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Alberta's Telephone Heritage
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Don TaylorIn 1899, the first pay phone in Alberta was introduced in Edmonton. A simple metal box was attached to the top of the telephone, and a nickel was deposited into it through a thin slot. It was the operator’s job to listen closely on the other end of the line for a faint sound resembling a nickel dropping into a box. Should any question arise regarding the authenticity of the sound, the customer was always right. The first payphones appeared in stores and other public places. The Edmonton version was located in K.W. McKenzie’s bookstore.

The pay phones were situated in booths because callers had to speak loudly to be heard through the early equipment. The tradition of placing public phones in booths has lived on to this day.

Businesses with a pay phone on the premises had to guarantee $5 in revenue for the telephone company. If there was a shortfall, the business had to make up the difference. If the pay phones did not attract enough business, they were removed.

The first phones capable of functioning in the cold of an Alberta winter arrived in 1950. At that time, few stores and public offices were open late at night, so pay phones were not accessible after closing time. Emergency call boxes, which had no dials to freeze up, allowed people to contact the fire and police departments in the event of an emergency.

In the 1960s, half the pay phones were in outdoor booths. Rotary dials were never trouble-free in outdoor locations; during the winter, the mechanical components would freeze up. The touch-button telephones that replaced them contained circuit boards, which worked in all temperatures.

When the 911 emergency number was introduced in 1969, callers could ring for help on a pay phone without needing a coin. Prior to that, a coin was required to place the call, and the coin was then refunded. Without change in your pocket, you could not call for help.

Pay phones that could be used with phone cards or credit cards were introduced in the 1990s. The older models requiring coins can still be found in some locations today.

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