Call Box History in Cincinnati



The Greater Cincinnati Police Museum

“Preserving the History of Law Enforcement in the Greater Cincinnati Area”





Before Call Boxes


From the beginning of local law enforcement in 1788, and for nine decades, or even longer if one could not afford a telephone, when a crime was committed, the only way for a citizen to get assistance was to scream as loud as they could, “Murder!” or “Thief!”, etc., in the hopes that someone within hearing would respond. While Ohio was a territory, the responder would likely have been a citizen or soldier. Later, after statehood, it would have been a citizen or watchman. And still later, a patrolman.

Failing that, a person would have to run to Fort Washington, or after 1803 the nearest watch-house or police facility to raise the alarm. Then soldiers, watchmen, or patrolmen had to be found to respond on foot. Often a messenger would be dispatched to find the soldiers, watchmen, or patrolmen. The response time was measured in hours.

If the soldier, watchman, or patrolman needed assistance, he also had to call for help. Sometime before 1817, watchmen began carrying large, loud, wooden rattles (an example of this can be found in our HCPA Room) to raise the alarm. But they were too bulky, so they began using their batons to raise alarm by striking any wooden surface (structures or sidewalks) three times. Sometime before 1878, patrolmen were issued whistles for the same purpose and code.

Then, the first responder, having investigated, would respond to the affected headquarters to report the offense and his findings. Information would be passed between facilities by messenger and, when the next shift came to work, the information would be passed on. Suspect information would take up to twelve hours after the offense to be spread to all on-duty personnel.

After Samuel Morse and Alfred Vail invented the Morse code in 1837, another inventor created a mechanism whereby the user would push a button or put a pin in a hole, corresponding with a character, and rotate dial and the mechanism would then telegraph the Morse code for that character. It was called a dial telegraph.


Police and Fire Dial Telegraph

On November 23, 1859, Gamewell and Company of South Carolina petitioned Cincinnati City Council to confer with a committee to introduce their improved dial telegraphic system. They later proposed to install the most complete system in the world, including 85 signal stations, 13 alarm bells, 5 police stations, and 110 miles of wiring, within six months for $60,000 ($2.2 million today). On January 5, 1860, City Council referred it to committee. On November 2, 1860, with trouble brewing between the North and the South, Council tabled the item until their January 1861 meeting. By then, President Lincoln had been elected president and South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Louisiana, Georgia, and Texas had seceded from the Union. The issue of police telegraphs was not discussed again for more than three years.

On May 15, 1863, Council directed the committee to visit St. Louis where the system had been installed. During July 1863, while General John Hunt Morgan was pursuing his famous raid into southern Ohio, they visited Philadelphia and Boston, each city having already installed the system.

City Council published a request for proposal for installing the system. On November 4, 1864, John F. Kennard and Company was selected. Cincinnati tested the system on January 23, 1866, and resolved to have the system toll the bells every day at meridian (12 noon). The system was activated in Cincinnati at 6:00 p.m. on February 7, 1866. By April 14, 1871, the system was handling almost 11,000 messages a year.


Police Dial Telegraph

During January 1872, City Council separated the responsibilities of the Police and Fire Telegraph to the Fire Chief and Police Chief and the City and Suburban Telegraphic Association of Cincinnati was organized for the purpose of erecting private telegraph lines to all parts of the city and suburbs. There was, by definition, a symbiotic relationship between the City of Cincinnati and the City and Suburban Telegraphic Association of Cincinnati (later Cincinnati Bell Telephone).

During January 1873, Mr. Edward C. Armstrong, of the City and Suburban Telegraphic Association of Cincinnati, was named Superintendent of the Police Telegraph. On July 10, 1873, the Police Commissioners met and awarded a contract to Mr. Armstrong and the Association at $2500 per year for up to five years, to put the wires up on poles and repair the instruments at once. By January 1874, the Association erected seventeen miles of poles and almost two hundred miles of wire. They also included Water Works and connections between the Chief Engineer of the Fire Department and engine houses.

Still, there was no way to contact a patrolman except by sending a messenger to find him. Patrolmen did, however, “pull a hook” on the dial telegraphs installed in metal boxes on every second or third street corner. That allowed messengers some knowledge as to where to look. Response times were reduced to an hour or two.

Nor could an officer get help unless he walked or ran to a Dial Telegraph box to enter an emergency code. Later boxes had a keyhole at the top of the box where an officer, or merchant, could insert a key, turn it, and that mechanism would send a message calling for a patrol wagon to respond – which were available after 1880.


Police Telephone Exchange

During 1876, two years after Mr. Armstrong’s police telegraph system was fully installed, Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas A. Watson successfully tested their telephone. On December 4, 1876, they proved its efficacy over a great distance using Eastern Railroad telegraph lines.

Within months, Superintendent of Police Telegraph Armstrong purchased telephone instruments and, on August 15, 1877, successfully experimented with them on the Police Telegraph wires. On August 17, 1877, he installed two between the Grand Opera House and its ticket office. Eleven days later, he installed telephones at his home and at prominent points on Bellevue Heights and gave a free demonstration to the Police Relief Association which were meeting in his home. On September 4th, he used the same setup as a fundraiser for the Association whereby citizens could purchase a ticket to communicate by a telephone set up in the Bellevue Hotel lobby.

During November 1878, the Bell telephone was perfected and added to the machinery of the City and Suburban Telegraphic Association of Cincinnati transforming that organization into the Bell Telephonic Association. The company was a strictly Cincinnati institution with Andrew Erkenbrecker, Esq., President, W. H. Eckert, General Manager, and Edward C. Armstrong, Superintendent. It had already connected Cincinnati, with 600 miles of wire, to Covington, Newport, Mt. Auburn, Clifton, Walnut Hills, Mt. Lookout, Cumminsville, College Hill, and other suburbs.

On February 8, 1879, Thomas A. Watson, General Superintendent of the Bell Telephone Company, and Alexander Graham Bell’s partner when the first telephone message was heard, came to Cincinnati to see how their invention was being put to use.

By September 1879, Armstrong, Superintendent of the Police Telephone Exchange, had connected telephones to the ten stationhouses, the Work-house, residences of Chief of Police and Police Commissioners, and the Bell Exchange. The new telephone system was put into operation on September 13th. On that Saturday, the Bell Telephonic Exchange installed a new and improved switchboard. It was the first Police Telephone exchange in the world. The old telegraphic instruments were “relegated to oblivion.”

Officers could now be told of problems on their beat when they called in each hour, cutting response times in half. And they could call back with suspect information which would be relayed to all other officers when they called in on their hours, reducing that time to two hours.

After a year in operation, the system had been used for 288,012 messages and was still the only police telephone exchange in the world.
Patrol System

During 1881, Mr. Armstrong purchased a patrol wagon to augment his telephone system, creating a Patrol System that was unmatched in the country. By 1883 the Patrol System, with telephones and patrol wagons, was established in every district.
Later, horse-drawn patrol wagons were replaced with motorcycles, motorized patrol wagons, and patrol cars. Radios were placed in vehicles beginning in 1934, but most patrolmen, being on foot, still relied on their hourly updates at the call box, until each officer was issued a radio that hung on their utility belts.

The End of Call Boxes

After 92 years of faithful service, the last call from the last call box in Cincinnati was made by retired Major John Seebohm during May 1971 at East Seventh and Vine Streets.

We have two internal telephone mechanisms on display at the museum. But have never even seen a Dial Telegraph or even an image of one in Cincinnati call boxes.


© 2022 – All rights reserved to LT Stephen R. Kramer RET and the Greater Cincinnati Police Museum