(Ring, ring …) Hello? What? La Porte made world history in 1892?

 

Almon B. Strowger and an image of the type of telephones his company installed in La Porte.

By La Porte County Historian Bruce Johnson

Almon B. Strowger was born in Penfield, N.Y., in 1839. At first, he was a teacher in schools throughout the Midwest. But in 1886, he became a professional undertaker and started a funeral home in Kansas City, Missouri. It was then he decided to subscribe to the newly invented telephone service in which calls were connected by a switchboard operator often called a “Hello Girl.” 

La Porte County Historian Bruce Johnson

At first Strowger’s business was quite profitable, but then began to drop suddenly. One day when reading the newspaper, he saw that a good friend had died and wondered why he had not been contacted by the family to arrange the funeral. He soon learned that the telephone switchboard operator was the wife of a new funeral director in town. When people called for the undertaker, she switched the call to her husband instead of Strowger! 

This made him furious and gave him the idea to invent an automatic telephone system that would avoid using a switchboard operator. Two years later, in 1891, he received a patent for the Strowger Automatic Telephone Exchange and established offices in Chicago.

About this same time, the Cushman Telephone Co. had established an exchange in La Porte. In 1890, the Bell Telephone Company brought a suit against all the subscribers in La Porte for patent infringement. A Chicago judge ordered all the phones to be shipped to Chicago and burned! It appears La Porte was without telephone service for about 2 years. 

Strowger and his associates heard about this story and made a deal with La Porte Mayor Emmett Scott and the La Porte City Council to try his new system in La Porte. The company rented a room on the second floor of the Ridgeway Building on South Main Street (now Lincoln Way) and installed the new automatic telephone system. As many as 99 customers could subscribe for Strowger telephone service in La Porte. Seventy-five La Porteans decided to try it. 

A formal invitation was sent to distinguished citizens in La Porte and Chicago, and on Nov. 3, 1892, a special Lake Shore train brought 65 journalists, millionaires, inventors and industrialists from Chicago and Paris and 2 representatives of the Czar of Russia to La Porte. The guests were welcomed at the La Porte depot by Mayor Scott and escorted by the La Porte City Band to the office for a speech by Mr.  Strowger and a demonstration of the new telephone system without “Hello Girls.” After a successful experiment and a carriage ride around La Porte, the enthusiastic group returned to Chicago. 

La Porte, Indiana, thus became famous as “The First City in the World to adopt an Automatic Telephone Exchange”!  

The Strowger Automatic Telephone Exchange was later used in towns throughout the U.S. and Europe and eventually was purchased by Bell Telephone and General Telephone and Electronics. 

Almon B. Strowger sold his patent and share in the company and moved to St. Petersburg, Florida, where he died in 1902. He was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2006. A replica of the Strowger telephone is on display at the La Porte County Historical Society Museum.

Bruce R. Johnson is an educator, historian, genealogist, lecturer, musician, photographer, and world traveler. He serves on numerous boards of directors, including the La Porte County Historical Society. Email him at mrjsc@csinet.net.

19 Responses to “(Ring, ring …) Hello? What? La Porte made world history in 1892?”

  1. Bruce Grage

    Mar 11. 2021

    Great story, Bruce! One of my favorites. Invention by an undertaker because he was getting screwed over by the operator. Necessity truly is the mother of invention…..and Payback must be the father.

    Reply to this comment
  2. Merle Miller

    Mar 11. 2021

    Good work Bruce, Keep it up, we’re all counting on you.

    Reply to this comment
  3. Kathy Leliter

    Mar 11. 2021

    Interesting article, Bruce. Looking forward to the next one. Thank you!

    Reply to this comment
  4. I.Remember.

    Mar 11. 2021

    Jim Wolf installed the cable and Clayton Schultz spliced it.

    Reply to this comment
  5. June Hess

    Mar 11. 2021

    Thanks Bruce. I didn’t know this and enjoyed the article and history. Looking forward to more.

    Reply to this comment
  6. Dianne Wolff

    Mar 11. 2021

    Very interesting… Thank you Bruce, I have always enjoyed your informative talks and stories. I hope I don’t miss any of them..

    Reply to this comment
  7. John Chapin

    Mar 11. 2021

    Fascinating story. Thanks.

    Reply to this comment
  8. Chuka

    Mar 11. 2021

    Great story, hope the library uses you as an information source for their telephone bldg interior displays.

    Reply to this comment
  9. Rose Marie

    Mar 11. 2021

    Thank you, Bruce.As always, I’m delighted to read or listen to your wealth of information. I always learn something.

    Reply to this comment
  10. Donna Bosh

    Mar 11. 2021

    Great story 😊

    Reply to this comment
  11. Dala

    Mar 11. 2021

    Thank you Bruce for sharing your love of History.

    Reply to this comment
  12. Dr. Alva R. Miller

    Mar 11. 2021

    Bruce, You have turned out to be a great replacement for Fern Eddy.

    Reply to this comment
  13. Vicky Schweller

    Mar 11. 2021

    Thank you Bruce for sharing this information! I had never heard this! I enjoy learning new things from you!

    Reply to this comment
  14. Jason Mccleery

    Mar 12. 2021

    Cool article! The control of information is the key to power. History does repeat itself.

    Reply to this comment
  15. Scott Applegate

    Mar 13. 2021

    Great article Bruce. A suggestion please. I’ve heard at one time La Porte, Indiana lead the nation in the number of millionaires per capita. If true that would make a nice article.

    Reply to this comment
  16. Brenda Carbon

    Mar 14. 2021

    Good article! Thanks and keep up the great work!!!

    Reply to this comment
  17. Tammy

    Mar 15. 2021

    Fascinating story Bruce! Love to read the historical stories about La Porte. Can’t wait for more, Thank you for all the hard work and research that you put into everything you write.

    Reply to this comment
  18. Lisa Hennessy Johnson

    Mar 16. 2021

    Very interesting, entertaining and well written! Who would’ve ever known? Keep the stories coming Bruce!

    Reply to this comment

Leave a Reply to June Hess