William Gray’s Pay Telephone (Apr, 1953)

William Gray’s Pay Telephone

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.

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.

  1. William Deering says: January 1, 20099:59 am

    Now due to the advance of cell phone technology pay phones are becoming a thing of the past. It’s difficult to impossible to find a pay phone when you need it; left your cell phone at home. Next phase? Maybe a password or code exchange to apply payment as a good token of thanks into the account of a kind cell phone loaner in lieu of on-the-spot cash?

  2. Scott says: January 1, 200912:22 pm

    Since I intend to be the last person on the planet to carry a cell phone, I already miss the once ubiquitous pay phone.

    Now that I think about it, I wonder what’s happened to all of them. There must be thousands of them (in a landfill?)! Some enterprising person should have collected them, refurbished them and be selling them as novelty collectibles!

  3. George says: January 1, 20094:10 pm

    I suppose it’s too late to write to the author, but why could the operator hear the coin operated bells, but not the caller rung bells?

    Scott, I was in Japan in 2003 and while everybody had cell phones, there were also pay phones about every half block. I wonder why.

  4. hwertz says: January 1, 20097:34 pm

    “Scott, I was in Japan in 2003 and while everybody had cell phones, there were also pay phones about every half block. I wonder why.”
    I know you weren’t asking me, but…
    1) That was 2003. There were a lot more pay phones left in the US 5 years ago than now too.

    2) Sunk costs? I actually am surprised at how many pay phones have gone.. I would expect once they are installed they would not cost much to keep going. If the usage decreases, you could send someone by that much less frequently to empty the coin box. The pay phone companies here seemed to literally race each other to remove phones, one day there’d be a phone with sometimes even a second person waiting for the first person to finish on the phone… next day,no phone, just an unpainted bit of wall with holes in it, and people asking the manager if they can use the phone, told “no”, then looking around for someone with a cell phone.

  5. Absolutejagauar says: January 4, 20097:27 am

    I used to pass a graveyard of old red phone boxes, the classic British design and always thought about buying one for the corner of the garden (When I finally get my own house). For those that are interested it is on the London to Brighton line around Redhill.
    As for maintenance, I think thye cost a lot to maintain, they were often vandalised in the UK, for the money or just to break the glass. The introduction of pre-paid phone cards didn’t help much even tho the phones no longer carried much money.

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