William Gray was born in Tariffville, Connecticut, in December of 1850, one of five children of Scottish immigrants Neil and Mary Gray. His father worked as a bridge builder and moved the family to Boston when William was young.
When it came time to think about a profession for William, his father found a position for him at a local drug store, believing that would make a suitable trade for his son. But within a few months, the druggist informed William's father that he was quite mistaken. The young man had paid no attention to his work "he was always down cellar or elsewhere, whittling things out of wood, making models," etc. So a place at a machine shop was instead obtained for William, and this proved much better suited for his aptitude for mechanical work.
After a few years William Gray moved to Hartford and found work as a polisher at a local armory. He proved so expert at this that he soon moved on to Pratt & Whitney, the Hartford firm that had been one of the first to apply the concept of interchangeable parts to the manufacture of precision machinery. Gray became the head of Pratt & Whitney's polishing department and held that position for fifteen years, working closely with company founders Francis Pratt and Amos Whitney.
In this new post, he found plenty of opportunities to indulge his aptitude for tinkering. Dissatisfied with the company's belt shifter, he invented a new one and then sold the Gray belt shifter to Pratt & Whitney for distribution. Not all of his inventions were along that line, however. He was a longtime baseball enthusiast and found time to patent a sand-handle baseball bat, which he sold to A. G. Spalding's sporting goods firm. That invention didn't turn baseball on its head, but he soon came up with one that did.
Charlie Bennett had become the first major league catcher to wear a chest protector in 1883, but designing a piece of equipment that shielded the catcher's torso without hindering his range of motion was a different challenge. William Gray began to work on the problem, and soon used the same principle as the pneumatic bicycle tire to design an inflated, padded protector that shielded the catcher's entire chest and groin area, while still making it relatively easy for him to move around.
Gray once again sold the patent to Spalding, and this idea proved much more successful than his sand-handle bat. Throughout the 1890s, the annual Spalding's Official Base Ball Guide featured full-page ads for "Gray's Patent Body Protector" with this beguiling copy: "We now have the sole agency for this most useful device ever invented for the protection of catchers or umpires. This body protector renders it impossible for the catcher to be injured while playing close to the batter. It is made of [sic] best rubber and inflated with air, and is very light and pliable, and does not interfere in any way with the movement of the wearer, either in running, stooping or throwing. No catcher should be without one of these protectors."
Spalding ads in other publications were blunter, showing a catcher writhing in pain and lecturing, "If only the poor lad had purchased any one of a number of models of Gray's Patented Catcher Protector, now manufactured exclusively by A. G. Spalding and Company, such fate could be avoided." In case that was not enough, one additional benefit was also mentioned: "When not in use the air can be let out, and the protector rolled in a very small space." (Gutman, 192) The ads accomplished their desired intent, as Gray's Patent Body Protector became a top seller despite a hefty ten-dollar price tag.
William Gray, however, moved on to new vistas. The telephone had become part of the American landscape in the mid-1870s and was a common sight in American homes and businesses by the middle of the next decade. But people who were away from their home bases could only place a call if they were lucky enough to find one of the few phone booths with an attendant on hand to collect money.
So Gray set to work and, on April 5, 1888, filed a patent for a telephone that would accept coins. The idea quickly caught on and the Southern New England Telephone Company installed the first coin-operated public phone at a Hartford bank in 1889. Gray continued to tinker with his original idea and file additional patents.
In 1891, he formed the Gray Telephone Pay Station Company and was soon able to leave Pratt & Whitney. The new company soon became one of Hartford's biggest employers, and Gray eventually received a total of twenty-three patents for modifications and improvements to his payphone.
His health began to fail him shortly after the turn of the century and on January 19, 1903, he suffered a paralytic stroke. Five days later, he died at his Hartford home, leaving behind a wife and four children.
William Gray was also survived by the many fruitful products of his fertile imagination. The Gray's Patent Body Protector was still being featured in the annual baseball guides and saving catchers from untold pain and suffering. Coin-operated payphones had also become a mainstay of American life, providing a convenience that has benefited countless travelers.
As for the Gray Telephone Pay Station Company, its possession of a patent on an essential technology made it an extraordinarily profitable company. By 1930, after several stock splits, an original $100 share was worth the equivalent of $12,000. Even the 1929 stock market crash did nothing to slow the company's momentum, as it recorded a profit of almost a million dollars that year and declared two dividends. Over the next few years, however, William Gray's patents began to expire, and the company was bought out by a rival.
Obituary, Hartford Courant, January 26, 1903; Dan Gutman, Banana Bats and Ding-Dong Balls (New York: Macmillan, 1995); "Prosperous Gray," Time, October 27, 1930; censuses and vital records.