Gamewell Call Boxes date back to the 1800s and were probably the
largest supplier of police and fire communicatons devices.
What is a police call box? Before policemen had radios, call boxes
were used throughout the larger cities for communication between
the cop on the beat and the station house. This was done in several
different ways. You could talk on a phone or send a pre-determined
code or in the early models even use Morse code.
The early boxes were designed as a box inside a box. Each box has
a locked hinged door and both the inner and outer boxes were
made entirely of cast iron. They are very heavy. The outer door is
recessed to protect the working parts from the weather. Every thing
about the Gamewell boxes is robust, solid, and built to last. The call
boxes were placed in different locations to ensure that the the beat
officers were never more than a few blocks from a phone . Some
were hung on power line or street lamp posts. Others were
mounted on company designed stands which are very rare.
GAMEWELL EARLY 1900's
BEHIND THE INNER DOOR
When you open the first door on an older call box you would find a
phone, a selector switch, and a crank. (See photo #1). The outer
door locks were all keyed alike so no matter where you were, your
key would work.,The phone would ring directly into a station switch
board, not the phone company. There were also station code
receivers that would print the information sent from the call boxes
automated mechanical functions.
Before I go any further let's talk about the "Citizens Key". The
citizens key option was designed so that individual people,
(usually business or important people), could alert the police at
the station so they would send a policeman to the call box
location. The citizen key would not open the outer door but rather
would fit into a separate key hole, (See photo #2), to a lock
mechanism that when turned on the closed door would engage
the hand crank and send an alert to the station. Once the citizen
key was turned the lock would not allow the key to be removed,
thus reducing the odds of prank calls for help. In order to remove
the key the outer door had to be opened and a lever on the lock
pushed to release the key.
The selector switch on this box allows you to send an alert or
"pull" or send an alert for the "wagon". (See photo #3,) The "pull"
alert, aside from the citizen key function, allowed beat policemen
to send a location alert, I'm OK at box #23. The wagon option meant
that the beat officer had an arrest and needed to transport the
suspect back to the station. Many times officers assigned to walk a
beat were required to make a "pull" on the quarter or half hour at
different locations. This meant that the sergeant in the station
could assume that his beat officer was walking in his assigned
area from end to end.
The inner door requires a separate key and was not normally carried
by the street officer. Inside you find the relays and connections for
the phone as well as the brass works for the automated signal
Notice in photo #2, the brass gears. The smaller gear toward the
center is the code wheel which typically will have the number of
teeth to coincide with the number on the outer brass plate of the
On the back wall of the inner box you will usually find a brass relay
that connects the wiring from the outside to the working electrical
Call boxes are very collectible and are hard to find totally intact.
Many are restored because cities rarely paid attention to the finish
and many of the internal parts, hinges, locks, and gear mechanism
are all brass.
I have several call boxes including one from the City of Detroit that
are very cool. I will be posting photos soon.
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|Detroit Police Call Box
National systems were manufactured in Buffalo, NY. The boxes were
either 3 or 4 function, depending on the options chosen.
The box pictured is a 3 function.
When the door is opened with the flat doublesided key the cop has
access to the system. Lifting the cuffs from the hook closes a set of
contacts that light the Wagon Call function at the switchboard.
On the lower right quadrant of the inner box is a pushbutton. Pushing
the button lit the boxlight at the switchboard to let the desk know the
cop was punching in from that box while walking his beat, and not
The telephone function on this box is fairly self explanitory.
Since the wagon call switch grounds one side of the talkpath, the
hookswitch on the earpiece has to disconnect the ground to eliminate
the need for a seperate talkpath.
The 4 function boxes employed either a solonoid "clunker" or a
buzzer to alert the beatcop walking his beat headquarters wanted to
talk to him. In the timeframe these boxes existed as communication
between the precinct and the beatcop the alerting device could be
well heard for a city block due to much lower ambient noise
conditions than we have today.
The 2 sets of coils in the back of this box are neither a clunker or
buzzer. They are repeater coils that enable and enhance talk on the
Many citys later removed the internal cast iron box containing the
switches and telephone and replaced it with a modern phone in the
60s. This was done because it would be easier for a cop to have
secure communication via phone than the two way radio.
This particular box is 100% functional, with all original wiring inside. It
has been repainted.
Gamewell was just one of a numer of callbox maunufactures.
Here is a National callbox owned by a fellow collector,
Franz Doberman of Hilton, NY.- Very Nice!!!