A Brief History of the Payphone

Invented by William Gray in 1889, he began selling his devices in 1891. The first payphones were opened to the public, using attendants to collect the money and place the calls for you. The payphone went almost ten years before it finally became a coin-operated model that was largely unattended.

Payphone technology didn’t change significantly until 1913. That is when the invention of the “three-slot” payphone came into existence.

The next big change was in 1965 when modern single coin models debuted.  By that time, the payphone had become an American icon.

For most of the 20th century, payphones were an essential part of a connected society. It was also a lifeline to communities that lacked phone service at home. At their peak over 2.5 million of them were in service in the United States alone. Three manufacturer’s in the US and Canada were the suppliers of them.
They were:

  • Western Electric (US supplier to the Bell System)
  • Northern Electric (Canadian supplier to Bell Canada)
  • Automatic Electric (Formerly Gray Manufacturing, US and Canadian supplier to independent phone companies)
  • Automatic Electric was bought by General Telephone and became the supplier to them, and also for independent companies.
  • Following is a 1989 film was originally made as part of a small, traveling exhibition created by AT&T on the history of the payphone, 100 years after its conception. The exhibition debuted at AT&T’s Infoquest Center in New York City.


The following pictures are just a few examples of some advertising that was circulating around pertaining to payphone service and the convenience of them.

As you can see, it was engrained into people for everyday use, thus becoming an American Icon and a great piece of Americana!