105 years ago today the people of Epsom were the first in the country to use an automatic telephone exchange without having to wait to be connected.
The UK’s first “girl-less” telephones were rolled out in Epsom on May 18, 1912, partly because the town’s residents were considered less likely to resent the extra work of dialling a number.
A picture of a table telephone from 1912
About 350 Epsom residents subscribed to the local telephone exchange system that year.
The ‘Strowger’ system started in a semi-detached house in what was then Station Road, Epsom, but is now Upper High Street.
The estimated price for purchase and installation was £5,471 5s 4d – a sum which would be worth £581,242.37 today.
A picture of a wall-mounted telephone from 1912
American inventor Almon Strowger had patented the dialling and switching equipment he used for the system 125 years ago.
It is believed that Strowger, who worked as an undertaker after the American Civil War of 1861-1865, 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.
The automatic exchange in Epsom
He opened the first Strowger exchange in Indiana, USA in 1892 with 75 subscribers. The system was advertised as “the girl-less, cuss-less, out-of-order-less, wait-less telephone” because users of previous telephone systems had to be connected by girls in a central hub.
A poster advertising the automatic exchange
Epsom was chosen as the first town in the UK to trial the Strowger system because it represented a typical suburban neighbourhood adjoining London, the number of subscribers was small which meant failures would cause minimum disruption, and because it was believed that Epsom residents would not resent the “extra work” of dialling.
The system was adopted as the standard for all automatic telephone exchanges in the UK in 1922, and was used for more than 70 years.
An advert for the "new" "girl-less" telephone system
David Hay, head of heritage and archives at BT, said: “It changed the way we communicate by phone forever.
“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.”
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