February 21: The World’s First “Phone Book”


Thanks to Connecticut inventor and innovator George Coy, the city of New Haven can lay claim to a number of “firsts” related to the early development and adaptation of the telephone.  Not even two years after Alexander Graham Bell first patented the revolutionary communication device, Coy and his company had implemented a number of innovations — like the switchboard and phone book — which would define the way the entire world came to use the telephone.

In January 1878, Coy launched the world’s first commercial telephone exchange from his New Haven company headquarters, which gave telephone users access to multiple recipients via a central switchboard.  Before Coy’s exchange went into operation, any two parties who wished to converse via telephone had to have their phones directly connected to each other; since connecting one telephone to multiple households and businesses was an expensive and cumbersome operation, telephones were considered an impractical luxury to many.  With Coy’s switchboard, callers only needed one line installed between their phone and the New Haven District Telephone Company’s central office; from there, an operator could transfer their call to any other connected party’s line.

The world’s first telephone directory, published on Feb. 21 1878 by the New Haven District Telephone Company.

The New Haven District Telephone Company ran its business model as a subscription service; subscribers paid $1.50 a month to have easy and instant access to the phone lines of every other subscriber.  On Feburary 21, 1878, not even a month after their groundbreaking telephone exchange was launched, the NHDTC issued the world’s first telephone directory: a one-page sheet listing all fifty of its subscribers.  Over three-quarters of the subscribers listed were businesses and municipal offices like the New Haven police station and post office; personal telephones were still considered a luxury good, even though that would soon change thanks to Coy’s exchange model, which greatly reduced the cost of installing a telephone.  To modern eyes, the most curious feature of the world’s first telephone directory is likely its complete lack of any telephone or identification numbers; since every call was connected manually by a central switchboard operator, no such numbers were necessary.

Only nine months later, the number of NHDTC subscribers had increased nearly eightfold, and the company made history yet again by publishing the world’s first telephone book.  The book, a 40 page pamphlet, contained the names of the company’s 391 subscribers as well as a step-by-step primer on how to properly operate a telephone receiver, since the technology was still novel and unfamiliar to most users.  In 2008, one of the only known surviving copies of the world’s first telephone book sold at auction for over $170,000 — a testament to the lasting impact George Coy and his New Haven telephone company have had on the way the modern world communicates.

Further Reading

Kat Eschner, “The First Telephone Book Had Fifty Listings and No Numbers, Smithsonian Magazine

Important Scientific Books: The Telephone Directory, Volume 1, Number 1, New Haven, Connecticut,” Christie’s Auctions