Strowger, an undertaker, was motivated to invent an automatic telephone exchange after having difficulties with the local telephone operators, one of whom was the wife of a competitor. He was said to be convinced that she, as one of the manual telephone exchange operators, was sending calls "to the undertaker" to her husband.

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strowger_switch

Isn't it more than a little bizarre that an undertaker comes up with this highly complicated, highly technical, new machine invention? And the quote makes it out as if nobody else had even thought of this, as if just "thinking about it" magically makes it appear as a real thing. As if telephone companies and tons of scientists had not been thinking about it since the advent of the telephone?


He conceived his invention in 1888

I always thought that they had manual (human) telephone exchange operators well into the 1960s and beyond in most of the world, even as late as in the 1980s in many places? And this is talking about 1888? Am I not reading this correctly? Am I confused somehow?

  • $\begingroup$ Manual telephone exchanges existed into the1950s, but even then there were some automatic ones as well. The first automatic telephone exchange in the southern hemisphere for public use, was in stalled in Geelong, Australia in 1912. At the time it was the second automatic telephone exchange for use by the public in the British Empire. $\endgroup$
    – Fred
    Commented Feb 18, 2020 at 10:44

1 Answer 1


You may be misunderstanding what "undertakers" actually did in this time period. Even in the 1950s in the UK when I was growing up, in rural areas the local undertaker not only did the carpentry and joinery to make his own coffins, but also did house repairs and general engineering work on farm machinery etc, and quite likely did a bit of furniture making and similar crafts as well. The reason was the practical one - there simply were not enough people living (and dying) in the area to support a "full time undertaker" business at prices which the population could afford!

According to his biography on Wikipedia, Strowger was the son of a miller, so he would certainly have been involved with machinery since childhood.

I don't think it is incredible for somebody with that type of background to invent a device which is basically a rotary switch. If a local farmer had ever asked Strowger to fix a broken reaper-binder (invented fifteen years before 1888) he would have already seen a device that used some of the same basic engineering ideas.

For comparison, Tivadar Puskás, the inventor of the telephone exchange and the multiplex switchboard (in the same year as Strowger's invention) was a Hungarian immigrant who started work in the USA as a travel agent, and then a gold miner. The modern idea that "you need a PhD to invent anything new" didn't exist back then.


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