Call Box History in Cincinnati


The Greater Cincinnati Police Museum

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




The police call box is now a collector’s item and museum piece. However, for nearly a century it was as important to daily police work as the radio is today. The call box met its demise when individual radios became common.

Prior to the call box, urgent information was passed from station house to station house by runners or messengers. Just after the Civil War, in 1866, the Cincinnati Police Department (CPD) adopted a telegraph system that connected police stations and other public locations such as businesses and hospitals. These police telegraphs were housed in large cast iron boxes often mounted on pedestals or poles. Each telegraph had a dial with spaces for every letter of the alphabet and the ten numerals. Messages were sent by turning the dial to one letter, tapping the key, then to the next letter, and so on, until the message was sent. Patrolmen could send messages from the field to their stations without knowing Morse code. A system of bells alerted station house sergeants to incoming messages.

This laborious method was complicated and slow. Within a year, the dial system was simplified. Codes, or signals, using numbers to represent phrases, were instituted. Manuals for the use of the police telegraphs were issued to every station house lieutenant. Interestingly, the signal for calling the station was number 1. Thus, the phrase we still sometimes use today for calling the station, “Signal 1,” is nearly 150 years old!

In 1879, the CPD replaced the telegraph with the telephone. The CPD is recognized as the one of first police departments in the United States to use this brand new technology. It was said at the time that replacing the telegraph with the telephone doubled the efficiency of the police department.

By 1890, 167 call boxes in Cincinnati connected the eight patrol houses to various locations in the city. Patrolmen were required to use the call box to report in to their stations every hour. Each call was marked into a logbook. Every morning, a superintendent of police inspected the log; patrolmen who were late in calling were reprimanded.

The CPD hired five men whose sole duty was to handle calls into and out of the station houses. They worked two, twelve hour reliefs, just as many of our E911 operators and dispatchers work today. Three of the men worked day shift, two worked nights. The operators tracked the workload by logging every call. In 1888, there were 10,605 calls for patrol wagons, 372,445 general messages, and 130,305 calls by officers on beats. A total of 513,355 calls were handled by these five men.

Your Greater Cincinnati Police Museum has several call boxes on display.


Lt. Alan C. March, President, Greater Cincinnati Police Historical Society

Copyright 2010 Greater Cincinnati Police Museu