January 28: The World’s First Commercial Telephone Exchange & Connecticut’s First Transcontinental Phone Call


In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell received a U.S. Patent for the first practical telephone design, ushering in one of the most revolutionary devices of the late 19th century. The earliest telephones, however, were extremely limited: they allowed for communication between two receivers, but only if they were directly connected by a single wire. It wasn’t until January 1878 that a New Haven inventor by the name of George Willard Coy created the world’s first commercial telephone exchange, which allowed a single telephone to connect to multiple lines through a central switchboard.

George Willard Coy (University of Connecticut Libraries)

Several months earlier, Coy had attended a lecture in New Haven given by Bell himself, where the inventor first discussed the concept of a central exchange which could, in theory, provide access to multiple telephones using only one connected line. Coy, a Civil War veteran and longtime telegraph operator and office manager, convinced a pair of local investors that he could make Bell’s idea a reality. With their help, he purchased a storefront on State Street in downtown New Haven that soon became home to the world’s first commercial telephone exchange.

The inventive Coy proceeded to build a primitive switchboard from what appeared to be little more than spare parts, including carriage bolts, teapot handles, and a type of metal wire normally used to make ladies’ undergarments. Subscribers to the exchange service would pick up their receivers and speak to an operator, who could then manually connect their line to the telephone of any other fellow subscriber. With this simple setup, a telephone owner only required one single line to be installed — from their home to Coy’s central exchange — in order to reach dozens of different subscribers.

An illustration of an early telephone switchboard, from a 1907 issue of Popular Science magazine.

On January 28, 1878, Coy’s telephone exchange, under the aegis of the District Telephone Company of New Haven, went live, ushering the world into a new age of live, long-distance, and convenient communication. For its first month of operation, the District Telephone Company had twenty-one subscribers — mostly businesses and government offices — which paid $1.50 a month for the service. Less than a month later, the number of subscribers had more than doubled, inspiring Coy to publish the world’s first telephone directory on February 21 — a one-page listing of all fifty subscribers on his exchange. The switchboard quickly became a fundamental feature of telephone communications the world over, and Coy’s company, which renamed itself the Southern New England Telephone company in 1882, would become one of New England’s most influential companies of the 20th century.

Thirty-seven years to the day after Coy opened his exchange, Thomas B. Doolitle of Bridgeport, who was then on the Pacific Coast installing the innovative system he had helped develop and was about to use, made the first transcontinental call to Connecticut, to talk to his daughter in Branford.  Revolutionary connections made twice, today in Connecticut history.

Further Reading

Laura Smith, “First Commercial Telephone Exchange,” connecticuthistory.org

Site of the First Telephone Exchange,” National Park Service

Erik Ofgang, “New Haven Was Home of World’s First Telephone Exchange,Connecticut Magazine