They connected people for decades, and then technology changed everything. Read about the phone booth’s history from invention, to urban relic to a modern rebirth.
The Early Years of the Telephone
To understand how the phone booth came to be, it is important to follow the invention of the telephone as their paths are inextricably linked.
Amazingly, both Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray submitted independent patent applications for the telephone on the same day in February of 1876. However, it was Alexander Graham Bell who was granted a US patent for the telephone about a month later on March 7th.
In its early days, the telephone was a costly and privileged service, reserved for those who were relatively affluent. As it became more well-known, there was increasing demand for access to this technological breakthrough.
Two years later in 1878, the first publicly available telephone connections or exchanges were made by Thomas Doolittle. He repurposed a telegraph wire that was between the towns of Black Rock and Bridgeport Connecticut and installed a telephone on each side. Interestingly, he also put them in small wooden booths to help create privacy. An attendant would be present to collect money and people paid 15 cents (equivalent to about $4.50 today) to make a call. This could be viewed as the first public payphone AND phone booth as is alluded to in the records of Connecticut Pioneers in Telephony.
The Private Phone Booth is Invented
In January of 1881, it was reported that the first telephone box, named the "Fernsprech Kiosk," made its debut at Potsdamer Platz, a public plaza in Berlin, Germany. This telephone kiosk required users to purchase paper tickets to access a few minutes of talk time.
Two years later in 1883, came the invention of what was called a “telephone cabinet”. It was quite a fancy booth that measured about five by four feet and included a desk, and wheels in order to move it from place to place. They were often found in exclusive locations like hotels as a luxury amenity and not made available to everyone.
In 1889, the issue of public phone accessibility was resolved through the installation of the first coin-operated phone within a bank in Hartford, Connecticut, marking the inception of public telephones. There is no proof that it was located in an enclosed booth but it was an important step in the history of how payphones and booths became linked.
William Gray originally came up with the idea for this telephone pay station the year before in 1888 when his wife was ill and he wanted to take her to the doctor. He was not able to get access to a phone without a subscription and the whole experience motivated him to find a solution. He started the Gray Telephone Pay Station Company and in 1889, he was granted a patent for his invention.
After this, the telephone quickly became both a household and business necessity. Gray’s coin-operated phones were adopted by phone companies. Soon after their introduction, thousands of these public coin-operated telephones quickly proliferated throughout New York City alone. After rounds of improvements with his payphones, Gray founded Western Electric which became the manufacturing division for AT&T in 1911.
A Key Moment for Telephone Booths
In 1905, on a street in Cincinnati, the first outdoor coin payphone was installed. Without walls or partitions around it for privacy or protection from the elements, it was not very popular. There was a need for a better solution and this was when outdoor phone booths began to appear. At first, they were built out of wood and came in a variety of different designs.
One that caught on was “The ‘French’ Folding Door Telephone Booth" which could easily be opened by pulling on the handle. The manufacturers at that time touted the “Economy of Space” and even how the door offered “Perfect Ventilation”.
While outdoor wood booths were attractive and quite functional, they were hard to maintain as the sun, wind and rain took a toll on them. They would also get damaged quite easily which also made them expensive to maintain. It would take a rethinking of the construction before this phenomenon would fully catch on.
Origins of the Iconic British red telephone box
Across the pond, in 1920 the United Kingdom Post Office created the UK’s first payphone booth out of concrete which was dubbed “Kiosk No.1”. The design did not inspire so in 1924, a competition was held to design a new kiosk, giving birth to the iconic red telephone box. The Royal Fine Art Commission played a pivotal role in selecting the new British standard kiosk, and in 1926, the K2 “Kiosk No.2” model was introduced in London and its surroundings.
Over time, subsequent designs including the popular K6 model, followed a similar aesthetic but with another two rows of windows for better visibility. This version was also called the “Jubilee kiosk”, as it was unveiled for King George V’s silver jubilee in 1935. With more for efficient mass production, these telephone boxes quickly became a ubiquitous feature in nearly every town and village across the UK, with an estimated 35,000 of them installed by 1940.
The red telephone box has become an iconic symbol in British pop culture, making appearances in various music videos, album covers, and films. This has helped preserve its timeless charm and it is still regarded as one of Britain’s top 10 design icons.
Outdoor Phone Booths Pop Up Everywhere
Learning from the impressive mass production of “red telephone boxes” in the UK, the United States had a dramatic profileration of phone booths during the 1950s when aluminum replaced wood as the favored construction material. With their sleek glass doors and easy-to-maintain aluminum walls, these booths started to become an expected feature of the urban landscape becoming an iconic symbol of modernity and communication.
With post-war optimism and a growing emphasis on convenience and accessibility, these structures began to dot urban landscapes across the United States and other parts of the world. The glass door phone booth not only offered a sense of privacy for individuals making phone calls but also showcased technological progress and social advancement. As telephone usage expanded rapidly, especially in bustling cities, these phone booths provided a reliable means of connecting with others, be it for business or personal matters.
Its transparent design not only exuded a sense of openness but also symbolized a society that valued transparency and communication. Even today, the nostalgia for these retro glass door phone booths continues to evoke a sense of charm and admiration for a time when communication technology was in its infancy.
The Invention of Mobile Phones & Fall of Payphones
In 1973, John F. Mitchell and Martin Cooper of Motorola invented the first handheld cellular mobile phone, however, it wasn’t until the 1990s and early 2000s that cell phone usage became widespread.
The convenience and portability offered by cell phones over time rendered the need for payphones obsolete, consigning them to a nostalgic chapter in the history of communication technology. During the early 2000s, all major phone companies withdrew from the payphone market leaving phone booths without a purpose.
A New Era For Phone Booths
During the 2010s, companies like Framery Acoustics in Finland, and TalkBox Booth in the USA embarked on the transformation of the phone booth concept into modern privacy booths. The need for sound privacy and focus while conducting business was the catalyst for this innovation and many new phone booth companies followed. As a result, a new industry was born as privacy booths have now become ideal private workspaces for offices, public facilities, and noisy spaces.
More Evolution into Larger Spaces
The modern phone booth for single users has also evolved into larger "meeting pods” for multiple people. These enclosed booths have become a solution for businesses with open floor plan offices, offering a harmonious balance between collaborative spaces and privacy. In the bustling and dynamic environments of today's workplaces, these enclosed structures provide dedicated areas for team discussions, brainstorming sessions, and confidential meetings, free from distractions and noise prevalent in open layouts.
By facilitating focused interactions and fostering a sense of belonging, meeting pods enhance communication and creativity among employees, ultimately improving overall productivity and job satisfaction. Their versatile designs, equipped with modern technology and comfortable amenities, empower teams to engage in efficient problem-solving and decision-making, making meeting pods an essential asset for businesses striving to optimize their open office environments.
Ross Shell, Founder & CEO of TalkBox, observes: “It’s remarkable how many use cases we see from our customer base and how many industries now value and use our products. While of course, TalkBox is fundamentally a phone booth, it’s also so much more in terms of what it helps people accomplish spanning solo work to our meeting pods. As work evolves, spanning traditional office to working remotely or working from anywhere, and further, as human/AI work and chatting becomes commonplace—the modern incarnation of the phone booth finds itself once again productively intertwined in the fluid, practical needs of modern work and life. And looking back to the phone booths of the past, how exciting it is to see how far things have evolved in terms of features, lighting, comfort, and self-cleaning disinfecting.”