The New Haven District Telephone office and the first telephone exchange were located in the storefront with the awning. Courtesy of National Park Service, National Historic Landmarks Program.

The New Haven District Telephone office and the first telephone exchange were located in New Haven, in the storefront with the awning (since demolished). 

On March 10, 1876, Alexander Graham Bell entered the history books when he spoke to his assistant, Thomas A. Watson, through his prototype telephone, famously proclaiming, “Mr. Watson — come here — I want to see you.”

Dazzling as it was, the telephone was an impractical invention at first. Early phones were owned by businesses or people, and were sold in pairs, connecting one specific location to another specific location. Running the wire between each pair of phones was expensive and labor intensive, and served limited purpose. People would pay to connect two buildings in a city or a business owner’s home with the office. Mostly, these early phones were novelty items. It took a Civil War veteran in New Haven named George Coy to truly launch the wired revolution and make the phone, and shortly thereafter the phone directory, household items.

Many, including Bell, realized the phone’s one-to-one usage limited its potential, but it was Coy who first implemented a solution in the Elm City. In 1877, Coy, then the manager of the Atlantic and Pacific Telegraph Co., attended a lecture given by Bell at the Skiff Opera House in New Haven. During the lecture, Bell demonstrated the effectiveness of a three-way phone network by connecting with Hartford and Middletown on a call.

Coy was intrigued and obtained a Bell telephone franchise for New Haven and Middlesex counties later that year. The agreement stipulated that Bell’s company would own 35 percent of Coy’s new venture. Coy enlisted Walter Lewis, superintendent of the New Haven Clock Co., and Herrick Frost, a prominent businessman, as investors, and incorporated the New Haven District Telephone Co. on Jan. 15, 1878.

Soon after, on Jan. 28, from the Boardman Building in New Haven, the newly formed company launched the world’s first commercial telephone exchange. The exchange allowed anyone connected to the network to call anyone else on the network, though they would have to call into a central operator who would transfer the call.

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Engraving demonstrating the process for a telephone call, published in Paris in 1881.

It was a historic first, but the company was fairly rough-and-tumble in its early years. As the National Park Service describes it: “The switchboard built by Coy was, according to one source, constructed of ‘carriage bolts, handles from teapot lids and bustle wire.’ According to the company records, all the furnishings of the office, including the switchboard, were worth less than forty dollars. While the switchboard could connect as many as sixty-four customers, only two conversations could be handled simultaneously and six connections had to be made for each call.”

The telephone exchange launched with 21 subscribers, who each paid $1.50 per month. By February of the first year, the company was responsible for another world’s first when it released the first telephone directory, a flier listing subscribers to the network. Most of the listings were businesses, including physicians, the police and the post office. Only 11 private individuals were listed, but that included Coy and three other people associated with the company.

Others soon saw the advantage of this system, and telephone exchanges began popping up across the country. Like the original New Haven exchange, an operator was always required to connect the calls, as direct dialing made possible by telephone numbers would not become commonplace until the 1920s.

The New Haven District Telephone Co. enjoyed great success in Connecticut and beyond. By 1880 it had the rights from the Bell Telephone Co. to service all of Connecticut and western Massachusetts. As it grew, the company was renamed Connecticut Telephone and ultimately the Southern New England Telephone Co. (SNET) in 1882. SNET continued to operate in New England for more than 100 years before being sold to AT&T. (AT&T has since sold it to Norwalk-based Frontier Communications.)

As for Coy, he remained with the company until he died in 1915. Although his contribution to telecommunications is often overlooked, he received recognition in 1933 from The New York Times as “the inventor of the first commercial telephone switchboard.” 

The Boardman Building, where the first exchange was launched, did not enjoy posterity. Designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1964, the building, then known as the Metropolitan Building, was acquired four years later by the New Haven Redevelopment Agency to build a parking garage. In April 1968, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development approved the agency’s application for funds to redevelop the area and the building was demolished in 1973.