In the late 1880s Strowger was the only undertaker in town, and ran quite a profitable business. Suddenly he noticed his work had dropped off considerably, and that there was a new undertaker in town. Curious as to why so many were going to this new undertaker instead of him, Strowger found out it was because the telephone operator was married to this other undertaker. When anyone called for Strowger's business, she would direct them to her husband. At that time when anyone placed a call they had to first call in an operator who would then connect them to their intended party. Strowger found this system entirely unnecessary, and worked to come up with an invention that would allow callers to contact one another directly, without the need of a human intermediary.
Strowger was not the first to have this idea. Thousands of patents for such machines had been submitted, however, Strowger, living in Kansas City, Missouri, at the time of the patent application, was the first to create a working model. It is said his first model was created using a color box and straight pins. Later designs became much more complex, using electromagnets and push keys. In 1891 Strowger patented his automatic telephone exchange and left the undertaking business to mass-produce his new invention.
Teaming up with family members and friends, he created the Strowger Automatic Telephone Exchange Company, which installed the first working system into La Porte, Indiana, in 1892. In 1898 Strowger sold his patent and shares of the company and moved to St. Petersburg, Florida. There he returned to the undertaker business until his death in 1902.
Strowger's invention would be the common system used by telephone companies in the U.S. for many years to come. He allowed for a revolution in telephone technology and ensured that never again would an operator misdirect people.
In this early automatic system, pushbuttons were used on the telephones to send impulses of current that would cause the central office switch to select the called line. To be connected with telephone number 8-9, for instance, the user would push a button (called the “tens” button) eight times, and a second button (called a “units” button) nine times, with the mechanism moving over the line terminals at each push of a button until a called number was reached without an operator.
In 1895, the first finger-wheel dial covered in a patent issued to Strowger engineers, A. E. Keith, and John & Charles Erickson was constructed with numbered finger holes mounted on the outer edge of a circular plate that could be rotated. The finger-wheel system replaced the original push-button format and the dial system itself was first used commercially in 1896.
The company installed and opened the first commercial exchange in his then-home town of LaPorte, Indiana on November 3, 1892, with about 75 subscribers and a capacity for 99.
The Strowger Automatic Systems kept improving in various stages and eventually, through continual invention, became an all-relay system, with vertically and horizontally operated switching components and it became known as the “step-by-step switching system”.
The Bell System signed an agreement in 1916 to allow their manufacturing company, Western Electric Co., to construct these switching systems for their use in the telephone industry. Their first system was installed at the Navy Base in Norfolk, VA in 1919.
The Step-By-Step Technology was used for more than 60 years and some may still be in use today.
Automatic Electric Company Strowger Systems were used by Independent Telephone Companies in many areas in Central New Hampshire, such as the Contoocook, Warner, Bradford and Sutton exchanges owned and operated by Merrimack County Telephone Co.
Also here in NH, New England Telephone & Telegraph Co. used the Western Electric version of Step-By-Step Switching in Concord and other surrounding exchanges.
Here is a bit more of the technical aspects and features of this switching technology:
These were electro-mechanical analog systems. Solid State components had not been invented and used until the 1960’s.
Connections were made by dialing the assigned number of the customer you wished to reach.
Long Distance Calls (Toll Calls) were made by dialing “0” and speaking with an Operator who would connect you to the distant customer.
Forty-eight (48) DC Volts supplied by batteries at the central office in each telephone exchange was used to provide the operation of the system and the voice transmission. This voltage was on the telephone lines and these batteries were “on-charge” at all times.
Ringing Current at 105 volts/20 cycles AC was provided over the telephone lines as needed and was only used during the ringing cycle. Some systems used ringers with different frequencies on Party Lines intended to limit rings a customer would hear to their own.
If a commercial power failure occurred, the batteries would provide the necessary voltage and current to maintain service for many hours. In later developments, standby power generators were installed that would automatically pick up the power load and maintain it through the duration of the power failure.
From the telephone test board at the central office of the company, technicians could check all lines in the exchange. One of the features available was use of “The Howler” that would transmit an intermittent increasing loud howling sound over a line to provide notice to a customer who may have left their receiver (handset) “off-hook” to hang up.
Also, many small exchanges had “conversation timing” that would limit local calls to either 3 or 5 minutes on Party Lines. At 30 seconds prior to the end of the “timing period” a single buzz would indicate time was running out. At the end of the “timing period” the call would be dropped. This was provided to allow other Party Line Customers the opportunity to make call or receive calls.
In summary: Strowger was first, however, as time moved on, there were other types of Electro-Mechanical Automatic Telephone Systems used across the country and around the world, such as, Cross-Bar; Cross-Point; Relay-Matic; and X-Y Switching to name a few.
Paul Violette, NHTM curator, long-time Warner resident and storyteller