On the evening of Nov. 20, 1880, Louisa Gray went into labor in Hartford, Connecticut, and her husband, William, started to panic. More than the typical anxiety of watching a new human venture into the world, William had extra cause for concern. Just four years earlier, he had lost his first wife, Nellie, in childbirth. When Louisa started to experience complications, Gray’s first thought was to head to a local factory. The telephone had come to Hartford two years earlier, and as in most cities at the time, phones were more common in businesses than homes. Phones relied on a subscription model, meaning that people paid an annual fee for the privilege of making calls. This left people like Gray, desperately needing to make a call right now, with few options. William walked to the nearby Spencer and Billings Drop Forge factory, which had the closest phone. But since Gray wasn’t a paid subscriber, it took a long, heated argument (and possibly a bribe) before the factory clerk finally allowed the father-to-be to make a call. A doctor was found, little Elizabeth Gray was born, and both parents were able to welcome her.
A moment of crisis turned into a moment of joy, and also inspiration. Gray was an inventor. In addition to creating a new kind of belt shifter, he also patented a “body protector” for baseball catchers. But Gray’s most innovative and important invention was born alongside his daughter: the payphone. Convinced that anyone should be able to make a call whenever and wherever there was a phone, Gray spent years experimenting with a reliable coin payment system, eventually submitting a patent application in 1888. Soon after he formed the Gray Telephone Pay Station Co., which became the major player in payphone manufacturing for the next 50 years.
Last week, New York City removed its remaining handful of payphones from city sidewalks. Their departure marked the finale of a six-year transformation of the city’s 10,000 payphones into high-tech kiosks, under a project called LinkNYC. Backed by tech big shots like Alphabet and Qualcomm, LinkNYC was the winning entry for a design contest announced in 2012 by then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who sought an innovative reimagining of urban pay phones. In 2016, the city began its rehab program, ripping out payphones and installing Links, each of which includes a Wi-Fi hotspot, charging station, and an anchored tablet for browsing the web and making phone calls.
For the most part, the transformation from aging, decrepit payphones into slick Wi-Fi hotspots will be welcomed, and may even seem inevitable. LinkNYC fulfills a vision of making cities “smart” by grafting digital technologies onto city streets. But before we rush to the payphone’s funeral, it’s worth remembering that before it was an outdated eyesore, this technology shifted everything about how we make phone calls. For more than a century the payphone was a crucial communication tool, a key node in social networks of people, places, and devices. A lifeline of business, news and social ties, payphones allowed people to check in with their bosses from the road, keep friends in the loop with changing plans, and to share news on the fly. Payphones changed relationships to time, allowing people to change plans and be in the know. And they changed relationships to space, turning city streets into portals for communicating with anyone, anywhere.
Payphones embody analogue tech: tethered in place, limited to a single function of making phone calls. Yet that function was critical. The number of payphones peaked at 2.6 million in 1995. By 2018, that number dropped to about 100,000. Even with the continued decline in payphones, there are still more payphones in the country than McDonalds or public libraries. (And if you’re curious where those payphones are, you can use this directory to find—or call—them.)
In the 2000s, major telcom companies like Verizon and Sprint started exiting the payphone game. When you see operational payphones today, they’re run by much smaller companies that can’t afford to keep phones maintained unless they’re being used. Transit hubs and tourist destinations often house payphones for travelers without data plans or whose phones have died. For people who can’t afford or don’t trust cell phones, payphones remain key. Migrants are another frequent payphone user group, because it can be cheaper to make long-distance calls on payphones than with a basic cellphone plan. There are even new phones being added in areas with poor cell reception, where payphones are still very much a lifeline. Want one in your area? The Telecommunications Act of 1996 includes a provision where ordinary people can apply for a payphone to be installed if there’s a local need.
Payphones are also a key resource in jails and prisons, even as they act as yet another form of control and surveillance. Calls are wildly expensive because of sweetheart deals and kickbacks between providers and prison officials, and phone calls are monitored and recorded. Even with these constraints, payphones are a lifeline for the incarcerated, helping to reduce recidivism by allowing people to keep in touch with their families and communities.
For most of us, the value of payphones resurfaces in moments of crisis. When disaster strikes and cell phones fail, payphones suddenly become visible and vital. In New York, payphones were a hot commodity in the wake of 9/11 and 2012’s Hurricane Sandy. This connection between communication and crisis takes us back to the payphone’s roots, because when William Gray first came up with the idea for the payphone in 1880, emergency calls were very much on his mind.
Payphones haven’t always been about coping with disaster—they’ve also been a source of pranking and play. Take phone phreaking, which involved manipulating the multifrequency tones of the international telephone system to place free calls. The golden age of phreaking was in the 1970s, when folks like Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak were selling phreaking starter kits in the University of California-Berkeley dorms. Messing with payphones was its own artform, but it also enabled computer hackers to make free and anonymous dial-up calls. Given his appreciation for necessity driving invention, William Gray would have approved of clever people finding ways to make payphones meet their needs.
Replacing payphones with Links might feel like the inevitable march of technological change. But despite its current reputation as a technological loser, if we take the long view, the payphone has been incredibly successful. Many—perhaps most—technologies fizzle out before they have a chance to change human behavior. Even when telephones stopped being a luxury and became an ordinary part of homes and offices, the payphone coexisted comfortably on city streets, in subway platforms and airports.
Trading up payphones for Links seems like a no-brainer. But we’re not just saying goodbye to an older device; we’re also saying goodbye to a technology that offered a refreshingly straightforward arrangement between users and tech providers. When you make a payphone call, you pay a small fee upfront, and in exchange you get to have a conversation. The call is anonymous, the payphone doesn’t remember you, and while it might display ads, they aren’t tailored to you based on the words used in your phone call. Links are free to use, but they still come with a cost. Like most internet-based platforms and services, Links are poised to hoover up data in order to push ads. Basically, the transition from payphones to Links is about more than swapping out one technology for another; it’s a move that signals a change in priorities around technology access and data privacy.
When Bloomberg announced his call for submissions to reimagine the payphone, New York City housed roughly one-fifth of the country’s remaining payphones. Now that Links are here and phones are gone, we should celebrate the service payphones have provided, and recognize what’s being lost. Payphones are still a lifeline, for certain people, and in certain times and places. And in the bigger picture, perhaps not every technology needs to adapt to new expectations. Maybe it’s enough for a technology to revolutionize communication and remodel city streets, connecting people and places for a century before slowly fading into the background, forgotten but not (quite) gone.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.