Rebuilding an undertaker’s invention wins prize for volunteer and University

Monday 18 March 2013
Andy with the Stowger Exchange
Andy with the Stowger Exchange

An Openreach engineer has won an award for his volunteer work at the University of Salford building an early automatic telephone exchange that was invented by an undertaker to stop the competition stealing his business.

Andy Simmons won the BT People Award (Arts and Heritage section) for devoting his spare time to rebuilding the Strowger Exchange alongside engineers based in the University’s School of Computing, Science & Engineering and then taking the device out into the public realm at events such as Manchester Science Festival.

The Strowger exchange was developed in the 1880s, supposedly, because Almon Strowger, an undertaker in Kansas City was convinced that his competitor’s wife who worked at the telephone exchange was diverting all calls to undertakers to her husband.  As a result he became convinced that it should be the caller who decided where calls where placed rather than the operator. 

His automatic telephone exchange was patented in 1891 and, thanks to Andy and the Salford engineers, a painstaking search for parts was conducted which were assembled over the space of a year to create a working example  which was unveiled in 2012 for the centenary of the first UK Strowger exchange. 

The exchange has been used extensively in outreach work; teaching people about engineering principles and helping to promote the subject as a career. Following a successful appearance at the Manchester Science Festival in 2012, the exchange is due to appear at more events in the coming months.

Andy said: “Strowger skills are increasingly rare, so unfortunately without my assistance the project would probably never have left the concept stage.

“I feel a great sense of achievement and I’m immensely proud of what has been achieved when I see the pleasure on the faces of the members of the public operating the model.

“I hope I’ve created a lasting legacy that will continue to excite and entertain long after I am gone and I’m already planning phase two of volunteering with the University.”

The BT People Awards are eligible for all BT Group staff across the globe who volunteer within the community, and as well as Andy’s individual award the University receives £1,000 which the team is planning to use to take the exchange out to more events.

Professor Nigel Linge of the University of Salford said: “Being able to have Andy working with us over the last year  has been fantastic and allowed us to make real progress with our Strowger project which, until then, had been nothing more than a kit of parts and a long-term vision.

“This, in my view, truly demonstrates the value that the BT volunteering scheme can bring and I am delighted that Andy’s commitment and contribution has been recognised and rewarded in this way.”

More information on the Salford Strowger project here.

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