Business and Labor

Hold Please: George Coy Launched the First Commercial Telephone Exchange

In January of 1878, George Coy of New Haven, Connecticut gave birth to a new American tradition – the wrong number.

Butt dialing, prank phone calls, and the busy signal all owe their existence to Coy, an enterprising man who was inspired by a lecture by Alexander Graham Bell.

Telephone operator, 1911.

Telephone operator, 1911.

Bell had unleashed his telephone invention on the world in 1876, and for the next couple of years the devices were mainly curiosities. To use them, you had to buy two, then string wires between them. So while someone with two buildings might find it helpful to connect them via a telephone, for most people the invention was not particularly useful.

Bell knew this; all his partners and competitors knew this. So he began demonstrating the advantages of a three-way phone network. George Coy attended one of Bell’s lectures the Skiff Opera House in New Haven in 1877 where the inventor demonstrated a call connecting Hartford and Middletown.

Impressed, Coy rounded up backers and bought a franchise to license Bell’s technology and opened the first commercial telephone exchange in the United States in a storefront in the now-demolished Boardman Building in New Haven.

The exchange itself was not exactly a technological marvel, built from pot lids, carriage bolts and whatever else Coy could find, but it worked. It was capable of handling 64 customers. However, only two calls could take place simultaneously and the operator had to use six switches to put a call through.

Nevertheless, it meant telephone owners could now talk to someone else without buying them a phone and connecting their own wires, and in January the exchanged opened with 21 subscribers, each paying $1.50 per month. Physicians, businesses, police were early adopters and within a month, Coy had 50 subscribers and had to publish the first phone directory.

Before long, telephone exchanges were springing up across the country. The New Haven District Telephone Company grew rapidly and by 1882, it was rebranded the Southern New England Telephone Co. with the rights to serve all of Connecticut.

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