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From the October 2008 Singing Wires Journal newsletter

Why the Bell System Opposed the Automatic Dial Telephone, Part I

by Roger Conklin

Roger's Reminiscences

It was only 13 years after Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone that the first "girl-less" telephone exchange was placed in service in LaPorte, Indiana in 1889. Invented by Almon B. Strowger (1839-1902), a school-teacher turned undertaker, it was pretty primitive in that it required 5 wires between the telephone and the central office, plus a ground connection; was equipped with 3 pushbuttons corresponding to the hundreds, tens and units digits of the 3-digit phone numbers in that small town, each one of which had to be pressed the number of times corresponding to the 1st, 2nd and third digits, in order to make the connection. There was also a 4th button that had to be pressed to disconnect the call when it was completed. And these early phones had cranks that had to be turned after the number buttons were pressed and the connection made, to ring the called phone.

A series of other installations followed soon after LaPorte. The dial replaced the pushbuttons in 1896 as did common battery operation which eliminated dry cell batteries at each telephone and the magneto crank for ringing. A single pushbutton still had to be pressed to ring the called number after the number had been sent, until automatic ringing was introduced in 1908. Mr. Strowger was not an engineer nor was he ever employed by the Bell System. His company, Strowger Automatic Telephone Exchange Co. became Automatic Electric Company in 1898.

With the expiration of the original Bell patent in 1894, Bell lost its telephone monopoly. Independent phone companies and Independent manufacturers were chomping at the bit and sprang into action to legally compete with Bell's company the day that patent expired. A few of the larger Independents, eager to outshine Bell, were quick to adopt what some perceived as Strowger's superior automatic dial system to directly compete with Bell's manual (operator) systems in cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, Grand Rapids, Dayton, Wilmington, Akron, Columbus, Buffalo, etc. At that time Bell refused to interconnect its lines with those of Independent companies, so in many U.S. cities and towns, both large and small, competing duplicate systems were soon installed. Some Independent companies also built long distance toll lines, in parallel with those of the Bell System, to interconnect Independent systems with other Independent systems in different towns and cities. The immediate effect was that Bell's monthly rates were drastically reduced by competition. Rate wars cut profits for both Bell and Independents. Subscribers had a choice, but in making that choice they could only call phone users served by the one company they chose. Businesses often subscribed to service from both companies in order to be able to call everyone with a phone. The German government was licensed by Automatic Electric in 1900 and an automatic system was installed for government offices in Berlin in 1900.

The Bell System would have nothing to do with the so-called automatic telephone until many years later. It soon vigorously pursued a program to purchase competing systems and thus eliminate duplicate service. If the acquired competing Independent provided automatic dial service, Bell removed the automatic equipment and replaced it with manual telephones and manual operator switchboards. It wasn't until automatic Independent subscribers rose up in arms and demanded that it be put to a vote and when municipal authorities in some cities, like Los Angeles, imposed as a condition for approving the purchase and consolidation of competing systems the retention of the former Independent's automatic dial service that things changed. Bell then reluctantly relented and began to retain in service the automatic equipment that had belonged to the former Independent company thus, in some cases, giving subscribers a choice of either manual or automatic service in the same city.

Why did the Bell System oppose automatic dial telephone service? It has often been said that it was the NIH "Not Invented Here" factor. Strowger was not a telephone engineer. He, and the pioneer engineers and financial backers who developed the Strowger automatic telephone system were not, nor had any of them ever been employees of the Bell System. The Independents rapidly became the nemesis of AT&T and the Bell System. By 1903, just 9 short years after the expiration of Alexander Graham Bell's basic patents, the Independents had experienced phenomenal growth and were providing telephone service to more subscribers than Bell - 61% of the 3.28 million telephones in the U.S. [1]

Nobody can deny that there was an element of truth in the NIH factor. But this opposition to automatic service was based on other factors as well. A careful reading of the document "Telephone Service in America," presented to the gathered delegates at the Second Conference of European Telegraph and Telephone Administration Technicians in Paris, France, in September 14 by John J. Carty, AT&T's chief engineer, reveals in considerable detail the basis for Bell's initial opposition to automatic switching. He had done his homework in presenting a carefully-documented case against the automatic telephone.

The first conference had been held two years earlier in Budapest. A third, scheduled for the fall of 1914 was canceled and never held due to the outbreak of World War I.

Mr. Carty was born in Cambridge, MA, on April 14, 1861 and died on December 27, 1932 His parents were Irish immigrants, He became a "boy" telephone operator in Boston just 3 years after the invention of the telephone. Although he never attended a university, his exceptional talent catapulted him upward in the Bell System where he made a number of valuable technical contributions to telephony, including the invention and patent of the two-wire metallic telephone line. He became chief engineer of New York Telephone Company in 1889. In 1907 he was promoted to chief engineer of New York Telephone Company's parent AT&T, and was elected vice president of that company in 1919. He was elected chairman of the newlyorganized Bell Telephone Laboratories in 1923, from which position he retired in 1930. He was awarded numerous patents, several honorary degrees from prestigious universities and served on the boards of numerous professional societies. He served in the U.S. Army in France during World War I, attaining the rank of brigadier general, on the staff of the signal officer of the American Expeditionary Force. [2, 3]

The chairman of the 22 European nation conference held in Paris was Alexandre Mitterand, the French minister of public works, posts and telegraph (who was later to be elected president of France). In his opening speech Mr. Mitterand stated the purpose of the conference was to address the question: "Which is preferable for telephone links: the manual, the automatic or the semi-automatic system?" [4] Although the U.S. was not a member of this organization, Mr Carty and Charles E. Scribner, Western Electric's chief engineer, had been invited to participate to describe the situation in the United States and express their views on this important topic.

In 1910 there were 11,272,000 telephones in service in the entire world. Of this total, 7,596,000 (67%) were in the United States and 2,967,000 (26%) in Europe. [5] (In 2007 the U.S. accounted for 4.2% of the world's total fixed wire-line and wireless telephone lines.) The U.S. was the most developed country telephone-wise in the world, and AT&T was the largest, by far, telephone company. The Europeans were keen to take advantage of the expertise of Mr. Carty and learn from the largest and most experienced company in the world its opinions and thoughts with respect to manual, automatic and semi-automatic telephone service.

Preceding Carty on the program, representatives of the Hungarian and Austrian delegations reported their favorable impressions of automatic service and their large-scale plans to implement it. A Bavarian representative from Munich gave a glowing report on the enthusiastic reception received for automatic service in that city. The first fully public automatic system in Europe had been placed in service in Hildsheim, Germany in 1908. The papers of these European delegates had been distributed and studied prior to the conference, so their views supporting automatic service were well known before the conference began. The content of Carty's presentation, however, remained a mystery until he made his "bombshell" presentation.

Carty's speech was eloquent and well documented. He was emphatic on the importance of long-term planning over 20 and even 30 years. He compared in great detail what he considered the advantages and disadvantages of manual and automatic service and, for a number of very important reasons, concluded by presenting the opposing view that the automatic system, in its present form, fell far short of meeting the requirements for acceptable telephone service. He concluded that it was a system with many technical problems, "It has been fairly and exhaustively studied, and found to be unsuitable for the comprehensive demands of our present service and more unsuitable when considered with respect to the demands of the future." According to Carty, automatic service required that subscribers manually perform the work of setting up the call - as opposed to having it done by an operator -, the investment was too high, the maintenance costs were too great, it did not perform to acceptable standards, it did not provide the operator labor savings that its proponents falsely claimed and its annual charges were higher than for the manual system. This document deserves careful reading in order to clearly understand the reasons for opposition to the automatic system by J. J. Carty and AT&T; the company of which he was both chief engineer and official spokesman.

Mr. Carty acknowledged there were certain benefits of a mechanical system but forcefully favored a semi-automatic system using operators to answer calls when the receiver was removed from the hook and receive the desired number verbally. It was the operator, not the subscriber, who would input the called number into the mechanical system for automatic completion. Carey indicated the advantages of this semi-automatic over the full-automatic and manual systems as follows:

Carty went on to explain that "the socalled automatic system is not, in fact, automatic: it is only partly so. It has been fairly and exhaustively studied, and found to be unsuitable for the comprehensive demands of our present service and more and more unsuitable when considered with respect to the demands of the future." He stated that almost immediately upon his return to America a field trial of the Bell System's first semi-automatic system would begin. This was a Western Electric semi-automatic Rotary system placed in service on November 29, 1910 as a PBX at Western Electric Headquarters at 463 West Street in New York. That system operated well and the field trial was proclaimed a success.

The European delegates, heretofore advocates of the automatic system, were taken aback by the vigorous and adamant stand in opposition to the automatic telephone that Mr. Carty had taken in his presentation. They were, however, deeply impressed. It doesn't appear, however, that they were deterred from proceeding with plans to find out for themselves by field-trialing their own fully-automatic systems. The German company, Siemens & Halske did, however, also place in service semi-automatic systems in Amsterdam, Holland and several German towns, including Dresden and Leipzig, for the purpose of comparing them with full automatic, prior to the outbreak of WW I in 1914. So in that respect Carty's position was unquestionably given serious consideration by the Europeans. The British proceeded with the installation of their already-planned trial Strowger full automatic system in Epsom in 1912, full-automatic Rotary systems in Darlington and Dudley in 1914 and 1915 and the Lorimer automatic system in Hereford in 1914. The full-automatic Strowger and Rotary field trials were successful. The Lorimer trial was not.

Mr. Carty in his Paris presentation had clearly "drawn the line" in the sand and dug in his heels with respect to the automatic telephone system. In a subsequent article in this series we will consider his later actions to implement this policy in the Bell System and how, when and why it was subsequently altered.


  1. The Story of Independent Telephony, pg. 148 Harry B. MacMeal, Independent Pioneer Telephone Association, John F. Cuneo Company Chicago, 1934
  2. John J. Carty, by Fredrick Leland Rhodes, privately printed, New York, 1932
  3. New York Times, obituary of Brig. Gen. John J. Carry, December 26, 1932
  4. 100 Years of Telephone Switching (1878-1978), Part I, Manual and electromechanical Switching (1878-1960s), Robert J. Chapius, pg. 78, North Holland Publishing Co., Amsterdam 1982
  5. Ibid, pg. 138