Art News & Views

The Bell Telephone


by Anurima Sen

Graham Bell's greatest insight, as recorded in the year 1878 during a trip to England, was his vision of the “grand system” of introducing the telephone to the public- eventually known as the Bell System. This occurred at a time when most were cynical regarding the commercial potential of the telephone-until Bell came upon the idea of the analog, or sending an “undulatory” current. This novel idea coupled with the skill of those at the Western Electric Company enabled the realization of Bell's dream. By 1879 there was a tremendous growth in demand for telephone service. This article will seek to throw light upon certain early American Bell-telephone sets that are deemed invaluable by collectors all over the world.

The “Coffin” telephone was manufactured in 1878 by Charles Williams, and perfected by the year 1880. It was the first instrument to embody most of the features of what is considered a complete telephone set: a magneto generator and biased ringer, a switch, a lightning arrester and a receiver. They were also made with twin wooden receivers for the National Bell Telephone Co. Soon after, the Blake Transmitter set entered the competition- the transmitter battery in such a set is located in the set itself, hence it is also called a “local battery” telephone. This set was known for its good sensitivity but it required a careful adjustment for such a performance. Once telephone technology itself had improved, there was seen an inclination towards more over-elaborate, imposing instruments. In 1882 the “cabinet set” was also introduced for toll use. The Gilliland Cabinet Wall Set is an example of these decorated items, often done up in styles such as the “Renaissance Style” (1880). On June 17 of 1880, Thomas Watson applied for a patent on the first desk telephone. And the first desk stand, the only one of its kind, was made in 1886- in the same year that the “Long Distance” transmitter was introduced.

It is during the following era, that of the Victorians, that the technology relating to Bell Telephones vastly improved. The beginning of the 1890s saw major development in the transmission characteristics of Western Electric telephone sets. The first achievement was the “solid-back” transmitter in 1890 and the second was the invention of the bridging circuit by Carty. Thus, apparatus and circuits enhanced vastly and in 1891 the standard Bell Telephone design, incorporating the bridging circuit and the Solid Back transmitter, was introduced as the No.4 Subscriber Set. It featured a generator with an extra large gear wheel, internal adjustments for the ringer gongs, and a new style of larger “Bridging” binding posts. However, the No. 21 subscriber set soon replaced No.4, which was in turn replaced by the No. 240 set. The new set contained the induction coil in the box and was used with the small hollow arm transmitter and large glass wet battery. The most remarkable set that appeared in 1907 was the No. 317. It flaunted a “single-box” style and was released in golden oak. They particularly used dry batteries, which were smaller and better performers than wet batteries. Another notable feature was its design: it had a cathedral top and picture-frame front. Its ornate style harked back to the previous age of wall-telephones. Such embellishments soon became a thing of the past with the dawning of standardization of design and focus on technological improvement. The surfacing of a transmitter which would work in any position was the technological leap necessary for the adoption of desk telephone as standard subscriber equipment, and thus during the decade following White's invention, the “candlestick” desk telephone underwent its utmost period of experimentation and improvement. By 1904, the desk stand had become more or less standard- and it was manufactured until 1940.

It was in 1892 that Western Electric introduced the code No.1, No.2 and No.3 desk telephones- all made available for general subscribers. The first two were intended for Speaking Tube service and all three stands were constructed with small spun sheet brass bases fitted over a heavy iron casting for stability. While No.1 and No.3 heralded back to Watson's first desk telephone design, No.2 stands apart because of its simpler and less expensive tubular support. This was adopted later by all desk sets post 1903. The No.3 “potbelly” desk stand is also regarded as a valuable collectible: it has a narrow base with “octopus” cord wires emerging from the top of the transmitter shaft, and a woven five conductor octopus cord. The narrow base often caused stability problems, and it was soon replaced by the No.3A which had a much wider base.

In 1893, the Wisconsin Telephone Co. designed the revolutionary “Wisconsin” set. It had fully enclosed switch hook spring contacts, a simple straight tubular support of hard rubber, and a felt pad on the base cover, a switching mechanism removable as a unit, and a cutout button on the lower portion of the handle. This set was not adopted as a standard model; however, many of its features were incorporated into later sets. Prior to 1907 the Pacific Telephone Co. and the Missouri & Kansas Telephone Co. developed their own versions of desk telephones. However, in such cases, the transmitter, receiver and induction coil were made by Western Electric and leased by American Bell to these operating companies. Examples include the San Francisco style “potbelly” desk stand made for the Pacific Telephone Co. by the California Electric Works in 1897, and the unique “one piece” desk stands made in the New York shops of the New York Telephone Co. in 1898.

In the 1890s the demand for elaborately designed Cabinet Wall Sets escalated and they became the centerpieces in many households. Available in oak and cherry, they were usually priced at about $70 in the mid 1890s. The available models were either rigid or “folding”- the latter could be dissembled while traveling or relocating. Another development during this era was the “Factory and Hotel” Speaking Tube unit. They were rather modest sets which were encased in wood and used battery signaling.

Post 1907, the drive for standardization of equipment led to the end of an era of diversity in telephone designs. Thus, wall sets became much more compact and simplified- the elaborate wood cases slowly disappeared and were replaced by magneto wall sets. As for desk sets, in 1903 the 20 type set had been introduced which more or less remained the standard model till the discontinuation of desk stands in 1940. An advertisement for a desk-stand by the American Telephone and Telegraph Co. during this time refers to the telephone as a “modern miracle”, which it indeed was because of the focus on technological advancement. The dial telephone and its accompanying automatic switching equipment was developed and deployed by the Automatic Electric Co. in around 1905. The Bell Co. recognized its potential much later, and it manufactured the No.1 dial in 1919. This was shortly followed by the No.2 dial and both of them were intended for 50 series desk stands and 533 type wall sets.

Closely following Europe, the handset telephone emerged in America in the 1930s. The B1, the first integrally designed Bell handset telephone, appeared in late 1927. Prominent examples are the Western Electric B1 type round base handset telephone in 1930, the 1928 B1A handset in “Bell Black”, the 1929 B1A handset in “Old Brass” and so on. It was the popularity of these handsets that motivated Bell to explore a wider gamut of colours apart from the initial metallic colours. The selected colours were ivory, gray-green, old rose, Pekin Red and dark blue. However, the manufacture of such vibrant cradle-phone sets were delayed as Depression set in: as a result, the standardized basic black equipment remained a favourite with the subscribers. This black finish was termed a “rubber finish Japan”- the baked-on coating interestingly contained no rubber! During this time, the B1 set was redesigned to incorporate an elongated cast aluminum base. The appearance became smoother as the dial recessed into the housing.

Finally, one needs to take a look at the next development that occurred in 1931: the “combined telephone” or the 302- an instrument that quite resembles the kind of phones that we use today. This design ensured that the box on the wall (containing the ringing apparatus) was eliminated, thus, marking a revolutionary step in this field. Examples include the WE 302 type set with F1 handset and short cradle ears (1937), the 302 set in colours such as Rose Pink and Pekin Red (1947), the Clear 302 type set (1949), the Two-tone 302 set (1953) and the Chrome 302 set which was originally issued for telephone company executives.

The importance of the era of Bell telephones can be best summed up by quoting an old advertisement by the American Telephone and Telegraph Co.: “Its daily use is a habit of millions of people. It speeds and eases and simplifies living. It extends the range of your own personality… You cannot reckon fully the worth of so useful and universal a thing as the telephone. You can only know that its value may be infinite.”

Tags: collectibles

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art etc. news & views is a monthly magazine published from India in order to promote art and culture. It intends to raise awareness about art all around India and the world. The magazine covers art exhibitions, auction highlights, market trends, art happenings besides Antique, Collectibles, Fashion, Jewellery, Vintage, Furniture, Film, Music and Culture.