Strowger Relay

or "Strowger 2-motion Selector"*

 In 1965 I started work in Edge Lane, Liverpool at the Strowger Works of the Automatic Telephone & Electric Company, then recently bought by Plessey. I was on a graduate apprenticeship course which was the sort of thing offered by many major British companies in those days. Alas, I'd signed up right at the end of the scheme and the usual 2-year course had been reduced to 3 months. The idea was that a large company needed to train its staff in their procedures and to rotate the apprentices around the various departments so that the best niche could be found. After a few weeks of introduction I was despatched to another local factory, also owned by Plessey, that was manufacturing the UK air defence system. I remained there for something like 20 years before moving to another factory in the Plessey group in the south of England.

In 1965 the Edge Lane factory was busy designing future telephone exchanges using electronic rather than electro-mechanical parts. The general idea was that the former, unlike the latter, would last forever. Unfortunately, electronic stuff ended up being controlled by software and software was inherently pretty unreliable... but that's another story. Electronic exchanges needed far fewer people to make them and almost overnight, once the first electronic exchanges were put into production, the labour force dropped from 12,000 to 1,200.

Whilst at Edge Lane the apprentices were shown around the factory. It was an enormous place still employing around 12,000 staff and I remember going into one particular department and spotting my uncle who had worked there since before WW2, and having been demobbed in 1946, returned to his old job which was the final adjustment of Strowger Relays. He was born in 1916 and had worked at ATE until he retired in 1981 refusing all invitations for promotion. I spotted the relay assembly below at a car boot sale. I like to think that my Uncle Douglas almost certainly had handled it at some time.

* Thanks to Mandy from Kilrenny, Fife who identified this.



You can see why the factory needed to employ 12,000 people. All thousands of parts were made and assembled in the factory which supplied telephone exchanges over the whole world. 


 These relay assemblies were packed by their hundreds into huge racks, and when in operation in a typical telephone exchange made a tremendous racket as the rotating selector moved backwards and forwards and up and down. To maintain an exchange demanded technicians to be constantly running up and down between the racks making fine adjustments and swapping assemblies.

Below is the main manufacturing area for the individual relays. Note the formal attire of the workers. I heard the other day that some sloppy MPs are planning to reduce their dress standard and give up the wearing of ties.


And below, the Plessey factory in Edge Lane as it was in 1972. It had its own fire station, its own dentist, shops and a doctors' surgery.

The machine shops were full of heavy manufacturing equipment mostly dating back to Edwardian times and I remember there was a chrome-plating shop that did a lot of business on bank holidays as workers queued up with their car bumpers, door handles and miscellaneous paraphernalia from their cars. When I worked at Edge Lane I drove a Jaguar MkVII which cost me the princely sum of £30 and gave me something like 10 miles per gallon and a couple of years later we bought our first house for £900. The good old days?.... Definitely...

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