March 10 - Necessity is the Mother of Invention, Undertaker Version

Posted on March 10, 2020

Do you know how undertakers get their business?

In case you are unfamiliar with the term "undertaker," this is a funeral director and / or mortician - the person who is called for when someone dies. 

The undertaker takes away the body, gets it ready for viewing and/or burial or cremation. 

Before telephones, someone in the family or perhaps a paid messenger would go and fetch the undertaker in person. But since the late 1800s, the "call" would generally come by telephone. 

And telephones were connected to one another by people - by telephone operators.

And now we come to our invention story: An undertaker named Almon Brown Strowger. He lived in Kansas City, Missouri, or possibly a nearby Midwest city; but at least one other undertaker also lived there. And once telephones became common, Strowger's services as undertaker weren't used as often. He suspected shenanigans - and when he discovered that his competitor's wife worked as a telephone operator, Strowger became sure that she was using her position to connect callers with her husband's mortuary business rather than Strowger's.

Don't get mad; get creative!

I don't actually know if Strowger got angry at the situation, but I do know that he got creative! He invented a machine that could do the work of a human telephone operator; and on this date in 1891 he patented his "Strowger switch." Soon he started the Strowger Automatic Telephone Exchange Company. This became the first successful, widely-used automatic telephone exchange system.

I bet that the success of his switch meant that Strowger no longer had to work as an undertaker. What irony!

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