Select your localized edition:

Close ×

More Ways to Connect

Discover one of our 28 local entrepreneurial communities »

Be the first to know as we launch in new countries and markets around the globe.

Interested in bringing MIT Technology Review to your local market?

MIT Technology ReviewMIT Technology Review - logo

 

Unsupported browser: Your browser does not meet modern web standards. See how it scores »

Try to get a real live operator on the telephone these days and you’re likely to find yourself lost in a forest of phone trees, pining for a human voice. But a century ago, it was the other way around: Operators themselves got on callers’ nerves and made them wish for a machine that would connect calls automatically. In 1889, fed up with the sometimes discourteous and inaccurate central-office “hello girls,” a Kansas City undertaker filed a patent that paved the way for the first automatic telephone exchange and put the power of telephony at the public’s fingertips.

The details are in dispute, but most historians agree that Almon Strowger was spurred into action by his suspicion that callers who asked for his mortuary were being connected to his competitors. Using a cardboard collar box, the undertaker built a prototype of an automatic switch: A 10-by-10 grid of pins stuck into the box represented 100 line terminals; a pencil through the box’s center represented a rotating shaft that carried the caller’s line and could bring it in contact with any of the others. The caller operated the switch with buttons on the phone which moved the shaft by row and column to align the correct terminals.

Strowger was issued his first patent in 1891. On November 3, 1892, he and his new business partners opened the Strowger Automatic Telephone Exchange in La Porte, Ind., using a modified version of the original switch concept. The system was a hit: “Besides giving cheaper and better service,” crowed the New York Tribune, it would “do away with the sometimes impudent and lazy girls at the central station.”

As automatic switching spread, the buttons were replaced with a finger-wheel dial. Strowger equipment, such as the 1905 dial phone, at right, was manufactured by the newly formed Automatic Electric Company. Strowger retired to Florida six years after he opened his first exchange, selling his patents for $1,800 and his stake in the company for $10,000. He died in 1902, and so the reputedly cantankerous inventor never knew what a bad deal he had made-in 1916 the Bell system licensed his invention for $2.5 million.

0 comments about this story. Start the discussion »

Tagged: Business

Reprints and Permissions | Send feedback to the editor

From the Archives

Close

Introducing MIT Technology Review Insider.

Already a Magazine subscriber?

You're automatically an Insider. It's easy to activate or upgrade your account.

Activate Your Account

Become an Insider

It's the new way to subscribe. Get even more of the tech news, research, and discoveries you crave.

Sign Up

Learn More

Find out why MIT Technology Review Insider is for you and explore your options.

Show Me
×

A Place of Inspiration

Understand the technologies that are changing business and driving the new global economy.

September 23-25, 2014
Register »