Little information is available about his early life. He is understood to be a Civil War veteran as his grave is marked with the traditional white headstone with an inscription that reads:
After the Civil War, it appears he first became a country school teacher before he became an undertaker. He is variously attributed as living in El Dorado, Kansas or Topeka, Kansas, and finally Kansas City, Missouri. It is not clear where his idea of an automatic telephone exchange was originally conceived, but his patent application identifies him as being a resident of Kansas City, Missouri on March 10, 1891.
He is commonly identified as a Kansas City undertaker, (or occasionally as either a funeral parlor director or a mortician), who invented the automatic telephone exchange and has been described as the father of the automatic telephone exchange. Strowger himself would more likely have characterised his invention as the "girl-less, cuss-less" telephone system.
He was apparently motivated to invent an automatic telephone exchange after having difficulties with the local telephone operators. He was convinced that the local manual telephone exchange operators were sending calls to his competitor rather than his business. He also suspected that the telephone operators were influencing the choice of undertaker when his business was requested. The origin of this suspicion reportedly arise from an incident in Topeka when a friend died and the family contacted a rival undertaker. Other stories claim that the wife or, possibly, the cousin of a rival was a telephone operator and Strowger suspected that the operators were telling callers that his line was busy or connecting his callers to the competition. The full story is now clouded by the passage of time, though historians report that those who knew him have described him as "eccentric, irascible and even mad".
Convinced that subscribers should choose who was called, rather than the operator, he first conceived his invention in 1888, and patented the automatic telephone exchange in 1891. It is reported that he initially constructed a model of his invention from a round collar box and some straight pins.
So what was so revolutionary about his invention that so many others had failed to devise previously? The patent consists of:
The company's engineers continued development of Strowger's designs and submitted several patents in the names of its employees. It also underwent several name changes. Strowger himself seems to have not taken part in this further development. He subsequently moved to St. Petersburg, Pinellas County, Florida and appears to have returned to being an undertaker, as H.P. Bussey Funeral Home records report an unidentified body being moved "for Mr. Strowger" in December 1899. The same funeral home subsequently buried Strowger himself. Strowger was a man of some wealth at his death and was reported as owning at least a city block of property.
He was survived by his widow Susan A. Strowger (1846 - 1921). After her death in Tampa, Florida on April 14, 1921 her obituary appeared in the St Petersburg Times, claiming she had additional "revolutionary" Strowger designs, but she had refused to make them public while she was alive because only others would profit from her husband's designs. She had claimed that her husband had only received $10,000 for his invention, when he should have received a million.
A bronze plaque, to commemorate his invention, was placed on his grave in 1945 by telephone company officials. Strowger was admitted the hall of fame of the U.S. Independent Telephone Association in 1965. Apart from his invention, his name has also been given to a locomotive and a company business award.
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Strowger was quoted as saying: "No longer will my competitor steal all my business just because his wife is a BELL operator" (c) 1890: