The History of the Telephone Box: Part 2

Here in Queen’s country we like to think of ourselves as being rather great at inventing things. With the thermos flask, lawnmower, light bulb, Television, telephone, Worldwide Web, and most notably – the chocolate bar counting amongst the best British inventions, we have every right to be proud.


But, and there’s always a ‘but’, one has to give credit where credit is due…


The Americans, William Gray and George Long, are widely recognized as the respective inventor and developer of the telephone booth (and please don’t call it a box, this is the correct term if you find yourself on the American side of the pond…) but this accreditation sat a bit sorely with fellow American, Thomas A. Watson.


Watson, whose name later became the first to be uttered over a telephone when Alexander Graham Bell famously called from the adjacent room to say, “Watson, come here, I want to see you”, could argue his stake to the claim of being the telephone booth inventor…


While assisting Bell in 1876 on the final stages of perfecting the telephone – ironing out the kinks in the chord as it were – Watson had to shout into the device to be heard on the other side of the line. This resulted in many a complaint and equally loud threats of bodily harm from the neighbours. Quick to recognize his imminent demise should he carry on shouting, Watson ensconced himself in blankets, soundproofing the delivery of his decibels, and in effect creating the world’s first phone booth.


Whichever way you look at it, the facts are that the first pay phone booth came into existence in the Hartford Bank, Connecticut in 1889. Gray’s pay phone device worked on a pay-when-you-are-done principle but Western Electric soon spotted the possible lack of income this system opened itself up to and in 1898 came up with the prepay system that is still in use today.


The booths proved so popular that four years later, in 1902, 81 000 of them existed in banks, railroad stations and upmarket hotels throughout the United States. Invented so the public can make private phone calls when out and about, the “out” part needed some work and in 1905 the first outdoor phone booth – made out of wood – was erected in Cincinnati. It wasn’t until much later, around 1950, when glass-paneled booths were implemented in America.


Although phone booths have for all intents and purposes become obsolete, there have been attempts to modernize and upcycle them. The city of Shanghai recently converted 500 phone booths to Wi-Fi hotspots, which at least, means the communication can carry on!


Even more modern is the Air3 Phone Booth. Drawing inspiration from its roots, the Air3 Phone Booth is all about making private public spaces but in a completely different design. With its soundproof glass, this acoustic phone booth can be installed in any office space and becomes the perfect spot for private calls, Skype interviews or just a space where you can escape the office madness.

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