The decline of the telephone kiosk - Writer's Cramp, 2010-07-07
| THE LAST TELEPHONE BOOTH
Winner of Writer's Cramp, 2021-07-07 "Winner and New Prompt, due July 8 - 2021"
Superman first used a phone booth as a change room back in 1942. "This definitely isn't the most comfortable place in the world in which to switch garments," Clark Kent told his readers with superb grammar, "but I need to change identities--and in a hurry!" It wasn't Supe's favorite spot to swap duds--that was a storeroom at The Daily Planet--but somehow that booth change passed into popular culture.
For most of us, though, the booth was a place for using a public pay phone. It had a door you could close for privacy, with windows that let you know if the booth was occupied (if you were outside) or that there was someone waiting to use the booth (if you were inside). If it hadn't been vandalized, the booth had a light that came on when the door closed, a little shelf to write on, and a phone book. And, of course, a phone that took coins. Most of us checked the coin return for freebies, right?
Alexander Graham Bell patented his first telephone in 1876, and his business (The Telephone Company) grew quickly. The first telephone kiosk (or phone booth, or telephone box, or call box) was installed in Berlin in 1881; at the time, the local telephone network consisted of 48 subscribers. American William Gray is credited with inventing the pay phone in 1889, a device adopted by telephone services throughout the world. For a time, the red or gray public phone booth, bearing the name or logo of the local service, was a common and welcome sight, especially to fictional hard-boiled private eyes jingling pockets full of coins.
These earliest kiosks connected via switchboards, exchanges, and operators. Picking up the phone would open a line to the exchange. From there, operators would use the switchboard to route the call to its destination. Eventually, automated switching systems replaced the "hello girls" in directing calls.
By the 1970s, the once ubiquitous phone booth was beginning to disappear, replaced by open kiosks--simple small boxes or "wings" that provided a modicum of privacy, rain protection, and wind-blocking. Partly, this change was to help make pay telephones more accessible to disabled people; largely, it was to reduce the cost of both installation and replacement from vandalism.
The emergence of the cell phone in the 90s led to further decline in the usefulness of phone booths. In 1990, the number of mobile users was around 11 million, and by 2020, that number had risen to a whopping 2.5 billion. In 2021, the vast majority of Americans, 97%, own a cell phone, with usage even higher in some countries. The need for public phones has almost vanished.
In many countries, the phone box is extinct; in others, it is endangered, with the end clearly in sight.
• In 2004, Jordan became the first country in the world not to have telephone booths; cell phone use there is so high that telephone booths have not been used for years.
• By 2007, all the Finnish telephone companies had shut down their kiosks
• The last phone box in Sweden was removed in 2015.
• In Belgium, the state-run telco Belgacom took the last remaining phone booths out of service on 1 June 2015.
• The last functioning phone box in Norway was taken out of service in June 2016 (though 100 have been preserved and are protected under cultural heritage laws).
• On 13 December 2017 the last three public telephone booths in Denmark were taken down
• The red telephone kiosk, a British icon, may soon be gone from the UK. The telephone company BT is steadily removing them. The blue police phone box, model for Dr. Who's Tardis, is also giving way to two-way radios and mobile phones.
The USA remains staunch and true to the kiosk, but by 2018, there were only an estimated 100,000 public pay phone booths left in the United States, about one fifth of them in New York. By now, there may be only half that number. Eventually, there will be only one left -- the last phone booth in America.
If you are lucky enough to find it... call your mom.