History of Call Boxes

Origins of Telecom: History of Call Boxes

Fire and police departments alike were early adopters of technology, using Morse code and telegraphs to communicate, sends alarms, or check in with the dispatch center. After the telephone was invented in 1876, telegraph communications eventually gave way to telephone-based call boxes. You may be familiar with the iconic blue police call boxes in the United Kingdom, but the still exist, take many shapes and forms. Here’s a quick look at the history of call boxes.

Used by Early Police

John Nelson Gamewell’s fire alarm telegraph changed communications for first responders as did the invention of the telephone. In 1877, the first police telephone in the United States was installed in Albany, New York, followed by actual use in Chicago in 1880. In subsequent years, other cities including Washington, DC, Detroit, Boston, and San Francisco installed their own call boxes. These cast iron boxes were typically mounted on posts and scattered throughout the city. Within the box was a telephone with a direct connection to the police station. In some cities, police and fire call boxes shared a post, with the police box painted blue on one side and the firebox painted red on the other.

Interestingly, in the United Kingdom, police boxes took the form of an enclosed kiosk with a door and windows. The telephone could be accessed from the outside while the interior was typically used as a small office by police officers for filling out reports or taking a short break. They could also be used as a mini detention center for detainees while waiting for a paddy wagon to arrive. Typical equipment housed inside the police boxes included first aid kits, fire extinguishers, and incident books.

Although police officers used the boxes to check in with dispatch. Boxes equipped with lights could alert patrol officers that they needed to call in for messages. The general public could also use police boxes to report crimes or request emergency assistance. For example, some call boxes used a series of predetermined telegraph signals for different situations such as “thieves,” “accident,” “murder” and so forth.

Modern Police Usage

Boxes continue to have their place in today’s world. California, for example, has 15,000 highway call boxes lining about 6,300 miles of highways and generating more than 100,000 phone calls per month. Bridge phones, which typically have a direct line to a crisis call center or suicide prevention hotline, have been installed on bridges with high suicide rates in an attempt to prevent suicide. Radio and mobile telecommunications have rendered traditional police boxes largely obsolete.

In summary, on college campuses across the country, you’ll find a modern version of the police call box in parking lots and other crime-prone areas. These are high tech, smart call boxes complete with two-way communications, security cameras, location mapping and more.