Sunday, March 13, 2005

Telephone's Undertaker

Proponents of VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) have long been predicting the ultimate demise of the PSTN or Public Switched Telephone Network. Is it possible that the direct dial telephone system we've grown accustomed to over the last century is going to die out in favor of packet based digital telephony? If so, it would be appropriate to have an undertaker at the end. After all, it was an undertaker who was there at the beginning to make it all happen.

Most people believe that Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone system. Bell actually invented the telephone, and by the narrowest of margins at that. He slid into the patent office a mere 2 hours ahead of his major rival, Elisha Gray. But that's another story.

The modern telephone switching network has its roots in Kansas City, Missouri just before the turn of the century. Bell's 1876 invention was widely in use by then. The original phone system was wired directly from phone to phone with a pair of wires. Sometimes only one wire was used and part of the run might have been barbed wire fence. The Earth would substitute for the other wire, but didn't work all that well over any distance. By 1888, the phone system had advanced to using switchboard operators to connect calls instead of running multiple wire pairs to every phone.

The switchboard worked well for most phone customers, but not for Almon Strowger. As the story goes, this Civil War veteran had moved to Kansas City and become a very successful undertaker. In fact, he was splitting the growing funeral market with only one other undertaker in town. Then business inexplicably started, shall we say, dying off. With a growing population there was no good reason for this. Was competition increasing? No, there were still only two undertakers, but Strowger's competitor was suddenly getting the majority of business.

Almon Strowger soon figured out why his once booming business was withering. His phone wasn't ringing much anymore because any callers who simply asked the operator to connect them to an undertaker were put through to his competitor. Why? The switchboard operator just happened to be the wife of said competitor.

Strowger was fuming. Being something of a tinkerer, he determined to put that operator out of business. But how? By building on existing electromechanical technology, he created a scheme where phone customers would push buttons on their telephones to make the calls themselves. A key invention is his two direction stepping relay now known as the Strowger Switch. The first version was built into a hat box. Banks of these switches detected the dialing pulses coming from the calling party's phone moved sets of wiper contacts horizontally and vertically to select one of a hundred possible connections. Strowger patented his invention on March 10, 1891.

Live phone calls looked to be more lucrative than the dearly departed, so Almon Strowger enlisted the help of his nephew William to form a telephone equipment company and open the first automatic exchange in La Porte, Indiana in November of 1892. His company, the Strowger Automatic Electric Company, later became Automatic Electric and supplied his switches to Bell Telephone. Strowger's push button phone was soon replaced by a rotary dial until it, too, was replaced by buttons again when DTMF (Dual Tone Multi-Frequency) or touchtones were introduced to support electronic switching systems. The Strowger or Step by Step switching offices were common throughout the 20th century.

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