Media Release, 06 July 2012

Today marks 100 years since the first automated telephone exchange opened in Geelong, Victoria. It was the first of its type in the southern hemisphere and only the second in the British Empire - opening just months after the first automated telephone exchange in England.

Installed by Post Master General (PMG – now Telstra) department technicians, the Geelong automated telephone exchange was, at the time, cutting-edge technology that forever changed the way Australians connect.

Telstra’s Executive Director of Networks and Access Technologies, Mike Wright said, “The ability to pick up the telephone and dial a number with the expectation of being instantly connected was an unknown concept to Australians in 1912.

“Prior to this time, ‘subscribers’ had to speak with the exchange operator who manually connected the call. If you wanted to make a trunk call (long distance), you had to book a time in advance.”

The 1000 line exchange cost £10,910 ($1,173,266 in today’s money) and was supplied by Automatic Electric Co of Chicago, USA, who held the patent for what was known as the Strowger step-by-step system.

Over the years, the Strowger system was steadily extended in order to meet demand.  The original equipment provided reliable service for 45 years and was not replaced until 1957.

The Strowger automatic exchange was hailed at the time as a ‘wonderful mechanism at work’ which ‘to see it work and grasp what it does makes it look supernatural’. It was also described as ‘so ingenious as to almost beggar complete description’.

Telstra is proud that a century later we are still offering cutting-edge technology with the launch of the first commercial 4G LTE mobile network in Australia in September last year. The continuing advances in our networks continue to keep Australian’s connected and improve the way we live and work.

Over 100 years of telephony in Geelong:

  • The first (manual) telephone exchange opens in 1888 with 33 ‘subscribers’ which had grown to 800 by the time the automatic exchange opened in 1912.
  • The cost to ‘subscribe’ to a line was £10 per year for a minimum five years (approx. $1,350 per year in today’s money).
  • According to newspaper reports at the time the Geelong City Council initially declined a phone connection, with some councilors claiming the installation of a telephone at the City Hall would only encourage ratepayers with grievances to phone the town clerk.
  • In 1889, the Geelong Telephone exchange (manual) was interconnected via a single trunk line to the Melbourne exchange. The first public call boxes were installed.
  • In 1912, the first automated telephone exchange opened in Geelong, Victoria. It was the first of its type in the southern hemisphere and only the second in the British Empire.
  • ‘Dial phones’ were introduced for subscribers on the automated telephone exchange only and were exchanged for existing telephones free of charge by the department.
  • According to legend, Almon Strowger, an undertaker in the USA, was motivated to invent an automatic telephone exchange due to the belief that one of the manual telephone operators at his local exchange was switching all calls for ‘the undertaker’ to her husband who ran a competing undertaker business. He first conceived his invention in 1888, and patented the automatic telephone exchange in 1891[1].

View slideshow on Flickr

[1] Source: Wikipedia