Siri and an undertaker

Telephones have been around since the latter half of the 19th century (Alex Bell did his thang in 1875). In the initial years of telephones, when someone wanted to talk to a friend, they picked up their phone, talked to a human (switchboard operator) and asked to be connected to their friend.

A switchboard opertor circa 1900

This switchboard operator (human) would then use a switchboard with an intricate array of electrical cords and switches to establish the connection. The concept of phone numbers was a black box to the average consumer, they only used names.

Fast forward nearly 140 years, in this day and age, when we want to talk to a friend (let’s say his name is Matt), we pick up our smartphone, invoke Siri (or equivalent voice assistant depending on platform) and tell Siri to “Call Matt”.

Siri, then looks up the contacts on your smartphone for Matt, retrieves Matt’s phone number and connects you to Matt. You never had to memorize and punch in phone numbers for Matt. Personally speaking, I don’t remember the last time I memorized phone numbers for most friends and/or family, I only use names and so do most other smartphone users.

You could argue that when calling someone with a phone, we do the same thing our ancestors did 140 years back – invoke an operator who connects us using the callee’s name without us having to recall and punch in phone numbers. Expanding this idea, inspiration for innovation could be found in the behavior and habits of previous generations of humans, even from hundreds of years back.

Fun fact: Manual switchboard operators were eventually killed off (ironically) by an undertaker – an undertaker named Strowger came up with the automatic telephone switching system aka Strowger Switch which rendered obsolete manual switchboard operators.

If you are an undertaker in 1878 Kansas City, and you learn that your competitor’s wife works as a telephone switchboard operator and has been diverting business calls meant for you to her husband, you have three potential courses of action:

(1)  Contact the telephone company and try to get the operator fired.

(2) Take the operator and her husband to civil court and try to sue for damages.

(3) Revolutionize the entire telephone system by inventing an automatic telephone switching system that allows people to dial each other directly, thereby eliminating any need for a telephone switchboard operator.

Almon Brown Strowger went with (3).

More on the Strowger Switch

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