Category Archives: History

Pay Phones, Phone Booths & Superman

Phone booths are so 20th century, but when coin-operated telephones appeared in 1889, they represented a technological breakthrough as amazing as a modern smart phone.

At the time, telephones weren’t uncommon, but there were no public venues. It was possible to find an agent operating a telephone pay station. For a fee, the customer could make a call, but this wasn’t a convenient arrangement.

There are three ideas about why William Gray invented the coin-operated telephone. It may be from a suggestion he received from either his boss, or a neighbor. But I think the most logical explanation is personal necessity. 

When his wife became ill, Gray asked workers at a nearby factory to let him use their phone to call a doctor. They refused, and Gray recognized an invention that needed to be made.*

On August 13, 1889, Gray received Patent No. 408,709 for coin-operated apparatus for telephones. The apparatus had a small bell to alert the operator when a coin had been deposited and the call could go through. The first public phone was installed on the corner of Main Street and Central Row in downtown Hartford, Connecticut. In 1891 Gray established the Gray Telephone Pay Station Company. 

In the interest of privacy, phone booths appeared in the early 1900s. They’ve become utiqutious symbols in their own right. In the 1960s spy spoof Get Smart, secret agent Maxwell Smart had a telephone in his shoe, but his office was a phone booth. In Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, Tippi Hedrun seeks refuge in a telephone booth.

Even more iconic, Clark Kent ducked into a telephone  booth and emerged as Superman. Or did he? The answer is yes and no. It’s true that in a 1942 comic strip, Clark was out with Lois Lane when he saw a job for Superman. He said he needed to make a phone call, slipped into the phone booth and presto-chango.

A phone booth is not the easiest place to change clothes as this spoof demonstrates.

But Clark could change anywhere — a closet, a stairwell, jumping out a window, or while flying.

In 1991, there were about two million pay telephones in the United States. Today the figure is 5 percent of that. The major telephone companies have exited the service, since usage doesn’t pay for costs. But smaller companies continue the service. In 2015, Pacific Telemanagement Services reported $286 million in revenue.

The fact is, mobile phones aren’t enough. They don’t work in remote areas or when cell towers are down in storms. Ten percent of Americans don’t have cell phones, despite government subsidies for those who can’t afford them. Pay phones are common in heavily immigrant areas where it can be less expensive to call long distance on a pay phone. Pay phones are also found in areas with low paid workers or migrant farmers, and outside prisons and schools.

New York City is replacing pay telephones with kiosks that offer phone calls, free WiFi, Internet service, and a port to charge cell phones. Superman, however, will need a new dressing room.

*Gray did manage to summon a doctor, and his wife made a full recovery.


Phone Box on the Isle of Man. Public Domain.

Phone Booth by Camny Nelson

Superman, 1942. Public Domain.

Phone Booth by redrockerfan

“Where do we get the idea that Superman changes in Phone Booths?” Stack Exchange.

Tanvi Misra. “Why Some Places Still have Plenty of Pay Phones.” Citylab. Nov. 10, 2014

Jimmy Stamp. “The Pay Phone’s Journey from Patent to Urban Relic”. Smithsonian. Sept. 18, 2014.

We All Scream for Ice Cream*

Ice cream and its cousins can be had all year round, but during these Dog Days of Summer when the temperature climbs, frozen deserts are especially welcome. Considering reliable freezers are a 20th century invention, it’s surprising how long frozen desserts have been around. In China during the Tang Dynasty, ice men produced a concoction… Continue Reading

Summer Reads: Prominent Women Lost in Shadow

This installment of Summer Reads is a bit on the serious side, because early in the summer I’m still picking through my history reading pile. The first book is historical fiction; the second, narrative non-fiction that is partly biography, and partly a great deal of information on Elizabethan building techniques. Taken in chronological order, let’s… Continue Reading

Titanic Survivors: The Socialite, The Actress, and The “Unsinkable” Woman

At 11:40 p.m. on April 14, 1912, RMS Titanic struck an iceberg. At 00.25 a.m. the next morning, the Titanic sent out a distress call. At 2:20 a.m. the ship sank. At 4:00 a.m. the Carpathia began picking up the 710 survivors. This is a story about three women who traveled in first class. One… Continue Reading

Honey – Nectar of the Gods

Spring officially begins on Wednesday, though winter is often slow in leaving. As the earth warms up, flowers begin to peek through, inviting bees to gather pollen. Bees, of course, produce honey from floral nectar and store it in wax honeycombs within their hives. During their six-week lifespan, each worker bee produces half a teaspoon… Continue Reading


I doubt any visitor to St. Petersburg misses St. Isaac’s Square, so it seems fitting that St. Isaac’s Square and its namesake cathedral are the focus of this final visit to the sights of St. Petersburg. Catherine the Great’s grandson Nicolas I who ruled from 1825 to 1855 laid out the square with St. Isaac’s… Continue Reading


The CATHEDRAL OF SAINTS PETER AND PAUL was the second church in St. Petersburg. The first church was a wooden building consecrated in 1704. But it was never meant to last. Peter the Great wanted a cathedral to rival any building in Western Europe and brought in architect Domenico Trezzini to build a Baroque structure… Continue Reading

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