The First Commercial Telephone Exchange

Southern New England Telephone Exchange BuildingHaving grown up with telephone service that just works, most of us don’t give much thought to making phone calls.

We dial a number and connect with the other person or leave a message. It’s as simple as that. In the late 1880s, however, putting Alexander Graham Bell’s invention to work commercially on a massive scale wasn’t a simple endeavor.

It started out simple enough, with an 8-line switchboard made from carriage bolts, wire, and teapot lids. This crude switchboard, developed by George Coy, was the start of something bigger.  Coy, a manager for the Atlantic and Pacific Telegraph Company, had seen 1877 demonstration of the telephone presented by Alexander Graham Bell in New Haven, Connecticut and was immediately intrigued. By the end of that same year, Coy had become a Bell franchisee for two counties in Connecticut.

Coy put his own ideas to work, creating his 8-line switchboard. Each of the lines could serve 8 customers. Coy, along with the financial support of two local businessmen, Herrick Frost and Walter Lewis, formed the New Haven District Telephone Company on January 15, 1878 — less than nine months after seeing Bell’s telephone demonstration. Within weeks of incorporation, New Haven District Telephone Company opened the world’s first commercial telephone exchange with 21 customers.

As the first company with telephone subscribers, it was also the first to publish a classified telephone directory. Its first directory was published on February 11, 1878, less than a month after the company was formed. It listed just 50 customers.

This was a turbulent time in the telecommunications era, with Western Union and Bell jockeying for control of the telegraph and telephone businesses. During this time, New Haven District Telephone Company underwent several reorganizations in a bid to expand and broaden its franchise rights. The company became Connecticut Telephone Company in 1880. Over the next two years, the company had 24 exchanges and more than 3500 subscribers. A subsidiary company, Inter State Telephone Company, was formed to establish a line between New York and Boston. The company reorganized again in 1882, becoming the Southern New England Telephone Company.

The company’s plans for expansion didn’t materialize as planned, due in large part to the introduction of electricity and the failure of the Boston-New York line, which was eventually sold to American Telephone & Telegraph (AT&T). Electricity caused interference on phone lines, requiring a major overhaul involving the replacement of every switchboard and new metallic connections for every customer.

Over the decades, Southern New England Telephone had its share of highs and lows and mergers and acquisitions. In the modern era, Southern New England Telephone became Southern New England Telecommunications Corporation, or SNET, and added long distance, paging services, fiber optics, and Internet services. SNET eventually merged with SBC in 1998, and was later acquired by Frontier Communications in 2014.

Today’s telephone exchanges are massive, far evolved from Coy’s early 8-line switch. Though Coy’s New Haven Telephone Company is a relic of the past, his contributions to the telecommunications industry make him a true telecom pioneer.

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“A Guide to the Southern New England Telephone Company Records, Undated, 1877-2003 | University Libraries.” n.d. Accessed January 5, 2018.

“Telecommunications Virtual Museum.” n.d. Accessed January 5, 2018.

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