality profiles argued that
the ideal programmer would be disinterested
in people, helping to create the stereotype of
the antisocial computer nerd so prevalent
6 Firefighters
Firefighting itself began as soon as humans
started living in packed-together, flammable
houses. However, the first professional
firefighting outfit we know of dates back to
Ancient Rome, where the famously wealthy
Marcus Licinius Crassus formed his own
private outfit. Whenever there was an
outbreak of fire, his team would rush to the
scene and begin negotiations with the owner
of the property. If both sides agreed on a fee,
they would put out the fire. It not, Crassus’s
team would simply leave, allowing the
property to burn.
Possibly inspired by Crassus, the Emperor
Augustus eventually formed his own fire
brigade, known as the Vigiles or “bucket
brigade.” Unlike Crassus and his men, the
Vigiles’ services were free. Later, firefighting
was mostly left up to the local watch, who
were often more concerned with catching
criminals than fighting fires. In 1666, the
Great Fire of London prompted English
insurance companies to form their own fire
brigades. Policyholders would be given a
badge to attach to their building. Whenever
there was a fire, local fire brigades would be
called out, but would only put out the fire if
the building was insured with the right
company . As a result, houses were frequently
left to burn until the correct fire brigade
Edinburgh finally formed the first proper fire
brigade in 1824. The chief officer was James
Braidwood, who was later recruited to enact
similar reforms in London. After establishing
the principles of modern firefighting, he was
killed while battling a London warehouse fire
in 1861.
Elizabeth S Anderson


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