ELLSWORTH — Since its invention in 1889, the pay phone has had a good, and interesting, run.
It has served as a changing room for superheroes (Superman), a refuge from flocks of frenzied avian predators (“The Birds”) and as part of a deranged treasure hunt (“Dirty Harry”).
It has also, of course, been used to make phone calls — to deliver news of births and fires, to summon doctors and give greetings to faraway friends.
Today, most pay phones and telephone boxes have been relegated to museums and eBay.
“Once the cell phone got to be pretty well established then a lot of them just became not self-supporting,” said David Thompson, a volunteer at the Telephone Museum on Winkaumpaugh Road.
There are a few holdouts in the area, including at least two in Acadia National Park, one at the Ellsworth Public Library and another at the Otis General Store.
“We do it just out of convenience for when people don’t have any points left on their phone,” said Mike Warren, owner of the general store. “It’s not used that often but I have seen it used.”
Warren said his payphone accepts credit cards, rather than coins.
“If anybody needs to call locally we let them use the phone,” Warren said. “If it’s out of state they have to use that one. A woman just called Colorado on it.”
The first coin-operated phone was invented by William Gray, who installed one on a street corner in downtown Hartford, Conn., in 1889. Gray was reportedly inspired to invent the phone after having trouble finding a phone to call the doctor about his ailing wife, according to a 2014 article on Smithsonian.com.
Gray’s invention “came out shortly after the invention of the telephone,” Thompson said. “At that time people couldn’t afford telephones. If you put a telephone over at the general store at least people could walk there and use the phone.”
The first pay phone prototype dinged a small bell when a coin was deposited to alert the operator.
Later designs tripped a lever that flipped a switch and lit the operator’s signal lamp, giving the operator control of the “coin suspension device,” which used magnets to allow the operator to “deposit or refund at will the coins held in the coin suspension device,” according to a Gray Telephone Pay Station Co. catalog from 1912.
Coin chutes were designed as a spiral to prevent coins from sticking inside. The drawers where coins were collected were alarmed with a bell that would alert an operator to “unauthorized persons” trying to access the box.
Gray Telephone Pay Station Co. phones cost between $20 and $45, depending on the model (around $500 to $1,100 today).
Unlike the phone in Hartford, most pay phones were inside (usually in stores or hotels) until World War II, Thompson said. “Around World World II they started putting them outside.”
Every so often, an employee of the phone company was tasked with visiting the boxes and emptying them, Thompson said.
“The coin box would hold about $30,” Thompson said. “Some had to be emptied maybe twice per month. That was the revenue.”
Calls to the fire department, hospital and police were often free.
“Think of the possibilities of these phones in saving life and property,” wrote Gray Co. catalog authors. “They are certainly a public necessity.”
In some instances, pay phones also became a public nuisance used by drug dealers and bookies, and many cities sought to limit where they could be placed. At their peak in the 1990s, there were over 2 million pay phones nationwide, according to a 2001 article in the Allentown (Pa.) Morning Call.
In 2011, Willard Nichols, the president of the American Public Communications Council, which represents independent pay phone operators around the country, told a MarketWatch reporter that “Basically anywhere you can ring up an average of about 100 calls per month, you can be profitable.”
Although pay phones have begun to disappear, phone boxes (often equipped with internet and charging stations) are popping up in offices and airports are the country.
Asked whether the demise of the pay phone heralded a cultural shift, Thompson said he hadn’t given it much thought, although he does not use a cell phone and personally enjoys the freedom.
“When I leave the house I’m out of touch with everybody,” Thompson said. “In between I’ve got 30 minutes of bliss and no phones bothering me.”