Communications: Murphy Call Box

Jeremiah Murphy

In 1887, Police Commissioner J.H. Bradner hired a Western Union lineman named Jeremiah Murphy to work for the police department’s City Signal System. While there, Murphy created a series of innovative systems to help patrolman communicate with their stations and fellow officers.

The first version, which proved to be more experimental than efficient, consisted of 50 “patrol boxes,” two patrol wagons, 21 instruments and 21 miles of wire. Although this first version worked relatively well, the general public complained about the size of the call boxes. At 7 feet tall and 3 feet wide, the call boxes were hazardous to pedestrians. Jerry Murphy continued to work on the design for the next twenty years, finding ways to streamline the call boxes and improve the communication between the patrolman and their stations.

In 1898, the system was described as “one of the best, if not the best, of any department in the United States.  The system “includes a very complete operating room at the Central Station, one complete operating switchboard at the Sixth and Tenth Precincts, six patrol wagons, five patrol stations, four horses at each station, ninety-six instruments, 375 miles of wire, twenty-five miles of underground cable and two Cleveland Telephone wires. The system requires the attention of a Superintendent, three operators, two linemen and thirty Patrolmen, not to mention a corps of hostlers and other stable employees. The three operators and one of the two linemen are Patrolmen.

Horse drawn patrol wagon

In 1907, Jerry Murphy developed his most efficient and successful version of the call box system.  The new call boxes were significantly smaller – still tall, but made of steel and with a base just six inches wide. The boxes were placed on the four corners of each police beat, which meant there was a box on every other street corner.

The call box system relied on Gamewell equipment, seen here at the CPD headquarters on Champlain. Jerry Murphy is seated.
The photograph predates 1926

A large room on the 3rd floor of Central Station was transformed, “a mammoth switchboard, capable of handling the hourly reports of 2,000 men.  The new signal room is a bewildering array of dust proof mahogany cabinets, enclosing polished brass instruments mounted on slate. Every instrument has been designed for simplicity and accuracy.” The calls received from the patrolman were placed into three categories: duty calls, emergency calls and wagon calls.  If the patrolman wanted to “summon assistance a lever in the patrol box will inform the operators by the loud ringing of a bell and the flashing of a red lamp.”

Central Police Station on Payne Avenue, 3rd floor
The call box system relied on Gamewell equipment

The 1907 Murphy Call Box allowed patrolmen to report back to the station, but also provided a way for the stations to communicate quickly with each officer on their beats.  Every policeman in the city could be contacted within thirty minutes, significantly improving response times to major crimes, riots or other disturbances.

Murphy’s call box design received national recognition and soon spread across the country.  In 1928, the year before radio communication was introduced into the CPD, there were 640 call boxes in use. It was possible to still find call boxes on Cleveland’s streets into the 1970s.

Plain Dealer, 5/13/1906
Plain Dealer, 11/15/1907

How it worked

Each call box was numbered and wired to a corresponding Gamewell alarm at Central Station. Each patrolman was required to “ring-in” at specific times. He did that by pulling the lever inside the box, which turned a wheel that sent a coded message via telegraph to the station. 

  • One pull was the signal that the officer was on post and all right.
  • Two pulls meant the officer requested a patrol wagon to transport an arrested person.
  • If necessary, the patrolman could use the telephone within the call box to communicate directly with the station.
Motorcycle policeman checking in

Patrolman used a key to open the door of the call box and access the lever.

Call box in front of Colonial Arcade, 1910
Call box at W. 65th and Detroit

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