Deposit Dime Please

Change happens whether you like it or not. The only aspect of change that you can control is to try and be ready for it … the rest is outside your world.

Baby boomers have seen change for decades, especially when it comes to technology. I’m an old school type of guy in regard to a lot of things, but if change in an area of technology makes performing certain tasks easier, I’m willing to give it a try. One of my favorite quotes on the subject of change comes from Mark Twain who said, “I’m in favor of progress; it’s change I don’t like.”

One of the biggest changes in my lifetime has been in the area of communication. When I was a kid my family used a landline hooked up to a rotary dial phone. Then came the push button phone. Then the next big change was the cell phone .

Motorola’s Martin Cooper made the first call from a handheld cell phone (distinct from car phones) to Joel S. Engel, a rival, at Bell Labs, on April 3, 1973. Bell Labs had envisioned such technology since the late 1940s and, at Cooper couldn’t help but playfully rub the monumental moment in a bit.

About a decade later on September 21, 1983, Motorola made history when the FCC approved the Motorola DynaTAC‚  8000X, the world’s first commercial portable cell phone. It cost consumers a whopping $3,995 at the time. Someone plunked down $3,995 to buy the 8000X, the first handheld cell phone, on March 13, 1984.

Change impacts aspects of a society. For instance the automobile impacted the horse and carriage business. Cell phones also had their effect. They pretty much made the telephone booth (pay phone) obsolete. Widespread use of mobile phones has made it less necessary to provide another way for people to make or take a call while out and about.

When the telephone was invented in 1876, it was a service available mainly to the wealthy. As demand for the telephone grew, so too did the demand for a way to access the telephone exchanges that connected people through operators. But for those people who couldn’t afford a phone but wanted or needed to use one to connect to the telephone system, an idea came about to solve that situation. Say hello to the telephone booth.

Article 3785: Deposit Dime Please (imageid1)

Phone booth 1950s

The world’s first telephone booth called “Fernesprecherkiosk”, was opened on January 12, 1881 at Potsdamer Platz, Berlin. In order to use it, one had to buy paper tickets called Telefonbillet which allowed for a few minutes of talking time. In 1899 it was replaced by a coin-operated telephone.

In the United States one of the earliest commercial telephone exchange was established between Bridgeport and Black Rock, Conn., in 1878. That year, Thomas Doolittle installed a telephone line between the two towns and put a telephone on each end inside wooden booths. People were charged a rate of 15 cents to use it.

In 1889, a new solution to the public telephone problem came in the form of a coin-operated public telephone that was installed in a bank in Hartford, Conn. created by William Gray.‚  Gray came up with the idea in 1888, when his wife was ill and he needed to get the doctor. He didn’t have a phone in his house‚  so he went to the nearest place where he knew there was a phone, a factory down the street. But they initially refused to let him use the phone, as he wasn’t a subscriber. Though the factory finally allowed him to use their phone when he explained why he needed it‚ the whole experience made an impression on him.

He got thinking of a way to allow people who didn’t have phones in their homes to make a call without having to pay for a monthly subscription. He got to work and came up with a series of experimental models, submitted a patent application in 1888 and on Aug. 13, 1889 was issued a patent for his device. He then formed the Gray Telephone Pay Station Company.

The earliest coin-operated phones, including the Gray phone, were “post-pay” on an honor system. Since all telephone calls required operators, the operator told you what coins to deposit. The coins would hit a bell, creating a sound the operator could hear to determine if it was the correct amount.

In 1898, Western Electric changed this system and implemented the “pre-pay” system still used today. By 1902 there were 81,000 payphones in the United States. In 1905, the first outdoor payphones with booths were installed. By the end of 1925, 25,000 of these booths existed in New York City alone. In the 1950s wooden booths began being replaced with glass and aluminum since it was easier to maintain than wood.

In 1960, the Bell System installed its one millionth telephone booth. 

Article 3785: Deposit Dime Please (imageid2)

Hurricane Dance Hall NYC 1943

Starting in the 1970s pay telephones were less and less placed in booths in the United States. This replacement was caused, at least in part, by an attempt to make the pay telephones more accessible to disabled people, less costly than a booth and it cut down on booth vandalism.

The peak of payphones in the United States was around 2.6 million in 1995.

Rates for local calls were a nickel up through the 1940s rising to a dime in the 1950s. The rates were raised to 20 cents in 1977. During the 1980s to around early 2000s it was 25 cents. Since 2007 it’s been 50 cents.

There was a downside of payphones during their golden years according to law enforcement and phone companies. Pay phone became a popular place to place and receive calls. They were a common tool for drug dealers, pimps, gamblers and scammers.

As of 2016 there are about 300,000 payphones still being used in America according to the FCC. California has declined more than 70% since 2007 to just 27,000. The major carriers, AT&T and Verizon, have both exited the business, leaving the market to be served by independent payphone companies.

The percent of Americans who own a cell phone now is 95. Smartphone ownership is 77%, up from just 35% in Pew Research Center’s first survey of smartphone ownership conducted in 2011. 

Article 3785: Deposit Dime Please (imageid3)

Sailors 1955

I doubt pay phones will ever totally disappear. They still serve a purpose. Cell towers still go down so you need a backup. There are still those who don’t own a cell phone such as the poor and elderly. There are still areas in the world where access to cellular networks isn’t available.

Seeing a telephone booth now when I’m driving around is a rare event. They seem quaint and a relic from another time. It might be a good idea to have some extra change with you just in case … for you never know … you may need one.

Contributed by

Craig Francom

Craig Francom was born in San Diego California and raised in Midvale Utah. Craig had a "Leave it to Beaver" childhood. If not at the local fishing hole, camping out …

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *