Why Do We Call It a Telephone 'Jack'?

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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.

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We love our tech etymology.


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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer calls Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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