Phone Home

Phone Home

T he extraordinariness of being able to make a phone call from the little gadget you keep in your pocket may not ring loud and clear, but try to imagine life without it.

Once upon a time, calling on somebody meant going to their house and knocking on the door. Then came a revolutionary invention called the telephone, along with ancillary innovations that allowed this new invention to spread across the land.

You already knew all that, of course. What you probably didn’t know is that the telecom industry got its start right here in New Haven.

The first telephonic contraption, with voices conveyed by wires in real-time, was invented in Italy in 1849, well before Alexander Graham Bell made his famed “first call” in 1876 Boston. But Bell had the resources to run with the idea. With investors and, as of that same year, a U.S. patent, he started the Bell Telephone Company in 1877.

Yet the telephone couldn’t achieve commercial success without infrastructure to support it. So Bell traveled around the country to demonstrate how the telephone worked and what the possibilities could be, arriving in New Haven on April 27, 1877. He booked the stage at the newly opened New Haven Opera House on Chapel Street near Olive and performed a demonstration of his game-changing gadget. A band in Middletown played music into a telephone there, while the crowd at the opera house in New Haven, plus a second audience in Hartford, listened to the music, and each other, through telephones on their ends. It was the world’s first three-way phone chat, performed through a single line.

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In the New Haven audience was George Coy, a local telegraph operator. Coy had already built a prototype switchboard—made from teapot kettle lids, carriage bolts and corset wires—that he believed could allow more than one phone line to connect at the same time. After watching Bell’s demonstration, Coy became convinced that his device (pictured above) would actually work, and he patented it that year.

Soon after, on January 28, 1878, George Coy set up the world’s first commercial telephone exchange, working out of a since-demolished building at the intersection of Chapel and State Streets. His franchise of the Bell Company was the first in the world, initially called the District Telephone Company of New Haven. Its first subscriber was Reverend John E. Todd, and when Todd made the first call, operator Herrick Frost, a boy, answered the phone by saying, “Ahoy, ahoy.” That same year, Coy created the first telephone directory, which was 50 subscribers and one page long. Due to persistent advertising and a pervasive sense that the telephone would alter people’s lives for the better, lines were laid between New Haven and Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1879, connecting the cities and towns in-between.

As the technology took root, Coy’s telephone enterprise was expanding and changing. After a slew of identity changes, in 1882 a new name was given that would stick: Southern New England Telephone Company, now better known as SNET. In 1888, the company moved to new quarters in a four-story building on Court Street. Within a few decades, success demanded another building, constructed next door in 1916. Then, in 1938, the enterprise built a handsome Art Deco-style office tower on Church Street. All of this dovetailed with flurries of new construction—offices, annexes and switching stations—throughout Connecticut and southern Massachusetts.

SNET wasn’t alone, of course. American Telegraph & Telephone (AT&T) formed out of a prior entity in 1885, then would buy out Bell Telephone Company, its parent, in 1899, going on to become the dominant American phone company of the 20th century.

Not in southern New England, though, where SNET remained on top. It lasted as an independent, fundamentally innovative entity until 1998, when it was purchased by SBC Communications. Not only did SNET’s lineage create the first telephone exchange and earliest phone directory, but the company reportedly installed the first phone booth and the first pay phone, and was the earliest adopter of call-waiting technology.

When you’re making your next call, or navigating your next phone directory, or taking the next call that comes through while you’re on the other line—and whether you’re doing these things in New Haven or Shanghai—you can thank the efforts of the small regional telephone company that New Haven built.

Written by Colin Caplan. Image, provided courtesy of Colin Caplan and Magrisso Forte, depicts the switchboard invented by George Coy.

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Colin M. Caplan is a New Haven native, published author, architectural designer, historian and owner of Taste of New Haven Food and Drink Tours. He received his Masters of Architecture from Tulane University, is an Arts Award recipient from the Arts Council of Greater New Haven and runs Magrisso Forte, which offers historic building consulting and vintage photography services.

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