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.