In January of 1878, George Coy of New Haven, Conn., 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 inventor inspired by a lecture by Alexander Graham Bell.
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 someone with two buildings might find it helpful to connect them via a telephone. But 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. There 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. In January the exchange opened with 21 subscribers, each paying $1.50 per month. Physicians, businesses and police were early adopters. 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. By 1882, it was rebranded the Southern New England Telephone Co., with the rights to serve all of Connecticut.
This story last updated in 2022.