Epsom, 104 years ago today, was just the right mix of normal and unusual to trial our first automatic exchange.
The US introduced the first Strowger automatic exchange in 1892. By 1912 it was clearly time to launch it in the UK. But first we had to find the right location.
“Local calls were ideal for the trial because they only passed through the local exchange,” says BT’s head of heritage and archives David Hay.
“If they failed there was a problem with the Strowger. If longer distance calls dropped it could be human error on a manual exchange. So we looked for the UK exchange with the highest percentage of local calls.”
Epsom in Surrey won with 35%.
There was concern people would resent the extra work of dialling the number themselves. Luckily Epsom’s residents weren’t heavy phone users.
And since there were only 350 phone users in Epsom, relatively few people had to learn how to dial. To help them we provided printed instructions, including: “First lift the Receiver from its rest with the left hand.”
To top it all, Epsom was a typical suburb near London. And it offered the dry conditions the Strowger needed. Which is how a semi-detached house in Station Road, Epsom – now Upper High Street – became the home of the UK’s first Strowger exchange.
Another 10 years of trials meant that by 1922 the Strowger became the standard for all the UK’s automatic telephone exchanges.
“It changed forever how we communicate by phone,” says David. And it stayed in service for a further 70 years.