OF THE PAY PHONE
The following list of payphone highlights is excerpted from an AT&T press release. See the Pay Phone and Telephone Booth web site for a list of items for sale.
Hightlights in Pay Phone History
- Pay telephone stations preceded the invention of the pay phone
and existed as early as 1878. These stations were supervised
by telephone company attendants or agents (such as an employee
in a hotel where a station might be located) who collected the
money due after people made their calls. Some pay stations
utilized a fail-safe collection method: After making the
connections for customers, attendants would lock them in booths
so they couldn't leave without paying.
- In 1889, the first public coin telephone was installed by
inventor William Gray at a bank in Hartford, Conn. It was a
"postpay" machine (coins were deposited after the call was
placed). Gray's previous claim to fame was inventing the
inflatable chest protector for baseball.
- In 1898, the Western Electric No. 5 Coin Collector, the first
automatic "prepay" station, went into use in Chicago. The
depositing of coins before placing a call would gradually
become the norm in pay phones until the introduction of "dial
tone first" service in 1966.
- By 1902, there were 81,000 pay telephones in the United
- In 1905, the first outdoor Bell System coin telephone was
installed on a Cincinnati street. It wasn't an instant hit;
people apparently were reluctant to make private calls on a
(Moose were not as shy when they first encountered outdoor pay
phones. When Bell Laboratories designed a new glass and
aluminum outdoor telephone booth in the 1950s, it was a great
advancement over the wooden outdoor booths that had been in use
for a number of years. And yet several booths ordered by the
U.S. National Park Service were found mysteriously broken and
battered. Park rangers soon knew the answer, though: It was
mating season for moose. Amorous--but territorial--bulls
were charging the booths whenever they saw their reflections in
- In 1910, Western Electric and Gray Telephone Pay Station Co.
signed an agreement for Gray to manufacture coin collectors for
the Bell System using both Gray and Western Electric patents.
- The result of that agreement, the 50A coin collector, went into
production in 1911. By the end of 1912, 25,000 of these coin
telephones had been ordered for New York City alone. The 50A
model had three coin slots--for nickels, dimes and quarters
--and was a "prepay" machine. The basic design, though often
modified, was so practical and reliable it remained in
production until 1964. In 1965, Western Electric introduced
the 50A's successor. Among other things, it had a single coin
slot instead of three, and electronic signalling of coins
deposited replaced mechanical bells.
- The booths that house pay phones have undergone more design
changes than the phones themselves. At the turn of the
century, indoor booths were constructed of durable hardwood,
such as mahogany, with comfort and privacy in mind, and
exhibited detailed craftsmanship. They were often carpeted.
The "original" telephone booth is credited to Thomas Watson,
the man who helped Alexander Graham Bell invent the telephone.
Watson's "booth" was made by draping blankets over the
furniture in his room and crawling underneath to conduct early
telephone experiments. One story says Watson, in order to
hear, was insulating himself from street noises. Another story
is that his landlady ordered Watson to be quieter; his
shouting, albeit for the sake of science, was disturbing other
In 1883 Watson designed a real booth. It was built of
expensive wood, had a domed top with a ventilator, windows with
screens, and a desk with pen and ink.
Over the years, telephone booths have reflected their
surroundings as well as the times. There have been phone
booths resembling cable cars in San Francisco, and others
resembling pagodas in New York City's Chinatown district. In
the 1960s, as American architects designed glass-wall office
buildings, wooden phone booths looked out of place in lobbies.
Bell Laboratories designed an indoor glass and metal phone
booth to better fit newer surroundings.
Not all of the designs for phone booths have reached the
market. An experimental "hands-free" booth in 1972 featured a
microphone in front of the caller and a loudspeaker in the
booth's ceiling. Observers noted that people readily tried the
new arrangement but that, conditioned to speaking in the
direction another voice is coming from, they were all shouting
into the ceiling.
- In 1950, the first coin telephone mobile train service was
established on the Pennsylvania Railroad between New York and
- "Calling from your car" was first tested in Mobile Ala., and
Chicago in 1957. Drive-up pay telephones proved popular and
are still in use today.
- In 1960, the Bell System installed its one millionth pay
- In 1964, when the U.S. Treasury Department decided to change
the metallic composition of U.S. coins, it consulted with Bell
Laboratories to ensure the new coins would still function
properly in pay phones.
- "Dial tone first" service was introduced in 1966 in Hartford,
Conn. This essentially turned coin phones into emergency call
stations because such calls could be made without first
- In 1977, "automatic coin telephone service" was introduced in
Phoenix, Ariz. This allowed most pay telephone calls,
including long-distance, to be made without operator
assistance. A computer-controlled synthesized voice gave
customers the necessary instructions.
- AT&T introduced "Charge-a-Call," a "coinless" pay phone, in
1978 (and the term "pay phone" began to replace "coin phone").
- In 1984, AT&T introduced the AT&T Card Caller, which featured a
video screen with dialing instructions and allowed customers to
charge calls by inserting an AT&T Calling Card. The Card
Caller also was the first of AT&T's public phones to feature a
"loud" button, which allows callers to control the listening
volume. It helps the hearing-impaired as well as those having
a hard time hearing because of environmental noise.
- In 1990, AT&T introduced the AT&T Public Phone 1000, which
features a data port for laptop computer and portable fax use,
speed dialing for select AT&T services and travelers
assistance. This tabletop phone was designed primarily for
airline lounges and hotels.
- The latest advance in pay phone technology is the AT&T Public
Phone 2000. Introduced in the fall of 1991, the Public Phone
2000 has a built-in keyboard, a data port and a nine-inch color
monitor. Besides offering all the traditional voice services,
it enables travelers to use an array of services never before
available from a pay phone. Public Phone 2000 users can access
electronic mail and online databases, connect a portable fax
machine or computer, obtain language translation services,
speed-dial travel assistance services and even get weather
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Issued by AT&T, October 2, 1991
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