Phone Booths, The Century 21 Exposition, and Zenith Space Phones
I was in a gas station the other day when I spotted a rare sight nowadays, a functioning telephone booth. While largely obsolete, the telephone booth served an important purpose for over a century, it helped people stay connected.
Where was the first phone booth?
The first “telephone box” in the world was opened to the public on January 12, 1881, in Berlin, Germany. Called the Fernsprechkiosk, it wasn’t a pay telephone like we are used to where you insert coins. Instead, you bought tickets that allowed you to rent use of the phone for a few minutes at a time.
William Gray is credited with the first coin-operated telephone call system in the United States. His solution was installed in a bank in Hartford, Connecticut, and allowed two people with the proper amount of money to call each other without the need for an attendant to mind the phones.
Gray got the idea when he needed to use a phone during a medical emergency, but didn’t have one in his home. When he tried to use the nearest phone he knew of, he was rebuffed. So he came up with a system where a phone would be available to anyone who had the money to pay for it.
Working with Western Electric, he was able to release a phone that would catch on like wildfire. The Gray Telephone Pay Station (Model 50A) was released in 1911 and by 1913 over 25,000 of them had been installed in New York City alone.
Even before the Model 50A, people were starting to place outdoor phones in shelters for privacy and protection from the elements. With the proliferation of this new model, these shelters started to get mass-manufactured and started to resemble the booths we know today.
All of these early booths were largely made of wood, which is difficult to maintain. It wouldn’t be until the 1950s when innovations in durable lightweight metals, plastics, and glass would lead to the phone booth we are more familiar with today.
As you will see in the Model 50A catalog, early phones had no buttons. You would talk to an operator, and they would tell you how much money to pay for your call. Eventually these operators would be replaced with a rotary dial system that last almost half a century.
Then, in Seattle in 1962, everything began to change.
The Century 21 Exposition
Rotary dialing systems were a huge leap forward in phone usability, but by the 1940s, Western Electric was already experimenting with push button dialing. Unfortunately, the hardware was not dependable enough. It would take two decades, and the invention of the transistor, for it to become consumer-ready.
When it was finally ready for prime time, it would make its debut at the Bell Systems pavilion at the Century 21 Exposition (Seattle World’s Fair) in 1962.
At the Exposition, you would not only see and test the new dialing system, but also get to try out the magic of the portable pager or Bellboy. While many of us didn’t get to see this firsthand, the magic of the experience was captured in the short film, Century 21 Calling.
Two years later, at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York, AT&T would bring TV and Telephone together when they demonstrated the Picturephone.
It would be released soon thereafter and flop. But that still didn’t kill people’s dreams of merging TVs and phones. In the late Seventies, Zenith took a shot at it in a novel way, and released the Space Phone.
Zenith Space Phone
No, the Space Phone didn’t let you call people in outer space, and it wasn’t a video phone. Instead, it was a television that acted like a speakerphone with the sound cutting off, but the picture still showing you what you had been watching.
So you could receive and take calls without ever leaving your sofa, talking to Nana while still watching an episode of Magnum PI.
Sadly, the Space Phone didn’t catch on and would quickly be forgotten. Its legacy reduced to the confused look of people who puzzled over the presence of a phone cord attached to old Zenith television sets at garage sales and flea markets.