Today in 1891, Almon Brown Strowger was issued a patent for his electromechanical switch to automate telephone exchanges. Steven Lubar in InfoCulture: “…a Kansas City undertaker, Strowger had a good practical reason for inventing the automatic switchboard. Legend has it that his telephone operator was the wife of a business rival, and he was sure that she was diverting business from him to her husband. And so he devised what he called a ‘girl-less, cuss-less’ telephone exchange.”
The first automatic switchboard was installed in La Porte, Indiana, in 1892, but they did not become widespread until the 1930s. Anticipating future reactions to some of the inventions of the computer age, shifting work to the users was not received enthusiastically by them. AT&T’s top-notch propaganda machine got over that inconvenience by predicting that before long, more operators would be needed than there were young girls suitable for the job.
But both AT&T and its users were ambivalent about switching to automatic switching. While users were not happy about working for no pay for the phone company, they also valued the privacy accorded to them by the automatic switchboard. And AT&T was interested in preserving its vast investment in operator-assisted switching equipment.
Richard John in Network Nation: “To rebut the presumption that Bell operating companies were wedded to obsolete technology, Bell publicists lauded the female telephone operator as a faithful servant… The telephone operator was the ‘most economical servant’–the only flesh-and-blood servant many telephone users could afford…. The idealization of the female telephone operator had a special allure for union organizers intent on protecting telephone operators from technological obsolescence. Electromechanical switching … testified a labor organizer in 1940… was ‘inanimate,’ ‘unresponsive,’ and ‘stupid,’ and did ‘none of the things which machinery is supposed to do in industry’–making it a ‘perfect example of a wasteful, expensive, inefficient, clumsy, anti-social device.”
The transistor, invented in 1946 at AT&T to improve switching, led to the rise and spread of computerization, and to making the switching system essentially a computer. By 1982, almost half of all calls were switched electronically.