Site of the First Public Pay Phone - Atlas Obscura

Site of the First Public Pay Phone

An easy-to-miss plaque marks the building that first held this 19th-century telephone innovation. 


Though cell phones and other pocket technology have rendered public phones nearly obsolete, there was once a time when the classic pay phone was a novel, necessary invention.

William Gray invented the first pay phone in 1889. It was installed in a bank in Hartford, Connecticut. His innovation allowed everyday people who couldn’t afford their own phones to make business and personal calls.

Gray originally came up with the idea of a coin-operated public pay phone after he needed to call a doctor when his wife fell ill. At the time, owning a phone meant paying an expensive monthly fee, leaving only the well-to-do with access.

He couldn’t afford to pay for an expensive monthly phone subscription, so he ran down to a local business and asked to use their phone, but they said no. He struggled to find anyone willing to let him use theirs. Gray, an inventor by trade, thought there must be a way to have a phone that people could use and pay for only when needed.

Gray’s pay phone concept would bring the telephone to the masses. In his obituary, the Hartford Courant said the pay phone was Gray’s “crowning invention” because of how it popularized the telephone and made it possible for anyone with a bit of pocket change to use a public phone without the aid of an attendant.

Though the original pay phone is no longer at the bank, you can find a plaque memorializing the innovation that transformed telephones from a luxury commodity into a necessity available to the masses.

Know Before You Go

The small blue plaque is located about nine feet up on the Main Street side of the building near the corner of Main Street and Central Row. Parking is limited in the downtown area and it is all pay-to-park.

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