TELECOM Digest OnLine - Sorted: For a Brief Shining Moment: The Lorimer Brothers; Machine Telephony

For a Brief Shining Moment: The Lorimer Brothers; Machine Telephony

Lisa Minter (
Fri, 17 Jun 2005 12:10:57 -0500

For some special reading this weekend, I have selected -- not from our
own Archives -- but from _Telecom History_ in 1995, a story I thought
you might be interested in.

Lisa M.


For A Brief Shining Moment: The Lorimer Brothers and Machine Telephony
By Jean-Guy Rens
Published in Telecom History, 1995 - 1.

Before the separation of Northern Telecom (then Northern Electric)
from Western Electric following the Consent Decree between American
Telephone & Telegraph (AT&T) and the Justice Department in 1956,
Canada was a technological wasteland from a telecommunications
standpoint. All innovation was imported from the U.S. by Canadian
companies that simply manufactured the new products under license.

But there was one notable exception: the Lorimer brothers'
commercially brief but technologically shining adventure with
switching at the turn of the century.

Following invention of the step-by-step switch by Almon B. Strowger in
1889, the U.S. telecommunications industry went into technological
overdrive. Unfortunately, all the switching systems developed at that
time, including step-by-step, had one common drawback: they grew ever
more complex as the number of subscribers required ever more wires,
posing an insurmountable problem not only for manufacturers but above
all for system operators.

Callender the Pioneer

The most significant alternative to step-by-step came from Canada. The
first of the Canadian competitors, Romaine Callender, was closely
associated with Alexander Graham Bell. Callender taught music and
manufactured organs in Brantford, Ontario, and his main claim to fame
was having built an automatic organ player. Then he founded the
Callender Telephone Exchange Company, a modest undertaking which, at
the height of its activities, employed 14 people, among them two young
brothers, George William and James Hoyt Lorimer, from the nearby
village of St. George. Their father had died at an early age, and the
eldest brother, George, went to work as a telephone operator. Hoyt had
begun his law studies, but then became fascinated with the telephone
and convinced his older brother to get involved in research work under

Between 1892 and 1896, Callender took out three series of patents. His
first two switches, tested in Brantford, were such complete failures
that he had to try and raise money in New York, where he opened a new
shop in the spring of 1894. The Lorimer brothers followed him there,
and work began again, under slightly more auspicious conditions.

Notwithstanding Hoyt's frail health due to bouts of typhoid, the first
successful experiment took place in New York in January 1895 using a
wooden model known alternately as the Brantford Exchange or the
Callender Exchange. A dozen calls were put through automatically
which, for the time, was considered an amazing phenomenon.

The little team then returned to Brantford at the request of their
Canadian backers. It is not entirely clear why Callender gave up his
research activities, but he left Canada for England in July or August
1896 where he formed a company under the name Callender Rapid
Telephone Company, of which all trace has been lost. The Lorimer
brothers carried on his research work and, after considerable
financial difficulties, they opened their own company, Canadian
Machine Telephone, in Peterborough, Ontario, in March 1897. There they
produced the first commercial version of the Callender Exchange, which
was put into service by an independent telephone company in Troy,
Ohio, in 1897.

The system the Lorimers sold to the American company was so rudimentary
that it still needed major development, and a workshop was set up in
nearby Piqua to handle the work. An experimental switching system
built in the Piqua shop was used as an internal switchboard in the
shop. The Lorimer brothers continued to work on their system, to the
point where it bore no further resemblance to the one developed by
their former boss Callender. By the end of 1899, a definitive
commercial model of the switchboard was finally ready. Shortly after
this, the Lorimers enlarged their Piqua shop into a true production
facility, which they named the American Machine Telephone, and it was
this name they used in their international activities. They took out
their own patent in the U.S. in 1900 and the following year in Canada,
and launched a brisk marketing program for their new switches; too
brisk, perhaps, as the systems were never completely satisfactory.

The Lorimer Brothers Launch a Canadian Switching System

The "mechanical genius" of the Lorimer family, as the newspapers of
the time had christened him, was Hoyt. He died of typhoid fever on
November 6, 1901, at the age of 25, completely exhausted from
overwork. The youngest Lorimer brother, Egbert, then joined the
company, but the creative spark was lost, and there were no further
advances. And yet, the Lorimer brothers seem to have been effective
salesmen. They had a switching system with several hundred lines on
display for two months in Ottawa. The leading Canadian
telecommunications consultant at the time, engineer Francis Dagger,
made a report to the Toronto City Hall with a strong recommendation to
test the Lorimer technology:

"Those who have been privileged to see this system in operation and to
inspect the manufacturing plant at Piqua, Ohio, are forced to admit
that, as far as human intelligence is competent to pass judgment in
such matters, the problem of machine telephony is solved, and a
result, a new era is about to open in which the largest exchanges will
be able to give service at rates which, with manual systems, would
never have been possible."

It even appears that Canadian Machine Telephone moved its plant from
Peterborough to Toronto in hopes of winning a city contract for a
6,000-line switching system with the capacity to expand to 10,000
lines. But City Hall gave up its telephone service plans and the
Lorimer brothers had to fall back on small independent companies in
Ontario. In 1905, Lorimer switches went into operation in
Peterborough, where the Canadian manufacturing plant was located, and
in Brantford, home of the former Callender plant. By 1908, other
systems were installed in Burford, Saint George and Lindsay, all in
Ontario. But the biggest Lorimer switchboard ever installed, with 500
lines, appears to have been in Augusta, Georgia.

What Canadian Machine Telephone needed was a major client to act as a
technological showcase. When the Edmonton Telephone Department placed
an order with the Lorimers in 1906, the brothers thought their day had
finally come. But they were unable to produce a model to suit the
customer's requirements, and the cutover was delayed from month to
month. After waiting for two years, Edmonton turned to the Strowger
solution, depriving the Lorimer brothers of the chance to provide
service to the Alberta capital. Automatic Electric got the contract
and installed a step-by-step switching system in two months
flat. Compared to the Strowger professionals, the Lorimer brothers
looked like rank amateurs.

The three reasons for Edmonton's initial choice are, however, of
interest: the cost of a Lorimer line was only $34, compared to $40 for
a Strowger line; the system took up only half as much space, and its
centralized technology seemed more simple and elegant than the
competitor, even if connection time was slightly longer.

Apart from these unpromising "sales", this Canadian technology met
with some successf overseas. The European rights were transferred to a
French concern that in May 1908 set up the Société Internationale de
l'Autocommutateur Lorimer, with European headquarters in the Galerie
Vivienne in Paris. France purchased two switching systems, Britain
another two, and Italy one. Despite all these efforts, the system was
not adopted by the Post, Telegraph and Telephone (PTT) organizations
in these countries, since it consistently failed to prove sufficiently
reliable. Also lacking was the polish that could only have been
provided by the type of powerful research team that produced the
Strowger system. To make things worse, Canadian Machine Telephone
never seemed to be able to deliver in any reasonable length of time,
as shown in the Edmonton example. The company finally declared
bankruptcy in 1923 and was placed in receivership. Bell acquired the
company two years later.

The Callender-Lorimer Technology

If the Lorimer brothers deserve mention in the history of
telecommunications, it is much more for their theoretical contribution
than for their business sense. Their principles have influenced the
entire process of electromechanical switch development, in particular
the AT&T systems. When that company went automatic, it adopted
technology derived from the Lorimer principles. International
switching specialist Robert J. Chapuis enthusiastically recounts this
little-known historical fact:

"Onto the vigorous and resilient sapling planted by the Lorimer
brothers, Western Electric engineers proceeded to graft the shoot that
would turn it into a healthy and productive fruit tree."

The great innovation of the Lorimer switch is in fact a Callender
concept, the principle of preselection. Instead of having as many
connection mechanisms as there are subscriber lines, the Callender
system is based on the principle that people do not all make calls at
the same time and thus use only a small percentage of connection
mechanisms. This results in the use of about 90% less mechanical
equipment. As well, the great challenge in the early days of automatic
switching was speed, so that customers would not have to wait too long
for a dial tone. Introduced by Callender in 1893, this innovation was
later adopted by all switch manufacturers, including Strowger.

More generally, the Callender-Lorimer system is based on the action of
a perpetually turning wheel. Contacts are established by stopping the
movement of the wheel at a place that corresponds to each number
dialled. Only one motion is needed to select a contact instead of two
as in the step-by-step system. The Lorimer switch was also entirely
modular, with panels containing 100 lines, making it simple to
increase the capacity of a system rather than replacing it as the
number of customers grew.

Instead of a dial, the Lorimer telephone set itself had a series of
levers, one each for units, tens, hundreds and thousands. All the
caller had to do was move each of the four levers to the desired
figure to make up the telephone number. This process was modelled on
systems like those used in railway signals or cash registers. Another
advantage was that the telephone set did not need batteries, since it
was powered by a central battery system.

One of the main criticisms of automatic exchanges was the fact that
subscribers were required to perform highly complex operations. This
was why it was important to design a telephone that would be as simple
as possible to operate. The Lorimer sets seemed to meet this

Historical Impact of the Lorimer Research

The Lorimer technology was the last work in automatic switching at the
turn of the century. Observers at the time were quick to recognize
this Canadian contribution, and the American expert Kempster B. Miller
wrote in 1914:

"These young men, with no prior training and 'so they say' without
ever having seen the inside of a telephone exchange, invented and
developed the system in question and put it into operation. Knowing
something of their struggles and efforts to achieve their purpose, we
find their creation one of the most remarkable we have ever seen,
whatever the value of the system."

Further proof of this recognition is found in a 1925 opinion expressed
by Professor Fritz Lubberger, a German telephone switching specialist:

"In Canada towards 1900, the Lorimer brothers invented a system which,
although it has not been introduced anywhere, is of such richly
inventive design that even today any specialist in automatic systems
would benefit from studying it in detail."

But the most convincing proof of the value of the Lorimer brothers'
research came from AT&T. In 1903, the American giant bought the
Lorimer patent and decided to turn what had until then been just
another piece of laboratory equipment into a commercially viable
product. They put not one, but two research teams on the project,
which produced two of the most popular systems in the history of
electromechanical switching, the Panel and the Rotary. Both used the
Lorimer principle of one-step selection, and the Rotary switch also
used the principle of the permanently rotating motor (thus its name).

AT&T chose the Panel system and used in the majority of large
U.S. cities until the 1950s, when it began to be replaced by the
crossbar. It was never used outside the United States. The Rotary
system, on the other hand, won the approval of many European telephone
administrations, particularly in France. When ITT bought Western
Electric's International Division in 1925, it also inherited its
Rotary production lines. The principles of the Lorimer system thus
passed into international posterity, both in the U.S. and Europe, but
the Lorimers themselves won no posthumous fame until the very recent
rediscovery of their work by Robert Chapuis.

A legitimate question would be why the Lorimer brothers' switching
system sank into such total oblivion. Most telephone engineers have
never even heard of their technology. Chapuis has an interesting

"The reason for its posthumous eclipse is that most of the works
published on switching describe former or existing systems of
telecommunications manufacturing companies that were well established,
which ... was soon no longer the position of the Lorimer brothers'

Whatever the true answer, it is still intriguing to note that Canada's
only technological contribution to the development of telecommunications
before the contemporary period was in the field of electromechanical
switching. Three-quarters of a century later, Northern Telecom was to
repeat this exploit with the DMS digital switch, although this time
with considerably more commercial success. Switches are the brains of
a network. They are the key to its development. The inescapable
conclusion, is that Canadians, separated as they are by such vast
distances, realized that the mastery of telecommunications was
essential to their survival as a society. And the switch, as the key
to the system, was also the key to this mastery and thus their

Excerpt from Chapter 8 of the - Birth of Northern Telecom and
technological progress, in particular sub-chapters:

The true inventor of Brantford
The Lorimer brothers launch a Canadian switch
Outline of Callender-Lorimer technology
The Lorimer brothers' work lives on

Copyright ScienceTech Communications Inc. Montreal, 1995-2005

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