Cleyson Brown, founder of Brown Telephone, the precursor to Sprint

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Cleyson Brown, Brown Telephone Co.

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Sprint (NYSE: S) today may be best known for their unlimited data/voice wireless plans, but the company actually has deep wireline roots that date back to the late 19th century.

The story of America's third largest wireless operator actually began in Abilene, Kan., where Cleyson Leroy Brown, the son of a grist mill owner founded first a local electric utility and then an independent telephone company to compete with the local Bell Company called Brown Telephone Company.

As told in the The Museum of Telephony: C.L. Brown of Abilene and His Telephone Company, Cleyson lost his arm at the age of 10 when it got caught in his father's grist mill. Not being able to make a living as a farmer, Brown realized that "instead of using his hands to make a living he was going to have to use his head."

Like many independent telephone company pioneers, Brown got his start in the electric utility industry. Following stints at business school and managing a creamery, Brown founded an electric company that harnessed power from the local Smoky Hill River.

The founding of the Brown Telephone Company in 1899 came during a seminal time in the telecom industry. Only five years before, in 1894, the Bell Telephone patents finally expired and ushered in a new breed of independent telephone companies.  

Following the success of his electric utility company, Abilene's city fathers asked Brown to found a phone company to challenge the local Bell Telephone company.

In 1900, Brown Telephone installed its first long distance circuit followed by the establishment of the Telephone and Electric (UT&E) in 1925. Later, the company was renamed United Utilities and then United Telecommunications in 1972.

And while Sprint these days may be known for primarily for its wireless service, United Telephone and the former GTE Sprint (a company that acquired the former Telenet which was run by fellow innovator honoree Larry Roberts), was also a pioneer in a number of key wireline services.

Among those services was one of the early nationwide X.25 packet data services called Uninet. To establish a foothold in the then closed long-distance voice market, United acquired ISACOMM in 1981 and then another company called US Telephone in 1984.

Separately, United adopted the Sprint name after it purchased the remaining stake in the Sprint/GTE venture, which became the brand consumers and businesses knew for long-distance service, in 1992.

Of course, all of those innovations would have never happened without Brown's ability to use his head to solve real-world problems.