Why Do We Call It a Telephone 'Jack'?

Why do we call the place where you plug in a telephone a 'jack'? It's kind of strange when you think about it. It doesn't look like a person or the thing you use to prop up a car while you change a tire. It's just a specifically shaped hole. So, how'd it get that name?

I stumbled across the answer to this question in James Gleick's spectacular book, The Information. Here's Gleick's capsule history:

George W. Coy, a telegraph man in New Haven, Connecticut, built the first "switch-board" there, complete with "switch-pins" and "switch-plugs" made from carriage bolts and wire from discarded bustles. He patented it and served as the world's first telephone "operator." With all the making and breaking of connections, switch-pins wore out quickly. An early improvement was a hinged two-inch plate resembling a jackknife: the "jack-knife switch," or as it was soon called, the "jack."

The patent is now available online. It begins, "Be it known that I, George W. Coy, of New Haven, in the county of New Haven and state of Connecticut, have invented a new Improvement in Electric Switches." But the jack-knife switch itself was not invented by Coy. That honor goes to Charles Scribner of the Western Electric Company.

scribner.jpg

We love our tech etymology.


Presented by

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

A Miniature 1950s Utopia

A reclusive artist built this idealized suburb to grapple with his painful childhood memories.

Video

Why Principals Matter

Nadia Lopez didn't think anybody cared about her school. Then the Internet heard her story.

Video

A History of Contraception

In the 16th century, men used linen condoms laced shut with ribbons.

Video

'A Music That Has No End'

In Spain, a flamenco guitarist hustles to make a modest living.

More in Technology

Just In