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NYPD Call Box


Forgotten New York | Updated July 9, 2013


If you’ve been around long enough (like you know who) you’ve occasionally seen these metal and glass illuminated boxes mounted on utility poles, like the one in the title card, saying: “Telephone to call police.” As a rule they were lit by two light bulbs. Not too many of them remain around town, but they used to be more frequently found.

In the days before 911, telephones to local police precincts were mounted on lampposts or utility poles around town, and were usually signified by the illuminated signs. These were the equivalents of fire alarms, which until recently were marked by lit cylindrical orange cylinders mounted on lampposts (now, they are marked by small red lights mounted on top of luminaires).

In the 1970s, the phones were mounted in tandem with fire call boxes. I remember Walt Frazier filmed a PSA commercial on how to use these when they first appeared.

Of course, the universality of wireless telephony now makes many of the fire call boxes redundant, and the police phones had mostly disappeared by the late 1960s.

Turns out the Gamewell box seen above is a rarity. I’ve only seen three in the city, and this one was one such. ForgottenFan Al Trojanowicz:

Most alarm boxes in New York are of their own custom designs, and where a mechanical box was converted to ERS, special adapters were made to allow the more modern voice box innards to replace the former inner electro-mechanical box. Of all boxes, finding a Gamewell box on the street was indeed a rarity. In my time I only saw 2 (both in Queens). Like all other box housings, FDNY was able to adapt a Gamewell shell to accept ERS innards.

The odd thing about this hybrid is that atop the box is a noise-making device to call attention when the mechanical box is pulled. I believe these were mechanically linked and tripped when the box was pulled. Also note a sliding cover to allow a key to be inserted to rewind the device. I remember the Newark NJ Fire Dept had these on some boxes, and the local term was “growler”. I don’t know what Gamewell called them.

The really odd thing is that I think it is impossible for the push-button electronic ERS box to trigger this device, thus it is one of the rarest boxes I ever saw in the City. Last time I walked by, it was still there, though its paint badly faded.




Wikipedia | Updated July 9, 2013

The Police box was introduced in the United States in 1877 and was used in the United Kingdom throughout the 20th century from the early 1920s[1]. It is a public telephone kiosk or callbox for the use of members of the police, or for members of the public to contact the police. Unlike an ordinary callbox, its telephone was located behind a hinged door so it could be used from the outside, and the interior of the box was, in effect, a miniature police station for use by police officers to read and fill in reports, take meal breaks and even temporarily hold prisoners until the arrival of transport.

Police boxes predate the era of mobile telecommunications; now members of the British police carry two-way radios and/or mobile phones rather than relying on fixed kiosks.[2]:2 Most boxes are now disused or have been withdrawn from service.

The typical police box contained a telephone linked directly to the local police station, allowing patrolling officers to keep in contact with the station, reporting anything unusual or requesting help if necessary. A light on top of the box would flash to alert an officer that he/she was requested to contact the station.[2]:2 Members of the public could also use the phone to contact a police station in an emergency or, in the case of the Metropolitan Police, for assistance with any matter normally within the purview of the police.[2]:2

Police boxes were usually blue, with the most notable exception being Glasgow, where they were red until the late 1960s.[2]:13 In addition to a telephone, they contained equipment such as an incident book, a fire extinguisher and a first aid kit.[2]:14

The blue police box is often associated with the science fiction television programme Doctor Who, in which the protagonist’s time machine, a TARDIS, is in the shape of a 1960s British police box.[3]


United States
The first police telephone was installed in Albany, New York in 1877, one year after Alexander Graham Bell patented the telephone. Call boxes for use by both police and trusted members of the public were first installed in Chicago in 1880, initially housed in kiosks to protect the inner signal boxes from the weather and to limit access to them so as to discourage false alarms.[4] In 1883 Washington, DC installed its own system; Detroit installed police call boxes in 1884, and in 1885 Boston followed suit.[2]:3 These were direct line telephones usually placed inside a metal box on a post which could often be accessed by a key or breaking a glass panel. In Chicago, the telephones were restricted to police use, but the boxes also contained a dial mechanism which members of the public could use to signal different types of alarms via telegraph: there were 11 signals, including “Police Wagon Required”, “Thieves”, “Forgers”, “Murder”, “Accident”, “Fire” and “Drunkard”.[2]:4


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