Automatic Electric was founded in 1891 as Strowger Automatic Telephone Exchange Company by Kansas City resident Almon Strowger, who invented the first automatic (dial) telephone switch in 1889, and a businessman named Joseph Harris. For decades, AE was a leading supplier of telephone equipment to independent (non-Bell) telephone companies across the United States.

Strowger’s first automatic phones were installed in La Porte, Indiana, in 1892. Instead of a dial, these phones featured four buttons, which had to be pushed in sequence to “dial” the number. For example, to dial 374, the caller would push the first button three times, the second button seven times, and the third button four times. The fourth button would then be pushed once to “place” the call. Buttons were abandoned in 1896 when Strowger engineers Alexander Keith and brothers John and Charles Erickson devised a dial mechanism.

The first Strowger dial telephones, which had pointed switch hooks, had 10 holes for numbers zero through nine, with a partial sunburst radiating from the center of the phone to the holes. By 1904, desk stands and wall sets alike featured an eleventh hole, some of which were identified as “Long Distance.” Unbeknownst to customers, dialing “Long Distance” or zero did the same thing. In a concession to branding, switch hooks ended in an “A” beginning in 1905. Mouthpieces also changed, becoming available in porcelain, which was deemed more sanitary than hard rubber or wood.

Meanwhile, AE also offered candlestick phones with dials attached to their bases. In these phones, which also had 11 holes, the sunburst now radiated fully in a circle. This design was replaced in 1914 by the so-called Mercedes dial, which reverted to just 10 holes. After World War I, in the 1920s, AE jumped on the Art Deco bandwagon with its beautiful Bakelite Monophones, whose initial 1A model required a separate box for the ringer. The AE 2 essentially built the ringer into a rectangular box below the phone, while the model 32 featured a more elegant circular base.

The 1930s brought the Great Depression, but AE used the decade to introduce desk sets in the 34 series that appeared to have been chiseled from colorful blocks of Bakelite. The wall-mounted 35A, one of several models known as “jukebox” phones for their round-top profiles, featured a cradle for the handset at the bottom of the phone rather than at the top or on the side. After World War II, AE mostly produced versions of the Western Electric 500 (called the AE 80), and in 1955 the company was sold to General Telephone & Electric.

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