How An Undertaker Helped Develop Computers, And Other Untold Stories

16:48 minutes

a black and white photo of a man with a large, santa claus-y beard/mustache combo
Almon Strowger, via Wikimedia Commons, public domain

When you think about how the telephone was invented, you probably think of Alexander Graham Bell. But what about the people who made the telephone effortless to use? For example, you might not have heard of Almon Strowger, a Kansas City undertaker in the late 19th century, who feared he was losing business thanks to poorly connected phone calls—at that time, calls relied on women known as “hello girls,” who manually operated the switches.

Strowger’s frustration led him to invent the automatic switching system, which led to modern telephones, transistors, and eventually, computers. His name, however, is still less well-known.

Strowger’s story is one of dozens documented in The Alchemy of Us, a new book by materials scientist Ainissa Ramirez, who explores the way human foibles and flaws have shaped our inventions—and how those inventions have changed us. Take, for example, Ruth Belleville, the Englishwoman who literally sold time until accurate clocks were ubiquitous, a story Ramirez uses to describe how industrialization and industrialized time have shaped our sleep. 

a black and white photo of a group of over a dozen people in a room with lightbulbs and chairs and tables
Thomas Edison’s lab and staff. Credit: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Thomas Edison Historical Park

Producer Christie Taylor talks to Ramirez about her unexpected stories of innovation in time, light, photography, and telecommunications—inventions that all helped shape modern culture.

Read an excerpt of The Alchemy of Us: How Humans and Matter Transformed One Another by Ainissa Ramirez.

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Segment Guests

Ainissa Ramirez

Ainissa Ramirez is a materials scientist and author of The Alchemy of Us: How Humans and Matter Transformed One Another (MIT Press, 2020). She’s based in New Haven, Connecticut.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday, I’m Ira Flatow. Modern technology rests atop some long-storied inventions– the telegraph and later the telephone; the railroad, with its tracks of Bessemer steel; the incandescent light bulb; photography, from glass plates to color film; even the humble clock. You may think you know who invented those things. Lone geniuses, flashes of brilliance, people who seem a lot smarter than the rest of us. Right? But our next guest wants you to look closer at the whole picture. Telegraph-inventor Samuel Morse was a painter, whose broken heart spurned him on.

And what about people who might never be considered scientists, but who nonetheless belong in the story of science– like Ruth Belleville, an English woman who sold time? Yeah, you heard that right. Material scientist Ainissa Ramirez writes about all these stories in her new book, The Alchemy of Us, How Humans and Matter Transformed One Another. Producer Christie Taylor spoke with Ramirez.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Welcome to Science Friday, Dr. Ramirez.

AINISSA RAMIREZ: Oh, thank you so much.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: So, I’m going to jump right for the title of your book first, which is How Humans and Matter Transformed One Another. And you’re talking about the way our values and stories get baked into what we create, but you’re also talking about how what we create changes our habits, societies, and even our biology. So what’s your favorite example of this?

AINISSA RAMIREZ: Oh, I have so many. It’s sort of like you’re asking a mother who’s her favorite child right now.


AINISSA RAMIREZ: But the thing that really fascinates me is actually light. When we think about the light bulb, we think about Thomas Edison. Of course he was not the first, but he was the most popular inventor when it came to electric lights. And, you know, he succeeded. And what did that do to us? It ends up that they change our biology. We are actually two organisms. We have a daytime mode and a nighttime mode. And how we know which mode to be in is based on the lights.

When we’re in daytime mode we have growth hormone going through our bodies. We have higher temperature, higher metabolism. At nighttime all of those things go down. And so, if we’re under artificial lights and that’s putting us in growth mode or in daytime mode all the time until we fall asleep, that will actually stimulate our cells to grow.

So the positive thing is that one researcher told me that we are slightly taller than our ancestors. There’s many contributing factors– nutrition, water, mitigation of diseases. But another contributor are artificial lights. Now, when he said this to me I said, hold it right there. [LAUGHS]

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Yeah, that’s what I’m thinking, too. [LAUGHS]

AINISSA RAMIREZ: I’m like, you’re joshing me. But, yeah. This is what he studies, and this is what he’s also proven. All right. So that’s great to know, but there’s also a downside because if our cells are overstimulated by the growth hormone, well, we’re going to have cells growing in ways that we don’t want. And so there are a range of different diseases, cardiovascular diseases, obesity, and also some forms of cancer which are linked to artificial light.

And so for us, we wake up in the morning. We can either have the sun hit our eye and put us in daytime mode, or we can have blue LEDs or compact bulbs– compact fluorescent bulbs to tell our bodies to be in daytime mode. As the sun sets, we should actually change the type of light to red LEDs or incandescent bulbs, and also dim the blue settings that are on our phones so that we too can enter into nighttime mode.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: The sun’s nothing like what Thomas Edison might have intended when he first invented the incandescent light bulb.

AINISSA RAMIREZ: That’s right. I mean, he was on a mission which was to push back the darkness. And this is definitely a good thing because– I don’t know about you, but I’m afraid of the dark, so I’m glad to have lights. But he never would have known that our bodies are connected to lights. We’ve only found out this connection in the last 20 years. So there’s certainly an unintended consequence to his invention, and that happens all the time.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Mm-hmm. I want to go back to the beginning of your book, which starts with a story that also sounds kind of fantastical, which is this woman, Ruth Belleville, who sold time. Who was she?

AINISSA RAMIREZ: Ruth Bellville is one of my favorite characters. There was a woman in the late 19th century, and she had this unusual job of selling time. She would wake up early in her home in Maidenhead, make her way over to London, and then make her way over to Greenwich to the Royal Observatory. She’d be carrying her special pocket watch. She would show her watch to the folks at the Royal Observatory, and they would compare their scientific clocks to her clock and tell her the difference and certify it. Then she’d make her way back to London, and she would show her watch to different businesses that needed to know the time.

You can imagine train stations, newspapers, banks– they needed to know the time. And she seems like she came right out of a book from Charles Dickens, but this was a real woman.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: What year was that, and why was it so hard for everyone else to tell what time it was?

AINISSA RAMIREZ: She had been in the business for some time, and this is the early– like, say, 1910. This is when she had this business of selling time. Knowing the exact time– if I were to ask you what the exact time is, you would just be able pull out your cell phone. You can tell me exactly what the time is. And that time is actually coming from an atomic clock, but it’s being transmitted through the internet.

In Ruth Bellville’s day the precise time was located at the Royal Observatory, but there weren’t any cell phone towers or internet to transmit it to other people, and so they had to go to the Royal Observatory to get it. But they didn’t have that luxury, so Ruth– that was her business. And her family had been doing this work of selling time for about 100 years.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: So she lived at this time where people couldn’t really take for granted that they were operating with an accurate clock. What about that precision that she was able to offer was so important to the way we live now? What changed when we could start taking time for granted?

AINISSA RAMIREZ: Well, the reason why I find Ruth to be so fascinating is because I’m trying to impress upon readers how important time became, that a woman could actually have a business based on it. If I told you I’m going to start this business and I’m going to sell time you’d say, Ainissa, you’re crazy. But in Ruth’s day timekeeping became very, very important. In fact, in The Alchemy of Us I list all these words with the word “time” in it that were created in the 1800s. So time was certainly on our mind. We became very time-conscious, and we wanted to live by the clock. And so this is the reason why Ruth had such a successful business.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Staying on the topic of time for just a moment– we’re in this time where so many people are isolated, this age of self-quarantine, and a lot of people, myself included, are dealing with this fuzziness of time. And yet we have the most precise timekeeping tools in history. Does this say anything about the limits of technology in shaping us? Or is there something else going on?

AINISSA RAMIREZ: Well, I talk about that in The Alchemy of Us, too, that our technologies are more and more precise, but we as humans– we tell time very differently. If you remember summers of your youth, when you were learning how to ride a bike and you were learning how to swim, you had all these activities. So if you think about your childhood, it feels like it was a long amount of time. The summers would be very, very long.

But now when I think about my summers I’m like, well, I sent a lot of email and I commuted. And so the brain will think about time differently. It measures time by experiences. And so we are all in our houses, wearing the same clothes, eating the same food. It’s kind of hard to know what day it is because we don’t have some kind of structure, some periodicity to tell us that time has moved forward. And that’s what I talk about in The Alchemy of Us, that although we’ve created these wonderful clocks, our bodies still have a different type of clock.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: We talked about how technology shapes us, but there’s this flip side that you mentioned, which is how we and our values shape technology. And one of the big examples you have of that is in photography. You write about how when color film was first developed, for example, there was this huge blind spot. Tell us about that.

AINISSA RAMIREZ: Well, early color photography– people didn’t think there was a problem with it, because people were living within their own communities. But it ends up, when schools were desegregated black mothers would notice that the class picture didn’t do their child justice. And what they found out is that actually the camera film was tailored for white skin. So what I can say is that, when people were making the film, when they were testing it they were testing it on their own demographic, or people of a similar demographic. They didn’t do a wide swath of people to test their film to see if it would capture them equally.

And so African-American mothers petitioned camera film manufacturers to change the formulation because their children were just being left in the shadows. And nothing really happened. But it ends up, when advertising money came from chocolatiers and also furniture-makers saying that, look, this camera is not picking up dark chocolate and dark woods, you need to fix this formulation, that the camera film manufacturers changed their tune and changed the formulation.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: And it took commercial interests to make this change, not human interests?

AINISSA RAMIREZ: Mm-hmm. Well, yeah. Yeah.


Money talks. Money talks.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: You also have this amazing story of how these two African-American employees at Polaroid caught on that Polaroid was selling camera technology to South Africa’s apartheid government. What did they find out and what were they able to change?

AINISSA RAMIREZ: The most important thing I’ve written is in The Alchemy of Us, and it’s this chapter that you were just talking about. It’s about these two employees at Polaroid, who were just kind of minding their own business. And when they were leaving for lunch they saw on the wall a mockup that was an ID card for the Department of Mines from the Republic of South Africa. This is in the early 1970s.

And at that point the UN had said companies in the United States should cease and desist from operating in South Africa. And so they’re wondering, what’s our company– what’s Polaroid doing in South Africa? It ends up that all black South Africans had to carry a passbook. It said where they could go, who they could be with, and what time they had to be back home. And anybody could ask for their passbook. And if they didn’t have their passbook, they could be sent to jail. So it was definitely a way of monitoring and controlling a population.

Ends up that, at the heart of the passbook there was an image created by Polaroid film. And so these two employees, Caroline Hunter and Ken Williams, went on to push for Polaroid to remove their presence in South Africa, to stop selling film to South Africa. It took seven years of protesting and networking with other activists until Polaroid finally withdrew from South Africa. And that was one of the steps to dismantling the apartheid system.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Ainissa, you have another story that you tell about an undertaker whose ire at the switchboard system of phone operation led him to invent automatic switching. An undertaker.

AINISSA RAMIREZ: An undertaker. Well, this is another one of the stories within The Alchemy of Us that I had never heard about. There are little-known people who have made our world the way it is. And it ends up that there was this undertaker named Almon Strowger who was so angry at the switchboard operators– they were known as “hello girls”– because he was a mortician and he was absolutely sure that the hello girl was directing business to his competitor.

Legend has it that he’s looking at the newspaper and he sees in the obituary section that his friend had died. And we don’t know what he was more angry about, that his friend had died or that his competitor had embalmed the body. And it was that moment he said, well, look. I’m going to get this switchboard operator out of the formula, and I’m going to make it automatic switch so that when people call, they can call me directly and not have this person intervene.

And so he put us on the path to an automatic switch, which eventually led to the transistor, which eventually led to the computer. So this hotheaded undertaker is part of the origin story of the computer.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: That’s amazing. He’s so– so ordinary in so many ways, that he took a very petty almost gripe and turned it into a technological solution.

AINISSA RAMIREZ: Well, I talk a lot about people in The Alchemy of Us who are just regular people. They want to solve the problem. Maybe they’re just passionate about something, or they have a problem they need to solve. And that is enough for them to pursue something.

A lot of books will talk about genius, and they’ll just make it seem like, well, I can’t do that because that person is a genius. But actually, if you read The Alchemy of Us you’ll say, oh. That guy just had a problem. I can solve problems. And I tried to really make the people who I was talking about in The Alchemy of Us seem approachable, because they really are just ordinary people solving a problem. And it ends up that that problem impacted our modern day.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Just a reminder that I’m Christie Taylor, and this is Science Friday from WNYC Studios, talking to Ainissa Ramirez about her new book, The Alchemy of Us. Someone more famous but also maybe acting from something very understandable is Samuel Morse, whose wife died, and that led him to the telegraph. How did that happen?

AINISSA RAMIREZ: Samuel Morse was a painter. He wasn’t an engineer. He was a painter, and he had one of the biggest commissions of his life in Washington DC. And he lived in New Haven, Connecticut. And his wife had just had their third child, and he’s writing a letter to her in DC because he’s partying. You know, he’s met the president. He’s like, I wish you were here. I wish you would send me a letter back.

He sends that letter. It takes a couple of days to get her, because it’s by stagecoach. This is before his invention. But three days after he sent that letter he gets a letter from his father and he’s like, well that’s strange, because there’s no way that that letter could have made it home and back. His father says, your wife has died.

And so he runs back– and by run I mean he takes a stagecoach. It takes him four days to get back to New Haven. By the time he gets there, his wife has been buried for four days. So you can imagine that he’s fairly heartbroken. And, in a sense, he is the person who’s most prepared to want to create a way for communication to be fast. And later on in life he learns about electricity, and he finds that he can send messages by sending small and long pulses of electricity, creating his Morse code. So the origin story for the telegraph comes from a person who has experienced some serious loss.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: So one of the things that you do with Morse and other people in this book is, you’re telling us about their flaws and foibles and downright unlikable things about them, too. So Thomas Edison was inspired by someone else’s idea, and Samuel Morse was vehemently opposed to immigration and he thought slavery was great. Right?

AINISSA RAMIREZ: Yeah. He wouldn’t have– I don’t think he would have appreciated me writing this book about him. I’m African-American, but I think I show him for his humanness. He ran for mayor of New York City on an anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic platform. That’s not debatable. And so that just shows you about what he was thinking. He was a Protestant man. There was an influx of people coming in. He wasn’t happy about that. He felt like his slice of the American Pie was getting smaller and smaller. This may all sound familiar to the age that we’re in right now. And I just wanted to show people that inventors, although we put them on a pedestal, we should really look at their humanness as well.

We often think of technology as being precious and neutral, but technology just picks up whatever someone is thinking or whatever is part of their experience. There are a lot of blind spots in technology because there’s a lot of blind spots in the human experience, too. So that’s the reason why I always emphasize people’s humanness. Maybe that humanness isn’t translated into that technology, but we should always know what the origin story– where things start from so that we can just appreciate where things come from.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Looking forward– we’re in a time of great change right now, thanks partly just to the technology that we use but also this virus. Have you seen any connection to history and how we may respond to new kinds of innovation and technology in materials science?

AINISSA RAMIREZ: That’s a very good question. I know that there are many cases that’s been explored on the Twitterverse about how during times of pandemic this is where there’s a lot of creativity. They said that calculus was created and the laws of gravity were understood by Newton during this time.

I think that materials science requires a lot of laboratory work, and since people are shuttered in they’re not able to do that. But I think this is a good time for people to think. And I also think this is a good time for people to learn about materials in context. And so I hope that, with The Alchemy of Us, if we can’t think about materials of the future we can at least look at materials in the past and use them as a gymnasium to make better decisions about the materials in the future. And that was the purpose for writing this book.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Well, thank you so much for being with us.


CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Dr. Ainissa Ramirez is a materials scientist and the author of the new book The Alchemy of Us, How Humans and Matter Transformed One Another. This is Science Friday. I’m Christie Taylor.

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Christie Taylor was a producer for Science Friday. Her days involved diligent research, too many phone calls for an introvert, and asking scientists if they have any audio of that narwhal heartbeat.

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