In 1889, Almon Strowger was an undertaker in Kansas City, Missouri.
In his spare time he liked to invent things.
Which was just as well because he had lots of spare time, business was terrible.
He couldn’t work out why – there was only one other undertaker in town.
But everyone used the other undertaker and no-one used Strowger.
One day he found a friend of his had used the other undertaker to bury a deceased relative.
He asked the friend why he didn’t come to him.
The friend said he tried to call on the phone, but the woman who ran the phone exchange said his number was busy.
She redirected him to the other undertaker instead.
Strowger didn’t understand it, his phone was never busy, so he got another friend to call the exchange and ask for his number.
Even though his phone wasn’t busy, the woman at the exchange said it was, and redirected him to the other undertaker.
That’s when Strowger found out that the woman who ran the telephone exchange was the other undertaker’s wife.
She’d been redirecting all his calls to the other undertaker for ages.
Because that’s how the early telephones worked, they didn’t have dials.
When you wanted to make a call, you picked up the phone and it connected you to a telephonist at the exchange.
You told her who you wanted and she connected you.
This particular telephonist had simply been redirecting all Strowger’s calls to her husband.
That’s when the inventor in Strowger got angry.
To get even, he would invent something that would put that woman out of a job.
An automatic telephone exchange wouldn’t do what she’d been doing.
It would have to put the caller through to whoever they wanted.
And, in the days before transistors and technology, he invented a mechanical switching system.
He built the prototype from pins and a cardboard hat box.
Because it was mechanical, the parts had to physically move, which meant slowing everything down – that’s why he invented the rotary dial on the telephone.
Because everything had to be mechanical, 10 was the greatest number of connections he could fit on a rotor, so he simply had each extension connected to another rotor: 10 x 10 = 100 possible connections.
In 1891, he was granted a patent, and in 1892 the first-ever automatic exchange was installed in La Porte, Indiana.
The town had 75 telephones, and his automatic exchange could handle 99.
As we know, Strowger’s exchange did in fact put the other undertaker’s wife, and every other telephonist, out of work.
He even referenced her in the advertising for his new automatic exchange: “Girl-less. Cuss-less. Out-of-order-less. Wait-less.”
Strowger’s patent was eventually sold to Bell Systems in 1916 and allowed it to dominate the market.
In time, Bell Systems became the Bell telephone Company, and eventually AT&T.
By the 1980s, it was worth $150bn and employed a million people.
The main learning from Strowger is, don’t confront the problem head on.
The more you oppose a problem, the stronger it gets, so bypass the problem.
Think upstream of it and you bypass it, and it disappears.
Dave Trott is the author of Creative Blindness and How to Cure It, Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three