Hello? A Visual History of the Phone
By Tom Vanderbilt, Slate, 1 June 2012.
By Tom Vanderbilt, Slate, 1 June 2012.
1. Bell Telephone (1876)
The foundational phone - Alexander Graham Bell’s “speaking telephone,” exhibited at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia - was less a product than a lab experiment in a box: A needle transmitting, via sulphuric acid, the vibrations of the voice to an electromagnetic receiver. Apart from looking of its age - you catch a whiff of Victorian steampunk here - there’s little to indicate what it does (Bell’s own patent referred to “improvements in telegraphy”). The flared tubular column could be a speaking tube, or it could be the megaphone of some new-fangled Victrola.
2. Phones From the 1890s
The myriad phones that followed in the late 19th century reflected rapidly changing technology. Telephones went from table-top boxes to wall-mounted “coffin” units - the name deriving from their rectangular, wooden form - with two bells at the top, a speaking diaphragm at the bottom, a hook-mounted receiver on one side, and a crank on the other to ring up the operator. Another key change was adding a separate listening instrument (previously, callers had to listen and talk via the same device). Toward the turn of the century, some manufacturer even built elaborate telephone “vanities,” large desks purpose-built for conversation.
3. Strowger Candlestick Phone (1905)
As the phone became a staple of business life, it quite naturally migrated from the wall to the desk. The phone was no longer something you went to, it was an ever-present accessory. The “upright desk set,” or so-called candlestick models, were made of nickel-plating and Bakelite, often with porcelain mouthpieces (the material was thought to be more germ-resistant). Gradually, candlestick phones began to feature dials - a feature made possible only by the invention of automatic switching systems by a Kansas City undertaker named Almon Strowger. (As the creation myth has it, he was upset that the local switchboard girls were redirecting business to a competitor).
4. Phones Onscreen
In a 1933 memorandum, an executive, referring to the marble used in the company’s New York City headquarters, asked his assistant director of “apparatus development” if a marble telephone could be made, as a higher-end positional good for captains of industry. As communications scholar Janin Hadlaw notes, what makes this memo so quaintly striking is the notion of a telephone as a craft object. “In North America today,” she writes, “the telephone-object remains the embodiment of the modern ideal of form as function - its appearance so logical, so admirably suited to its purpose that it somehow leaves one at a loss to imagine alternatives.”
5. Western Electric 302 (1937)
AT&T - which had a monopolistic grip on the phone system, from lines to phones, during much of the century - never had its manufacturing arm Western Electric build the marble telephone; instead the company’s future lay in the competition-winning entry of famed industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss. The 302, released in 1937, represented the most thoroughgoing design treatment the telephone had ever received. No consideration was too small; as Phil Patton notes in Made in U.S.A., the 300 was the outgrowth of “exactly 2,240.5 hours of model making, testing, and refinement, of grappling with the receiver-off-the-hook problem and, always, of attempting to make the device lower and more compact.” The 302 (collectors call it the “Lucy phone” for its routine appearance in I Love Lucy) is what most of us would recognize as the first “modern” telephone: The ringer is in the phone (not in a separate box), the cradle is horizontal, one speaks and listens into the same unit. As with Henry Ford’s Model T, it was essentially available only in black, and for decades was the standard phone - the visual embodiment of AT&T’s monopolistic control over the U.S. phone system.
6. Western Electric 500 (1946)
In 1949, AT&T released an updated Dreyfuss design, the 500, which essentially took the 302’s innards and crafted a more low-slung, rounded shell. (The bland numbering system the company used for its phones also reflected the spirit of an engineering-dominated design department that was essentially free from competition.) One minor change: The letters accompanying each phone digit were moved outside of the dialling “holes,” presumably to be more easily viewed. As J. Siedelman notes, Dreyfuss’ post-war design was still being sold by AT&T as late as 1982. Photo credit link: Model 500 telephone.
7. The Princess (1959)
As Roland Marchand notes in Advertising the American Dream, there had long been an internal struggle at AT&T - whose primary business, after all, was running an infrastructural network, not fashioning consumer goods - over whether the phone could be a focus of consumer desire. Even as the company provided a range of more than 140 switchboard cables for local systems, he notes, it offered only one black desk phone. A coloured phone, he writes, was taken by one executive as a sign of “depravity.” But as the phone became a part of everyday life - appearing in kitchens, bedrooms, and other “female” domains - the company capitulated with its Dreyfuss-designed “Princess” phone, which came in various colours and replaced the traditionally square base with an oval shape.
8. The Trimline (1965)
These trends continued with the HAD-designed Trimline, the last “standard” phone produced by AT&T, which moved the dial to the handset itself. If you are of a certain age, this is the phone you no doubt had in your kitchen, tethered by a long, terminally tangled cord to a privacy seeking teen. It was during the Princess years that the touch-pad was introduced: first nine digits, then 12, with the “*” and “#” reserved for “future” use. In one of those curious aftereffects of previous technology, the word “dial” persists to this day as a verb for the act of making a call.
9. The Deregulated Phone
The 1977 breakup of AT&T revolutionized telephone design, which had been, as Michael Sorkin noted, “sheltered from the vagaries of taste and the manipulations of the marketplace.” The phone was no longer a standardized, leased portal into AT&T’s network; it became an object unto itself, with results that verged on a kind of giddy kitsch, as if people were overcompensating for the long grey-flannel winter. “Today Alexander Graham Bell's invention comes in a menagerie of forms,” the New York Times wrote in 1986, “that include Coca-Cola bottles, toucans, peekaboo Lucite globes and, in the case of the desk-top Versailles phone, with a reproduction Renoir discreetly planted in the number card.”
10. High Design and the Phone
While the design world did address the phone - Michael Graves made a phone that looks, well, like a Michael Graves phone - few of these objects actually considered the phone as something to be held in your hand, or against your face, for long periods of time. There was no ergonomically optimized “Oxo phone.”
11. Cordless Phones
The 1980s brought the death of the cord, which had always connected our talk to a place. The cordless phone now stands as a curious transition point between the landline and cellular, lacking the occasional grace of the former and the true portability of the latter. With few exceptions, like Punkt’s DP 01, cordless-phone design is uniformly dreary: Ungainly “base stations” with antenna and answering machines, gaudily boasting their gigahertz potential, with more superfluous shiny plastic “tech-ness” than an Akihabara close-out bin. What House and Gardenobserved in 1923 about the phone rang no less true in 2012: “Even when painted to harmonize with the surroundings, it strikes a discordant note by the very ungainliness of its lines which no amount if painting and decorating can transform. There is only one thing to do with the telephone - conceal it.”
12. The Motorola DynaTAC (1983)
The phone had long appeared in advertisements in the hands of executives as they sat in their cocoons of power, surveying their empire below, but a new kind of power was typified in the 1987 film Wall Street, in which Michael Douglas’ Gordon Gekko clutches a Motorola DynaTAC 8000X. “Oh, jeez, I wish you could see this,” he tells Bud Fox, as he walks a Hamptons beach, “the lights coming up over the water.” It’s like an advertisement for dominion over place: You can’t be here, but I can, and I’m going to use this wonderful instrument to remind you of that fact. A descendent of Motorola’s walkie-talkie work for the military (and looking like it), the DynaTAC, designed by Rudy Krolopp, came on the market in 1984, at just below $4,000 and 28 ounces.
13. The Motorola StarTAC (1996)
A decade later, Motorola would release the StarTAC, with its oval keys, a display screen (one of the first to feature this), and a novel, soon-to-be-familiar, feature: the clamshell.
14. The Smartphone
In the beginning, when receiving or making a phone call was a rare event, telephones reflected the sense of occasion: They were monuments to telephony itself. In the era of the smartphone, when calling itself has become less favoured than other modes of communication, the “phone” is relegated, on the iPhone, to a mere icon (displaying a hand-set, the type that is rapidly vanishing from our actual life), one of dozens.
15. The iSlab
The iPhone is universally enshrined as a design icon, but what of its design as a phone? It looks no more like something into which you would speak than a portable calculator does, and instead of the intimate caress of the old round ear and mouth pieces, one speaks into the ether and tries to press one’s ear flat against a piece of glass. With the addition of Siri, the iPhone is as much something to be talked at. The sense of distance is further expressed by the lack of a physical keypad (predicted to disappear from mobile telephony completely by 2015).
16. The Future
Interestingly, the iPhone, via Face Time, even hosts that longstanding dream - the video phone. Anticipated in films for almost a century, predicted as the logical way we would all talk, once we could. Yet now that it’s here, the video chat has not changed the way we talk - in fact, hardly anyone does it. Whether it’s because the phone call itself seems to accomplish most of what we need to do when we communicate, or because the addition of the image adds another layer of unwanted social complexity - while not quite replicating the benefits of real face time - the video phone is a technology more anticipated than actually used. For now, anyway.