This Day in Tech History

On This Day . . .

Remember These Things?


August 13, 1889:  William Gray Patents Coin-Operated Telephone

William Gray’s Pay Telephone  (from an article published in April of 1953, by Alfred Lief)

“The young wife of a machinist in Hartford, Conn., fell critically ill. The year was 1888. There were few telephones in town and William Gray had to call a doctor. He ran to a nearby factory and asked permission to use their phone. The manager said no; it was not for public use. But his pleading won consent, the doctor arrived in time and Mrs. Gray survived.

William Gray’s mind clicked with an idea. Pay telephones did not exist in those early years of Alexander Graham Bell’s invention. Gray saw a need. He proceeded to find a way.

First Pay Phone

First Pay Phone

His first thought was a box covering up the mouthpiece. On the principle of the slot machine, the box could slide open and give the caller access to the telephone. But the telephone company officials who examined Gray’s device shook their heads. The thing was impractical. It let a person make any number of calls on one nickel. It did not permit a call to be made to another pay station unless the person called also deposited a coin to unlock that instrument. No means was provided for returning the coins if calls didn’t go through.

After tackling many theories Gray decided that the instrument should remain open. A user would reach the operator in the usual way, then deposit money as she directed. With each drop in the slot the caller would ring a bell. The only trouble with these signals was that the operator couldn’t hear them! One day in Gray’s workroom a coin slipped out of a helper’s hand and fell on a bell. Gray was startled. Then he saw his solution. The coin itself must give the signal. The bell must be placed in its path.

In 1891 the Gray Telephone Pay Station Company was formed with Amos Whitney of Pratt & Whitney as president and Gray as general superintendent. They manufactured the instruments and set them up on posts (like street-corner fire alarm boxes), in cabinets (resembling grandfather clocks) and as desks.

Today the pay station is commonplace— 945,000 of them in the United States. Indispensable? Worth everybody’s while? They take in more than 9,000,000 calls every day.”

Vintage Pay Phones


Payphone revenues have sharply declined in many places, largely due to the increased usage of mobile phones. Since 2007, the number of payphones in the United States in operation has declined by 48 percent.


According to APCC (American Public Communications Council) there are less than 500,000 payphones in the US, 450,000 are operated by independent service providers.  They process approximately 1.7 billion calls per year, so they are still values by many people in this country.


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