Almon Strowger was born in
Penfield, New York, on September 5, 1829. One of
seven brothers, it was said that Almon was always
good at inventing machines to do his and his
brothers' chores, and that ability would serve
him well in his later life. At the age of 22, he
enlisted in the New York Cavalry, and he
subsequently served in the Union Army during the Civil War.
Sometime after the war he moved to Kansas, where
he taught school in either El Dorado or Topeka.
By 1891 he was the owner of an undertaking
business in Kansas City, Missouri, and it was
while so engaged that he invented the automatic
telephone switching system.
There are many different
stories of how Strowger came up with the
invention that made him famous, but the most
commonly repeated one says that he became
frustrated over human operators misdirecting
calls from his customers, and that he was certain
the misdirects were intentional. Believing it
necessary, therefore, to get rid of the human
element in placing calls, Strowger is said to
have used a round cardboard collar box and a
hundred straight pins to lay out his basic
concept. What he came up with was a system of
buttons and electromagnets. Each time the caller
tapped a button a signal was sent to a central
switchboard, where an electromagnetic
"pointer" moved the caller's line until
it was in contact with the desired number. The
process was repeated for each individual number
within the telephone number until the full
connection was made. Strowger received Patent
Number 447,918 on March 10, 1891, and
incorporated Strowger Automatic Telephone
Exchange that same year. The first automatic
telephone exchange was installed in La Porte,
Indiana, in 1892.
Strowger's original concept
could only handle 99 telephones, used buttons
that required several pushes to complete the
proper connection, and required a strong battery
and five wires to connect to the central office.
Although it was somewhat cumbersome and difficult
to use, the general public accepted it readily.
He improved his design over the ensuing years,
and, in 1896, he patented the dial telephone.
Strowger sold his patents to
his associates in 1896 and moved to St.
Petersburg, Florida, where he resumed his
undertaking business. He died there on March 14,
Although many improvements were
made over the years, Strowger's automatic
telephone exchange remained the standard of the
industry around the world until the invention of
touch-tone dialing in the late 1970's. And, even
though many of the individual components have
changed over the years, the inner workings of
today's telephone exchange systems still bear a
strong resemblance to the design first created by
Strowger in 1891. He was inducted into the
National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2006.
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