December 2011 Item of the Month: The switchboard that launched the first public telephone company in the world

Blueprint for George Coy’s switchboard, 1878

On April 27, 1877, George Willard Coy attended a demonstration at Skiff’s Opera House in New Haven, Connecticut, of an exciting new invention — the telephone — given by inventor Alexander Graham Bell.   Coy, a Civil War veteran and manager of the New Haven office of the Atlantic & Pacific Telegraph Company, was fascinated by the possibilities of this invention.  In November 1877 he was awarded a Bell telephone franchise for New Haven and Middlesex counties and spent the next two months getting partners and financial backing.  On January 28, 1878, the New Haven District Telephone Company, in a rented storefront office in the Boardman Building at the corner of Chapel and State Streets, opened for business with 21 subscribers, each of whom paid $1.50 per month for the service.  It was the first telephone exchange in the world.

Prior to this time the first telephones were used privately on lines that allowed allow two people on each end to communicate over very short distances.  George Coy invented the first switchboard, which, according to a writing done by the Southern New England Telephone Company (the successor to the New Haven District Telephone Company) “consisted of a wooden panel about three feet wide and two feet high, with a little shelf at its base on which the operator’s telephone rested when not in use.  Across the top were four circles of contacts which resembled clock dials, each contact connected to a subscriber’s wire.  In the center of each circle was a metal arm like the pointer of a clock, which could be connected with any one of the eight contact points…”  Apparently Coy had to improvise in constructing the switchboard by using wires from ladies’ bustles.

This blueprint is one of several Coy made after the initial installation of the switchboard, in an effort to patent the design.  More information about George W. Coy and his switchboard can be found in the records of the Southern New England Telephone Company, a collection that was donated to Archives & Special Collections in 2003, the 125th anniversary of the founding of the company and the creation of the switchboard.