How to Say “Hello”
Designing the Telephone

“Telephone,” as a word, is, of course, related to “telegraph,” an existing technology, which also transmitted signals. The word fragment “tele” is from a Greek word meaning “distance,” and “phone,” also a Greek word, means “sound.” The telegraph, invented in 1837 by Samuel F. B. Morse (1791-1872), transmitted the “Morse Code,” sounds over a wire. If we could project sounds, little blips, over great distances, we could project the human voice. The idea of capturing sound had been around for decades before Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922) presented his new invention premiered at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. The nation was a mere one hundred years away from the Declaration of Independence and the invention of the telephone moved America towards the twentieth century when machines would take over human functions. The early designs for this new transmission device, dedicated to the voice, were modeled upon that of the telegraph: a device mounted on a wooden pedestal. But Bell had other plans for his new invention. From the very beginning, he intended to market the device and Bell and his backers envisioned mass use of the telephone. His company, the American Bell Telephone Company, became the still existing American Telegraph and Telephone Company better known as AT&T. Like it is now, this company gobbled up smaller entities became so all present that it was simply called “Ma Bell,” in honor of the inventor, who was the first to acquire a patent.

Experimental Telephone, Alexander Graham Bell, 1876

By 1877 the first commercial use of the telephone was possible, again, based upon pre-existing technology, the telegraph line. With these lines, telephones, like telegraph machines, could be connected mechanically. At first the wire had to be extended from user to user, but in 1878, the idea of switching via a switchboard among customers allowed the network to expand. This first telephone exchange appeared in New Haven, Connecticut, one that lit up the “operator’s” panel when a customer picked up the phone. The early users were subscribers in this network of other customers. The switchboards were operated by “operators” most of whom were women. At first, the early operators were men but costumers complained that these gentlemen were rude, so, in keeping with client demands, women were brought in for a softer and more polite presence. The early telephone was divided among, not just a speaking unit and a hearing unit, but also activated a disembodied voice, known as the “operator,” whose job it was to connect you to your desired “number.” It would be decades before answering machines would given the client a choice–to “answer” the “call” or not, forcing the caller to identify and verify his or her identity and the reason for calling. “Telephone number” is, of course, a set of numbers, plural, given to individuals. The next step was to eliminate the operator and put the user in charge. In 1891 an enterprising inventor came up with the idea of the dial phone, which gave the individual agency and freed the customers of dependence upon the operator, at least for local calls. The patent belonged to inventor, Almon Brown Strowger, whose success allowed customers to control the telephone they owned. Stronger had his own exchange with 99 phones, conveniently located in his own home town in La Porte, Indiana. In 1896, he sold his patent for $1800. Once a strong rival to the Bell enterprises, Stronger disappeared from history by 1914. The American Bell Telephone Company purchased the patent in 1916 for $2.5 million. In twenty years, the value of all things “telephone” had risen astronomically.

Strowger’s Wall Telephone Unit

But it was also Strowger, a former undertaker,  who invented the dial for the telephone in 1897. Designing the rotary dial, which would turn, was another problem. Strowger’s “dial” had depressions or indentations and rotated only 170 degrees. The inventor created a table top telephone and then a wall unit that, in 1902, finally had holes, an important change in design of the dial. Because the “dialing” was manual, done by hand, the dial had to be a certain convenient size for the human finger. The dial–think of a sundial–was three inches in diameter and was numbered 1-0. When the 1 was dialed, one pulse was sent out, when the 0 was dialed, ten pulses were sent. For the system to work, all phones had to adopt this “dial” and its numbering system. Technology is always a factor in driving and impacting design: we can make only what is possible to make but technology is also an independent force in its own right. It is possible to imagine a flying car, but we can only manufacture cars that look as if they are flying. In comparison, the technology of the telephone has developed far more swiftly than that of the automobile, but this leap forward was linked to the public adoption of the home computer. however, the telephone already possessed the seed of its own evolution: the concept of “combination.” We can measure the significance of the change from a mode of communication that combined only a few functions to an instrument of communication that combines voice, text, images, books, websites, countless “apps,” and movies, not to mention, talking and listening, cultural remnants of the first functions of the telephone.

 In 1911, the telephone had been around long enough to have its historian. The History of the Telephone by Herbert Newton Casson, began by stating that: “Twenty-five short years and presto! the newborn art of telphony is fullgrown. Three million telephones are now scattered abroad in foreign countries, and seven millions are massed here, in the land of its birth. So entirely has the telephone outgrown the ridicule with which, as many people can well remember, it was first received, that it is now in most places taken for granted, as though it were a part of the natural phenomena of this planet.” Just as the innovation of the dial meant that the design of the telephone had to be altered, the decision to make the telephone available to the public necessitated a device that would fit into any home. The design evolution of the telephone towards the phone is one of condensation of functions into one unit. The first telephones for the home were tall, as if to take up the least possible space. The design was referred to as a “candle.” The “candlestick” of the telephone was a stand for the speaking tube, a small version of earlier voice projection units available for those with hearing impairments. When dialing became available, the dial was simply embedded or mounted on the base, without interrupting the candlestick form. A “hook” on the side of the shaft combined two important functions. First, it provided a place for the listening device, another funnel, to rest, and second, when holding the device, the telephone was “off” and was on or “answered” when the user “picked up.” If the listening device was not replaced, it was “off the hook” and the line remained illegitimately engaged. Taking the telephone “off the hook” was a simple way of not allowing calls to come through. Today, long after these telephones have disappeared, the phrase “off the hook” is still extant and has migrated to mean outlandish behavior, an extension of the original thought.

Straight-Shaft Dial Candlestick Automatic Electric  (1921)

The telephone generated its own language. The terminology implied that the telephone “called” the customer, as one human would call out to anther. The user received a telephone “call,” which had to be “answered.” I use the words “had to be” deliberately, for the “call” of the telephone, its insistent ringing, was as imperative as a child calling its parent. For years, there would be many a tale depending upon the social demand that the “call” be “answered.” The wrong number, the overhearing of shocking information on a “party” or shared line, the obscene phone call, the anonymous threat delivered by a phone–all these scenarios appeared in books and films and all depended upon the one who answered being unable to hang up. In fact, the very word “compel” contains a root linked to “call,” and the telephone call swiftly developed an entire body of behavior based upon compulsory human behavior.

Lars Magnus Ericsson. The Skeleton Type Telephone (1892)

By the 1920s, the “hook” migrated to the top of the telephone which changed its shape from a candle to a more squat triangle. The based widened to accommodate the dial  which might have made the stick shape unbalanced. The horn like hooks, shaped like the rockers on a baby’s cradle, now “cradled” the new element–the “receiver.” The receiver combined speaking and listening. This hand-held device had two cups, one at the top for hearing and one at the bottom for speaking, mirroring the functions of the face: ears at top and mouth at bottom. Another innovation was the coiled cord which could be stretched, giving the user some mobility, compared to the static cord of the older models which reined in the talker. The “receiver” resting horizontally was a Swedish invention by Lars Magnus Ericsson. According to the Ericsson website, “The breakthrough for the model, however, came in 1892 when it was equipped with a horizontal telephone handset on a hook. Although the handset was not a Swedish invention, Ericsson quickly became the handset’s leading color-bearer, and the model from 1892 set the standard for all 20th-century variants of desk telephones with horizontal headsets. From a design standpoint, it can be considered as the inspiration for all landline telephones.”

Henry Dreyfuss. Western Electric Model 302 thermoplastic case and an F1 handset

It was not until 1937 that the modern telephone was designed. To put the concept of “modern design” another way, this new design made all of its predecessors look “old fashioned.” Compared to the first telephones, which separated the hearing and the speaking components, the new model for the telephone, created by Henry Dreyfuss (1904-1972), followed pre-established design modification. The Model 302, crafted by Dreyfuss, was suspiciously like the 1931 design by Jean Heiberg and Johan Christian Bjerknes for the Swedish company, Ericsson. Apparently, Dreyfuss recognized and admired the alterations taken by Heilberg, the better-known artist. The telephone now mirrored the idea of “combining” with its design. Previously, the telephone had been divided between base and receiver which were visually separated. The new 1930s models were more coherent in that the design was compact, bringing the base and receiver into a visual balance. The Model 302 by Dreyfuss mimicked the Swedish model with the square base, which was made into a distinct but diminished element, acting as a jumping off point for the upward sweep of the now very substantial base. The base had the aerodynamic swooping curves at the corners, suggesting a take off, like an airplane. The receiver was therefore able to tuck into these concave curves and be no wider than the low square base. The large rotary dial was moved up, emphasizing the sense of ascension, lifting the eye towards the receiver, which will, in turn, would be raised. The segment that was hand held combined both functions in one “receiver,” which took in sound and emitted sound. The Dreyfuss telephone also had a base upon which the dial is affixed. This rotary dial, like the sweeping dial of a watch—again a term taken from pre-existing technology—could be rotated, just like the sun casts a shadow that moves around the “sun” dial. The user stuck a finger into one of the ten openings to spin the dial, an action called “dialing the phone,” to an end point, a terminus, where the number registered, all without an “operator” as an intermediary.

The Dreyfuss telephone receiver was large enough to be cradled comfortably between the lowered ear and the raised shoulder, allowing for hands free talking and listening. Today, phones can be hands free thanks to tiny earphone which can be inserted into the ear. Therefore the small, sleek and transportable hand-held “phone” has created new gestures from “texting with thumbs” to “swiping” from screen to screen with the flick of the finger, movements that ten years ago would have seemed as strange as holding a receiver with a shoulder would have seemed in the 1900s.The Dreyfuss telephone was tethered to its location by a cord and it is doubtful if either the designers or the users could have imagined a portable phone, unless of course you were Dick Tracy.

Communications expert, Charlene Giannetti, compared her Apple watch to the Dick Tracy watch: True to Dick Tracy form, the Apple Watch can make and receive calls. The first time it pinged with someone calling, I easily transferred the call to my iPhone. I could have been a real detective and talked through the watch, but since I was in a public place, I didn’t want the person on the other end of the line to be heard without informing him beforehand.

Dreyfuss applied a new approach to being a designer to what was now called “industrial design.” Part of a new breed of designers working for corporations and businesses that produced products, he was interested in how consumers actually used the telephone and how the telephone worked under actual everyday circumstances. He was inspired by the ground-breaking work of Lillian Gilbreth, who studied the daily activities of those who lived at home. Today, her pioneering work as an efficiency expert in time and motion studies is largely forgotten and she is better known as the author of Cheaper by the Dozen. Her husband Frank followed in the footsteps of Frederick Taylor by examining the motions of workers doing certain tasks during a specific time span. Somewhere in between raising their dozen children, the couple developed a new mode of studying and evaluating the process of labor. These new time and motion studies, an extension of Taylorism, studied how people performed with the hope of improving efficiency, by bringing in the new field of psychology or human behavior. Not only do time and motion studies reduce stress on the body and hence injuries but there is also an application towards doing a task to the best of one’s ability and deriving satisfaction from doing the job well. Dreyfuss actually posed as a telephone repair person in order to interact with actual customers and understand the role of the instrument in their lives. 

Model 302

On one hand the design of the 302 was based upon the shape of the human face and the function of the human hand and on the other hand the shape was driven by technological needs. The Model 302 packed so much technology, largely associated with the mechanism of the dial that the new telephone needed a larger base. The challenge was to incorporate the internals of the telephone inside the base and yet keep the base from looking too bulky. Dreyfuss solved his problem by turning what is an overall square, when the receiver is included, into a dominant triangle. The triangular shape of the base was achieved by the curved sides, which diminish the look of weightiness, while allowing the base to achieve needed stability. The receiver was designed after exhaustive studies on the distance between the ear and the mouth, based on average of American faces. The handle had to be narrow enough for women to grasp and wide enough for men to hold comfortably. Once again, measurements of male and female hands had to be made in order to find the median of comfort and utility for the users. For decades, the Dreyfuss model was the “telephone” that most Americans used. It was the design that immediately come to mind when the word “telephone” was mentioned. Its basic concepts, balanced design that unified the product visually into once compact unit, were retained, regardless of modifications and different versions. From the Princess phone of 1959 to the small computer-phone in your pocket today, all modern telephones are based upon the insights of Henry Dreyfuss: study the consumer, observe the consumer and design the most compact and self-effacing solution possible. It was he who brought together the ideas of combination and compact and consumer and designed a telephone as one harmonious package called the Model 302. Eighty years later, we are still talking on a Dreyfuss design idea.



If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
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