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Strowger’s First Exchange – Helloing made easy

The content below draws from the article 'La Porte Makes World History in 1892' by Bruce Johnson (2021) of the La Porte County Historical Society in Indiana. Thanks to Bruce Johnson and Savannah Jackson, Assistant Director La Porte County Historical Society Museum. The pictures below were provided from the La Porte County Historical Society Museum archive.

Almon Strowger demonstrated remarkable ingenuity and resourcefulness by his invention of the first telephone switch and exchange in 1892, serving 75 customers.

In 1891 Strowger received a patent for the Automatic Telephone Exchange. He had offices in Chicago. At about this same time, the Cushman Telephone Co. had established a manual exchange in La Porte. In 1890, the Bell Telephone Company brought a suit against all the subscribers in La Porte for patent infringement. A Chicago Judge ordered all the phones to be shipped to Chicago and burned! Goliath wins this round. No one is going to tangle with the Bell System!

It appears La Porte was without telephone service for about 2 years. Strowger and his associates learned about this and made a deal with Mayor Emmett Scott and the La Porte City Council to install his new system.  The company rented a room on the second floor of the Ridgeway Building on S.Main St. (now Lincoln Way) and installed the new automatic telephone system. Up to 99 customers had the option to subscribe to the new telephone service, with 75 opting in. This round goes to David. Take that, AT&T!

The picture below shows an artist’s rendition of the exchange circa 1892. Eighty of Strowger’s switches were on the right wall shelving and an equal number of wet-cell batteries were on the left wall shelving.  La Porte, Indiana became famous as “The first city in the world to adopt an automatic telephone exchange.”

strosger's first exchange La Porte, room showing 99 switches
building in La Porte Indiana where first Strowger exchange was installed in 1892
Strowger's first exchange newspaper reports
head shot of Almon Strowger

The exchange functioned for about two years before transitioning to a different switch type. In the autumn of 1894, the Strowger company introduced the Zither switch as a replacement for its initial switch.  The Zither was developed by A. E. Keith. Unfortunately, this switch did not prove successful, and was replaced by yet another design from Keith and the Erickson brothers.

This revamped switch design, the third iteration for La Porte, took the best ideas from the original Strowger and the Zither.  Switches of this 3rd type replaced the Zither switches at La Porte in June 1895.  This switch was an inspired design; a major overhaul on the first Strowger design. Its mechanism became the basis of all future Strowger-type switches. It might have been more aptly named 'Keith's Strowger Switch'.  Its design became famous and versions of it were used worldwide for ~85 years in “Step-by-Step” offices.  

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