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Newfound fame good news for cemetery

An eccentric inventor sold his patents and moved to Florida. Buried in St. Petersburg in 1902, he is gaining new recognition.

By JON WILSON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 11, 2002

ST. PETERSBURG -- He could have been a millionaire.

But Almon B. Strowger never got rich from inventing the device that would revolutionize the way we use the telephone.

Sick with anemia, he died in St. Petersburg in 1902. For a while, he was virtually forgotten.

Marking Strowger's grave in Greenwood Cemetery is a simple, white stone of the kind often used to note the last resting place of Civil War soldiers.

The inscription says: Lieut. A.B. Strowger, Co. A, 8 NY Cav. One historian says he fought in the second Battle of Bull Run near Manassas, Va.

Years later, communications business executives began to realize the debt owed to Strowger (pronounced STRO-jer).

What the former country school teacher and undertaker had done was devise an automatic switch that made possible development of the dial telephone.

Strowger became, in a sense, the father of today's direct dialing system.

In recognition, phone company officials placed a bronze plaque at his grave in 1945. In 1965, in New York City, the U.S. Independent Telephone Association named Strowger to its hall of fame.

Now there is a movement to recognize him further.

Emmett Clary, a Tampa resident who is a member of the Telephone Pioneers of America, is pushing to make sure Strowger's contributions to technology are prominently recalled. He e-mailed the president of Verizon, hoping for support.

"I'm trying to keep this thing growing," said Clary, describing himself as a "preservation freak." Telephone Pioneers is a group of employees and retirees who focus on education as a mission.

The timing couldn't be better.

A rejuvenated Greenwood Cemetery board of directors and the Historic Roser Park Neighborhood Association are working to turn the city's oldest non-church burying ground into a showcase. Grants are being sought. A Verizon official has toured the cemetery.

"I was very impressed with the cemetery. I could really see what could be done there," said Cristina Coffin, Verizon's external affairs director.

Guided tours open to the public are 9 a.m. on Saturday and on Sept. 28. Greenwood is at Dr. M.L. King (Ninth) Street S and 11th Avenue. The entrance is on the 11th Avenue side.

"We're getting a head of steam and critical mass that this place is going to become a cultural asset and a respected one so that it doesn't slide back," said Chris Kelly, president of the Roser Park association.

A place of old stones, rugged oak trees and flowing Spanish moss, Greenwood could be a movie-set cemetery. Inside its brick walls rest 4.1 acres of early St. Petersburg history.

Strowger's is surely one of the more interesting stories. Born in 1839 in New York, he drifted west after the Civil War. He became an undertaker, landing in Topeka, Kan., and finally Kansas City, Mo.

Stephan Lesher, an author and former Newsweek reporter who wrote a biography of former Alabama Gov. George Wallace, wrote a sketch of Strowger.

"Those who knew him called him eccentric, irascible and even mad," Lesher wrote. "If he had been more congenial, though, we still might be cranking levers to attract the attention of central switchboard operators to complete our telephone calls."

Strowger apparently was a bit of a crank. He fought with phone companies when the telephone was merely a few years old. He nursed special rancor toward switchboard operators, whom he believed falsely gave his customers busy signals.

According to telephone historian Dave Park, whom Lesher quoted, Strowger grew "darkly suspicious" in Topeka when a friend died and the family had the body sent to a rival undertaker. Strowger blamed a switchboard operator's connivance.

Such frustration led him to figure out a mechanical switch to route calls automatically.

He worked out the details with a pencil, a handful of straight pins and a round collar box, according to a 1962 General Telephone Co. news release written to commemorate the invention's 70th anniversary.

Friends who understood electricity helped Strowger refine his device, first tested publicly in 1892 in La Porte, Ind.

It didn't go over well at first. Strowger sold his patents for $1,800 in 1896 and his share in the Automatic Electric Co. for $10,000 in 1898, according to Lesher.

Strowger and his wife moved to St. Petersburg and bought a house on Second Avenue N near the site of the Florida International Museum.

Fourteen years after Strowger died, his patents were sold to the Bell system for $2.5-million.

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