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History of Telecommunications in KC

by Angela Orr | Jul 17, 2014

In the early days of telephone use, calls were connected by an operator. Almon Strowger, a Kansas City undertaker, suspected his local operator was directing his calls to a competing undertaker. Strowger’s annoyance with the operator system inspired him to create the first automatic telephone exchange.  On March 11, 1891 the patent arrived and became known as the “Strowger Switch.” The Strowger Switch consisted of an automatic switchboard capable of bypassing human operators.

Strowger later founded the Strowger Automatic Telephone Exchange Company. For years, the company held many patents that competed with telecommunications industry leaders. In 1980 Automatic Telephone Exchange Company was bought by independent competitor General Telephone. In 1989 the assets from the company were sold in a joint venture with AT&T and AG Communication Systems.   

One of Automatic Telephone Exchange’s competitors was Brown Telephone Company, formed in Kansas City by Cleysen Brown in 1899. In November 1938, the company incorporated in Kansas as United Utilities, Inc., along with seven other telephone companies and Central Kansas Power. United Utilities became the first major telephone system to offer state of the art dial service to all its customers. 

For the next few decades, the company underwent many integrations and mergers. In June 1972 United Utilities became United Telecommunications. In 1984 United Telecom teamed up with Consolidated Rail Corporation to begin installation of the first fiber-optic network. United Telecom’s $2 billion investment was part of its plan to become a major industry name in long-distance service. 

Soon, GTE Corporation, a long time competitor, joined forces with United Telecom by contributing U.S. Sprint to United Telecom’s fiber optic network and data communications arm. The new long distance company, U.S. Sprint, doubled its market by adding three million customers in nine months. By 1990, United Telecom had been consolidated into the parent companies and to form Sprint Corporation.

During the 1990s Sprint prided itself on “pin drop clarity,” which it boasted with the famous pin drop advertisements. By 1996 Sprint implemented the first completely digital PCS cellular network. By 2000 the network connected the U.S. to 70 countries worldwide.

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