The Suspicious Undertaker Who Caused 200,000 Women to Lose Their Jobs

The Suspicious Undertaker Who Caused 200,000 Women to Lose Their Jobs

Paul Sloane 29/10/2023
The Suspicious Undertaker Who Caused 200,000 Women to Lose Their Jobs

Almon Brown Strowger's story underscores how technology can profoundly impact the workforce.

His invention, the Strowger exchange, not only revolutionized the telephone industry but also had a profound impact on the predominantly female workforce of telephone operators in the early 20th century. This historical example serves as a reminder of how technological innovations can lead to significant job disruptions, a trend that continues today with the advance of artificial intelligence and automation.

Almon Brown Strowger's Invention and its Impact

Born in 1839 near Rochester, New York, Almon Brown Strowger served in the Union army during the American Civil War before becoming a teacher and eventually an undertaker in Kansas City, Missouri. It was during his time as an undertaker that he suspected his business was losing clients to a competitor due to alleged call redirection by the competitor's wife, who worked as a telephone operator.

At the time, all telephone calls relied on manual connections by telephone operators who operated exchange boards. To address this issue and eliminate the potential for call manipulation, Strowger invented the electromechanical Strowger exchange, which allowed people to dial numbers directly. He patented his invention in 1891 and established the Strowger Automatic Telephone Exchange Company, which became a major supplier to the Bell Telephone Company.

The Growth of Telephone Operators and Their Subsequent Job Losses

Strowger's invention coincided with a period of rapid growth in telephone usage in the United States. Telephone switchboard operators played a crucial role in connecting calls, and the workforce in this sector was primarily composed of women. In 1910, there were 88,000 female telephone operators in the United States. By 1920, this number had risen to 178,000, and by 1930, it had reached 235,000.

However, the adoption of automatic exchanges, like Strowger's invention, meant that the need for manual operators gradually diminished. As more and more calls could be dialed directly by customers, the demand for telephone operators declined significantly. This technological advancement led to the displacement of a substantial portion of the female workforce in the telephone industry.

Implications for the Advance of Artificial Intelligence

The case of Almon Brown Strowger and the impact of the Strowger exchange on telephone operators serves as a historical example of how technological innovations can disrupt traditional job roles and industries. In the modern era, with the rapid advance of artificial intelligence and automation, we can expect similar disruptions in various sectors of the workforce.

As AI and automation technologies continue to evolve, it is essential for societies to be proactive in preparing for these disruptions. This includes investing in education and training programs that equip workers with the skills needed for jobs in emerging fields, fostering adaptability and resilience in the labor force, and developing policies that address the potential social and economic challenges posed by widespread job displacement. The lessons from history underscore the importance of anticipating and managing the impact of technological change on employment.

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Paul Sloane

Innovation Expert

Paul is a professional keynote conference speaker and expert facilitator on innovation and lateral thinking. He helps companies improve idea generation and creative leadership. His workshops transform innovation leadership skills and generate great ideas for business issues. His recent clients include Airbus, Microsoft, Unilever, Nike, Novartis and Swarovski. He has published 30 books on lateral thinking puzzles, innovation, leadership and problem solving (with over 2 million copies sold). He also acts as link presenter at conferences and facilitator at high level meetings such as a corporate advisory board. He has acted as host or MC at Awards Dinners. Previously, he was CEO of Monactive, VP International of MathSoft and UK MD of Ashton-Tate. He recently launched a series of podcast interviews entitled Insights from Successful People.

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