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104 years ago today Epsom became first place in the country to use an automatic telephone exchange

Press Release   •   May 18, 2016 09:46 BST

Epsom phone users became the first in the country to make calls without speaking to an operator 104 years ago today (May 18, 1912). The town was chosen partly because local subscribers were considered less likely than others to resent the extra “work” of dialling a phone number.

A semi-detached house in Station Road, Epsom, Surrey - now Upper High Street - became the local telephone exchange when a ‘Strowger’ system was installed. Epsom subscribers totalled around 350 in 1912.

In early adverts, the automatic telephone exchange system had been promoted as “the girl-less, cuss-less, out-of-order-less, wait-less telephone” after the first Strowger exchange opened in Indiana in 1892 with 75 subscribers.

American born inventor, Almon Strowger, took out a US patent 125 years ago on the dialling and switching equipment he used for the automatic telephone exchange he had invented.

BT’s David Hay, head of heritage and archives, said: “It changed forever the way we communicate by phone. It signalled an end to the days of waiting for a friendly operator to greet you with the words: ‘Number please’. Instead, you heard the faint rat-a-tat-tat of the exchange connecting you automatically.

“Epsom was chosen for a variety of reasons, including the fact that the town’s subscribers were not heavy users and so less likely to resent the extra work of having to dial the number! It was also considered a typical suburban area adjoining London and had the highest percentage of local traffic of any Post Office exchange.Strowger wasn’t a communications engineer. After fighting in the American Civil War, he worked as a school teacher and went on to become an undertaker.It is said that he was inspired to invent the automatic Strowger system to replace manual exchange operators because his rival’s wife was the local operator and she directed enquiries for undertakers to her husband’s company.

After trials with other systems, Strowger was adopted in 1922 as the standard for all automatic telephone exchanges in the UK. This electro-mechanical technology was used for more than seventy years.

It’s a far cry from today’s highly sophisticated digital technology, which is used in the Epsom exchange and thousands of other BT exchanges across the UK to deliver the latest phone and broadband services.

Quick facts

  • The estimated price for purchase and installation was £5,471 5s 4d.
  • Epsom was chosen because:
  • Epsom represented a typical suburban neighbourhood adjoining London.
  • The percentage of local traffic was the highest of any Post Office exchange at around 35 per cent. This was important as any calls leaving Epsom would be then handled by manual systems, so reducing the effectiveness of the trial.
  • The number of subscribers was small which meant: any failure of the system would cause minimum disruption and it would take little time to educate the subscribers on how to use the system.
  • The subscribers were not heavy users so they wouldn’t ‘resent the burden’ of the extra work thrown upon them’, that was the actual dialling of the calls.
  • The dryness of the location was favourable to the equipment, which was prone to failure in damp conditions.