Arts & Culture

Kansas City has been dialed in to telephone innovations from the very beginning

Almon Brown Strowger (left) and Theodore Gary (right) both played roles in telephone innovations.
Almon Brown Strowger (left) and Theodore Gary (right) both played roles in telephone innovations.

When erected in 1914 on a corner of Linwood Boulevard and The Paseo, the St. Regis Hotel seemed like a good bet, a luxurious apartment hotel on one of the nation’s longest parkways.

But over the decades the nine-story Italian Renaissance Revival tower with its top-floor ballroom and basement billiards den fell on hard times. The late radio host Walt Bodine, who jerked sodas in his father’s drugstore there, would say that far east in Kansas City was always a bit out of the mainstream.

Too bad Bodine was too young to ever send a sundae upstairs to the luxury suite of the telecommunications genius. Having made millions slugging it out toe to toe with Ma Bell, Theodore Gary would have been a good interview.

The same goes for the other genius in this story, Almon Brown Strowger, the paranoid Kansas City undertaker who made it possible.

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Gary came from Macon, Mo., where he sold lightning rods and insurance. He loved the little town, pouring his energies into Macon real estate and banking, its water system, library, golf course, hospital and cemetery.

When the town’s telephone company came up for sale in 1897, the 42-year-old Gary decided, why not? And Columbia’s was on the block, too.

This was a time when American Bell was ruthlessly amassing monopoly positions in metropolitan areas, skimming the cream by signing up subscribers close to their exchange offices. Calls for better service and lower rates were ignored, unless it was expedient to undercut the competition.

Bell was deeply invested in its giant switchboards with all of those ladies plugging in their wires and saying, “Hold, please.” The telecommunications giant guarded its patents on these jealously, using them at times to drive rivals out of business. When a Topeka outfit was caught with infringing equipment, the switchboard was burned in the street to make a point.

Neglected by “Ma,” small-town America was left to set up thousands of underequipped and underfunded independents, ripe for consolidations. Gary rolled up a string of those, including ones in Independence, St. Joseph, Joplin, Nevada, Carthage, Atchison and Topeka.

By 1906, Gary was a major leader of the independents; his negotiations helped loosen Bell’s monopolistic stranglehold on long-distance calling.

By 1912, Gary had taken over Kansas City’s Home Telephone, thus becoming a direct competitor with a Bell operation, the Missouri and Kansas Telephone Co. Their exchanges were unconnected; for more than decade, a business downtown often had two phones and paid two bills to stay connected to all customers.

Which brings us to Strowger, who made his living not in communications but in committing Kansas City’s “dearly departed” to that better place.

The teacher/undertaker/tinkerer was astonished one morning to learn from the newspaper that a friend had died. He was sad. Then he read that the burial was being handled by another funeral home. He was mad.

The problem, he concluded, was that newfangled telephone. One story is that a competitor’s wife, an operator on a local exchange, was switching the calls of the bereaved intended for Strowger to her husband’s funeral parlor.

Strowger stomped down to the local exchange, complained and looked at the switchboard. His anger led him to come up with a design, using 100 straight pins in two rows around a box that was meant to hold the detachable collars of the day.

Almon Brown Strowger amassed a number of patents for dial telephones. This was a 1921 version. AP

Those not born with an Apple product attached to their thumbs might recognize his inspiration as the grandfather of the rotary dial. Or maybe not: The first manufactured devices actually used a couple of telegraph keys for the callers to tap out the numbers. Hit the first six times; then the second, eight taps; crank the handle of a little magneto, and, voila, somewhere a phone designated as No. 68 would ring.

The first of his many patents was granted in 1891, the same year the Strowger Automatic Telephone Exchange Company was launched. It advertised a “girl-less, cuss-less, out-of-order-less, wait-less telephone.”

When Strowger’s company, which had become Automatic Electric Co., tried to sell to Bell, the behemoth elected to stay with all those low-paid, plug-punching gum-chewers, a la Lily Tomlin’s Ernestine. Besides wanting to protect their investment, Bell argued that people liked to hear a human voice.

AE was dying. As Bell snapped up independent companies, it stripped out their automatic switches, evaporating AE’s customer pool.

Then in 1919, Ernestine went on strike in Boston, shutting down the “cord boards” in the nation’s then fourth-largest city. Her much higher wages, if passed along in the form of rate hikes, were bound to alienate Bell’s subscribers.

Gary took an overnight train to New York, walked uninvited into Bell headquarters and offered a solution to his foe’s problem: a massive infusion of AE equipment.

But he required 10 percent of the price up front. The next day, after the offer had been slept on, Gary heard, “Yes.” He raced back west and used the downpayment to grab control of AE and its crucial patents, which Strowger, out of the picture now, had turned over for a pittance.

By 1926, AE plants in Chicago, Canada, Liverpool, Italy and Belgium were making 80 percent of the dial-operated equipment outside of the United States.

At home, things were happening as well. The competing phone systems were meshed by 1922 into an independent called Kansas City Telephone (it resisted the Bell blob for five years, then became part of Southwestern Bell). Also in 1922, the Theodore Gary & Co. holding company took a controlling interest in Commerce Trust, the largest bank west of the Mississippi. (Ten years later, deep in the Depression, W.T. Kemper, who’d sold his shares for $200 each, bought them back for $82.)

At 67, Gary agreed to head the state’s new highway commission, helping bring paved roads to every county.

His son, Hunter, vice president of the family businesses, had a Mount Vernon-style mansion constructed at 1228 W. 56st St. At some point, Theodore checked out of the St. Regis and signing up for the still-unfinished Walnuts at Wornall Road and 51st Street.

Before long, Gary shifted headquarters from Kansas City to Chicago, where AE was located. A 1934 history of the company said Gary & Co. had more than 200 subsidiaries, the key being Associated Telephone and Telegraph: “Generally speaking, the business of what is commonly known as the Gary group embraces practically every country in the world, either through manufacturing and operating company business.”

After World War II, Gary & Co. controlled the nation’s second-largest independent phone system. Naturally, in 1955, it merged with the largest, General Telephone.

This soon swelled into GT&E (the “E” was for Sylvania Electric), shortened to GTE. Many corporate contortions later, Bell Atlantic swallowed GTE in 2000 and urped forth Verizon Communications.

Gary, 95, missed the last couple of mergers. He’d died in 1952. He’s buried in Macon.