February 21: The World’s First Telephone Directory


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 of the telephone. Within 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 the telephone directory — 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 any one telephone to multiple households and businesses directly was an expensive and cumbersome operation, telephones were both costly and impractical for most people. Their early use was limited to prosperous businesses and the private homes of the technologically curious and wealthy. But Coy’s switchboard would, in relatively short order, change that. By using Coy’s exchange, callers only needed one line installed between their phone and the New Haven District Telephone Company’s central office, because from there,  an operator could transfer their call to any other party on Coy’s phone exchange.

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

The New Haven District Telephone Company (NHDTC) 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 February 21, 1878, less than a month after their groundbreaking telephone exchange was launched, the NHDTC issued the world’s first telephone directory: a one-page sheet listing all 50 of its subscribers. Over three-quarters of the subscribers listed on the sheet were businesses and municipal offices like the New Haven police station and post office; fewer than one in four subscribers was an individual.

To modern eyes, the most curious feature of this, the world’s first telephone directory,  is its complete lack of any telephone or identification numbers.  Since every call was connected manually by a central switchboard operator and the subscriber list was small, no such numbers were necessary.

Within nine months, though, the number of NHDTC subscribers increased nearly eightfold, and the company made history yet again by publishing a 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 this telephone book sold at auction for over $170,000 — a testament to the lasting impact George Coy and his New Haven telephone company had on the way the modern world connects and communicates, today in Connecticut history..

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