The Crooked Lake Review

Winter 2000

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The Invention of the

"Girl-Less" Telephone


Donovan A. Shilling

Alexander Graham Bell's great 1876 invention, the telephone, has become an integral part of our lives. Many homes have two phones, some three. We enjoy push buttons, automatic redial, answering machines, call waiting, and speaker phones. We have phones that are combined with radios, tape players and through modems to computers. Designer phones don't even look like phones. They've evolved in their basic look from the wooden-cased crank-rung phone of the 1880's to the upright "candlestick" model of the 1920s through the black Bakelite box with the dial and combination mouth and earpiece on the 1940s into the unbelieveable shapes and colors that would probably shock Professor Bell silly.

Today we make calls from "telephones" whose shapes take the designer's latest whim. We can phone from what looks like a vintage model automobile, and old sneaker, a favoite cartoon character or, for sports fans, an official-looking NFL football. We are no longer hampered with telephone cords and now, with cellular phones, can call almost anyone from almost anywhere.

Our brief story deals with two area men whose inventions were important improvements for the communication devices we take so much for granted today.

Much of the information for this tale was found in the Rochester Telephone Corporation's 1979 centennial publication called The Great Contrivance, The First Hundred Years of the Telephone in Rochester. Edited by F. Larry Howe, it contains dozens of nostalgic illustrations of Rochester's yesterday. Among those mentioned in the book was Almon Brown Stowger a Penfield native with strong ties to its early history. As a matter of fact, Almon's great-grandfather was the first miller to work in Daniel Penfield's historic grist mill.

Both Almon, and his younger nephew Walter Scott Stowger, were fascinated with mechanical devices. They were forever trying to make the chores, assigned to them by Almon's mother, easier with machinery. As an adult, Almon had two highly different occupations. His first was as a public school principal in the town of Penfield, the second, was as an undertaker in Kansas City, Missouri. Neither of these jobs, we might comment, had much to do with Mr. Stowger's mechanical inventiveness. Just how Almon went from one vocation to the other is a part of history not known to the writer. We know that Mr. Stowger must have felt some frustration in his business as a funeral director. It seemed to him that he was frequently losing business to an inept telephone operator who failed to complete calls to him.

He was obsessed with replacing the error-prone girl with a more reliable mechanical system. Almon spent long hours at his workbench seeking to devise an instrument that would allow the caller to directly control the telephone equipment without human assistance. His efforts were rewarded in 1889 when he received a patent on an "automatic telephone exchange."

It was reported that Stowger assembled his magnet-driven device with "a collar box, pencil and hairpins." The instrument used electrical impulses to activate switches. For instance, to reach a party at number 381, press one key three times, another eight times and a third once. It wasn't sophisticated but it worked reliably.

Much later the embalmer-turned-inventor learned the real reason for the downturn in his business. It seems that the Kansas City telephone operator was the wife of his chief rival, another mortician. Whenever a telephone call was made seeking the services of a funeral parlor, the helpful operator turned the business over to her husband.

By 1893, Almon and his nephew, Walter Stowger had formed the Stowger Automatic Telephone Exchange Company. Their early advertising termed the new invention the "girl-less, cuss-less, out-of-order-less, wait-less telephone." That about covers all of Almon's reasons for frustration with the telephone. The initial installation of the system was in La Porte, Indiana. Next they received a government contract for installations at Fort Sheridan, Illinois, and later at Fort Indiana. Others followed over the next three years. One of the first Stowger installations in New York was in Albion. By this time his exchange had been refined with a dial replacing push buttons.

Almon passed away in St. Petersburg, Florida, in 1902, but his inventive nephew, Walter, carried on the business at 240 Monroe Avenue in Rochester. One of his ads appeared in the 1901 Chamber of Commerce Publication, Rochester — The Power City. The full-page advertisement promotes Stowger's Automatic Telephone Exchange System. It reads:

Used in the White House and Government Departments, Washington, D. C. and some thirty cities and towns in the United States. Recently adopted by Telephone Corporations in England and Germany.
It does away with the large staff of skilled attendants at present required at the Central and Subsidiary Exchange, and thus not only reduces working expenses, but also gives increased speed and facility in communication. The saving effected by elimination of the exchange operators enables a service to be given at much less cost than with the present methods. [London Times, Feb. 5, 1898.]

All of the above were Almon's inventions. Walter, too, was on the cutting edge of the latest technology. His ad also included information about his "New Electric Storage Battery." The battery, Walter modestly proclaimed, "Is the most perfect and reliable in the world." He also went on to boast his most recent invention, "Stowger's Liquid Gas." This, he explained was "the newest, safest and cheapest illuminant."

Thus we share another chapter in our City's rich history. We are not sure of the success of Walter's inventions, but we do have the Stowgers to thank for helping to make our modern telephone "girl-less, cuss-less, out-of-order-less and almost wait-less."

© 2000, Donovan A. Shilling
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