On January 28, 1878, the Boardman Building in New Haven became the site of the world’s first commercial telephone exchange, the District Telephone Company of New Haven. The exchange was the brainchild of Civil War veteran and telegraph office manager George Coy in partnership with Herrick Frost and Walter Lewis.
Prior to this time telephones, invented by Alexander Graham Bell in 1875, were owned by private persons or businesses who leased telephones in pairs to connect, for example, one’s home with a business. They also needed to arrange for telegraph contractors to string the wires between the two locations. Coy created a rudimentary telephone switchboard that allowed a central office to connect multiple persons, thus allowing each subscriber the advantage of having to buy only one phone in order to connect to a potentially infinite number of other subscribers. He built the switchboard with carriage bolts, handles from teapot lids, wire, and other spare parts. The 21 original subscribers to the exchange each paid $1.50 per month. All calls were made through the central office, where a telephone operator connected the person initiating the call to the party that he or she wished to reach. Direct dialing and telephone numbers would not become common until the 1920s.
Another important world-wide first occurred soon after, when, on February 21, 1878, Coy’s company printed what is now known as the first-ever telephone directory. Listing 50 individuals and businesses in New Haven, the directory was printed as a one-page flyer. The directory in the University of Connecticut Libraries’ collection is one of two remaining copies known to exist. Included in the list of names are Coy, Frost, and Lewis among the residential subscribers. In 1882 the District Telephone Company of New Haven changed its name to the Southern New England Telephone Company.
Contributed by Laura Smith, Curator for Business, Railroad, and Labor Collections at the University of Connecticut Libraries.