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

Almon Brown Strowger (1839 – 1902) was born near Rochester in New York state. He served with the Union army in the American Civil War.   He subsequently became a teacher and then an undertaker in Kansas City Missouri.  He was also an inventor.  He suspected that his undertaking business was losing clients to a competitor whose wife worked as a telephone operator.  Strowger believed that she was redirecting calls for his business to that of his competitor.  At that time all telephone calls went through telephone operators who would manually connect the calls on an exchange board.  Almon invented an electromechanical device, the Strowger exchange, which allowed people to dial directly.  He patented the invention in 1891 and formed the Strowger Automatic Telephone Exchange Company.  It became a major manufacturer supplying the Bell Telephone company.

This was a time of tremendous growth in the use of telephones – and of telephone switchboard operators – who were almost exclusively women.  In 1910, there were 88,000 female telephone operators in the United States. By 1920, there were 178,000, and by 1930, 235,000.  But the adoption of automatic exchanges meant that eventually nearly all these women lost their jobs.

Technology innovations often lead to job losses as human labour is replaced by automation. We should expect and prepare for significant workplace disruption with the advance of artificial intelligence.

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