Since at least the beginning of the 21st century, if you asked most people to describe a “phone,” they’d probably describe a small, one-piece rectangle that can be held in the palm of the hand. We call such devices cell phones. But in 1949, when Hugo Blomberg, Ralph Lysell, and Gösta Thames were tasked by their employer, L.M. Ericcson of Sweden, to design a next-generation telephone, the communications paradigm of the day was a heavy box that sat on a table and included a built-in cradle for a second bulky piece, a handset with a transmitter at one end and a receiver at the other.
As designed, these two-piece telephones worked just fine, and no one expected the handset not to be tethered to the box by a thick cord. In fact, the Bell System’s Model 302 had been in production largely unchanged since 1937, and would remain so until 1958 when it was finally retired for the Model 500, which was only slightly more stylish than its Henry Dreyfuss-designed predecessor. But the Ericsson team was asked to come up with something completely different, a phone that would take advantage of recent reductions in the weight of materials and size of internal components. The age of the one-piece Ericofon was at hand.
Their solution, which debuted in Sweden in 1954, was initially marketed to institutions, particularly hospitals, which installed the phones in the rooms of bedridden patients—the idea was that it would be easier for patients to communicate with the outside world using a one-piece phone than a traditional model. To accomplish this feat, Blomberg and his colleagues simply placed the rotary dial of their phone in the enlarged base of the handset, with a “standswitch” in the center that produced a dial tone when the phone was lifted off a flat surface and would hang up when it was returned back down.
Initially the Ericofon, which is sometimes referred to as the Cobra or Kobra, was available in just six colors, but in 1956 when the phone was released to Europe and Australia, the palette expanded, eventually totaling 18 when it finally made its way to the United States, much to the chagrin of the Ma Bell monopoly. Of these, phones in a dark gray called Charcoal, a Kelly green called Accent Green, a pale blue called Nordic Blue, and a burgundy called Royal Dubonnet are the rarest.
In 1961, with sales of the Ericofon in the U.S. exceeding production capacity by 500%, Ericsson bought out its American distributor, North Electric, and transferred the manufacture of U.S. Ericofons to that company’s headquarters in Ohio. The number of colors was reduced from 18 to eight, but the biggest change was the shape of the phone itself, which was now shorter.
At first the angle of these shorter receivers was also changed, from 76 to 65 degrees, but engineers determined that this steeper angle made the phone awkward to use, so the 76-degree angle, or something very close to it, was restored. For collectors, the bottom line to all this is that you can check the height of your phone (232mm versus 213.5mm) and the angle of the receiver to determine if you have what’s called an “old case” or “new case” Ericofon.
Until 1967, all model number 52 Ericofons in the U.S. featured rotary dials in their bases. But in 1967, Ericsson introduced the Ericofon 60A with a push-button, TouchTone pad. It should have been an advance in keeping with the high-tech, space-age look of the Ericofon, but the phones broke easily and by 1972, North Electric stopped making Ericofons in the U.S. entirely. That didn’t stop designers in Sweden from readying a new Ericofon, the 700, for Ericsson’s 100th anniversary in 1976, but the solid-state “Centenary” phone, which came in five colors, never made it to the United States.
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