The Case For Designer Landline Phones

Long before the idea of hot dog-shaped iPhone cases, Otter Boxen, or even those swappable Nokia face plates, people were just as likely to express themselves with their landline phones. Growing up at my house in the 80s, the Slimline on the kitchen wall was hidden inside a magneto wall set from the early 1900s, the front of which swung out to reveal the modern equipment behind it. Back in my bedroom, I had the coolest phone ever, a see-through Unisonic with candy-colored guts. Down in the basement was my favorite extension, tactility-wise: a candy apple-red wall unit with dimly-lit circular push buttons that were springy and spongy and oh-so fun to dial.

Popular culture shows us that people were dreaming of cool telephone enclosures before they were even a thing. Obviously, TV secret agent Maxwell Smart’s shoe phone wasn’t plausible for the technology of that era, but it also wasn’t really feasible for aesthetic reasons. For decades, phone subscribers had to use whatever equipment Ma Bell had to offer, and you couldn’t just buy the things outright at the mall — you had to lease the hardware from her, and pay for the service.

Back when phones still belonged to Ma Bell, she eventually went from the black truncated pyramid of the 1930s desk phone to all kinds of offerings like the princess phone, the Sculptura (or doughnut phone), and the stowaway models which turned the device into either a secret stationery/stationary stash box-looking thing, or a miniature roll-top desk. This landline phone madness all started in 1954, when AT&T released the classic “500” desk phone in five glorious colors: white, beige, green, blue, and pink. But the real freedom came from a ruling in 1975 that opened the doors for all kinds of designs.

A Clear Competitor

And then there was ITT Teleconcepts. This Connecticut-based company were pioneers in the designer telephone arena, taking genuine POTS-worthy guts branded with ITT or Stromberg Carlson or GTE/Automatic Electric and enclosing them in interesting and often transparent forms. Some, like the Chromephone and the Apollo are tamer than others, with basic geometric shapes and shiny accents. Others are pretty wild, and would definitely have looked great when illuminated by say, one of those Greek goddess-imprisoning rain lamps of the same era.

ITT Teleconcepts designed many different types of custom phone, some of which were pretty far out — you might remember me talking on Hackaday Podcast #165 about a see-through periscope-shaped phone that I found on ebay. I played the watch list game and sure enough, they sent me an offer for a reduced price — to my surprise, they offered me 90% off the list price, taking the thing from $300+ to about $36. I figured it was some kind of fat-finger situation, and yes, it was a mistake on the seller’s part.

Start Your Own Collection

If you like weird phones, don’t dismay — these interesting Teleconcepts units weren’t as rare as some say they are, and they don’t all cost hundreds of dollars today. Although they have handwritten tags on the bottoms that make it seem like they were crafted one at a time by an artist, these phones were in fact mass produced. They’re out there, and they don’t always go for hundreds of dollars.

I recently found an interesting specimen myself — a phone mostly hidden inside the tummy of a teddy bear named KC Bearifone. It’s a Teleconcepts unit dated 1986. This nightmare-fuel unit features speakerphone — in fact, it may be speakerphone-only — and the bear’s eyes and mouth move in sync with the caller’s voice. Yeah. Here’s a video of KC Bearifone in glorious action.

Analog landline phones are pretty darn simple, especially compared with a modern cell phone. So what about the home gamer of decades past? Surely there were a few people out there putting phone guts into interesting enclosures, and the mind reels with the possibilities. Were you one of these people? Did you or do you have a cool old landline phone? Leave a message at the beep.

34 thoughts on “The Case For Designer Landline Phones

  1. Back in the 80s until up to mid 90s, a landline here in Brazil was not for all. When I was a boy, in that time, I remember to see a banana shaped wall phone in the kitchen of one of my granny’s neighbor. That thing was so amazing!

  2. The AT&T, Western Electric and US government supported monopoly story has always been fascinating, from the preservation and protection of revenue streams to the freezing of technology and the prevention of disruptive technology. Prior to the breakup of AT&T into regional Bell telephone companies, the edge technology of the consumer handsets was indistinguishable in the early 1970’s from the 1920’s (carbon mics, passive earphones, etc) Even advanced technology was frozen with cornucopia microwave horns. Had there not been the baby Bell breakups we would have never gotten the 5 UNIXes which eventually turned into Linux (in a roundabout way). If competition improves the product then monopolies do the opposite.
    The biggest disruptive change from landlines was because of the deregulation of the longlines toll charges effected by cellphone toll lines bypass services. It’s the biggest reason cellular reached market critical mass.
    Few people remember the “good old days” where calling between 2 rural towns that were 5 miles apart cost 35 cents per minute. That’s the cost of monopolies.

    1. 1800 collect, record your msg instead of a name. and the other person declines after they get your message, then they dial ya back. much faster with speed dial.

      so damn annoying. i hate telephone companies.

    2. I certainly remember those days. In my town there were two possible exchanges, and it seemed like we were assigned to one or the other randomly with no rhyme or reason. Since one of those exchanges was attached to the local city a few miles down the road, it was quite common to be charged long distance when calling one’s next door neighbor. It was a pretty stupid system in my opinion.
      Today’s “call anywhere in North America for free!” service was difficult to imagine back then. I think we would have been happy enough just to be able to call the other people in our own town!

    3. Southern Pacific Railroad played a large part in getting telco monopolies broken up. The railroad installed fiber optic lines alongside all their tracks, for use in communications within the company and with the trains.

      Since the railroad’s needs were a small fraction of the capacity of fiber optics, they decided to get into the telecommunication business, and to do that they needed to connect Southern Pacific Railroad Internal Network Telephony to the rest of the Public Switched Telephone Network.

      The owners of the PSTN infrastructure said “Nope.”. The railroad sued and won.

      Thus was Sprint unleashed on the public as a new long distance telephone company with an all fiber optic network, a leap in technology over the “old guard” that had been rolling out fiber very slowly.

      So if you’ve ever felt like you’ve been railroaded by Sprint, they have a history of it. ;) (At some point the railroad spun off SPRINT as a separate company.)

      1. Actually, their first foray into competitive long lines was SPRR using their railway rights of way to set up point to point microwave paths using parabolic dishes, sometimes in the periscope configuration (which is now prohibited) instead of the cornucopia dishes used by AT&T. This was a major innovation and all the kings men and horses etc said it would never be reliable. Once again conventional wisdom was completely wrong. I did the build out for one of these from Jacksonville FL to north of Atlanta with channelized TDM DS3 bandwidth. Then the fiber hit and the rest is (ancient) history. They also used the MW backbone to provide links to reliable radio communications to their railroad crews which was a real first, to be able to talk on a 2 way radio to their crews anywhere on the line…. very cool for back then.

        1. My Grandfather worked for Union 76 Oil Co. in California up until his retirement in ~’70. They had a Microwave In House Phone System that stretched throughout California. Separate Phones Sitting on the Desk.. Ma Bell was one phone and next to it was the Union System.. Different Phone numbers on the In-house System, VS the Ma Bell System..

          I’ve never herd of this being discussed outside of Union Oil Personnel..


          1. Many of the larger oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico were on the Western Gulf Microwave System which provided primarily phone service and some serial SCADA data out to a distance of about 80 miles offshore with multihop points on the oil rigs and antennas on the derricks and offshore towers, using Granger and Farinon analog SSB baseband equipment.with individual phone drops over Tellabs and DanTel inband signalling terminal equipment. Totally private (non common carrier) extended the oil companies’ central PABXes out to the rigs. Shell, Exxon, Amoco, Conoco. It was common. Pick up a phone and direct dial to other company phones on the network with rotary and eventually touchtone phones. Extremely high cost with maintenance provided by techs in hardhats, steel toed boots, boats and helicopters. Critical for safety of life and process control issues. The network was attempted to be replaced in about 1980 ish IIRC with primitive subsea fiber which failed and was abandoned. It was eventually replaced and today most service is provided by fiber and VSAT. You needed to speak “Dibrinko”. dBrnC0 (measurement of ratio of db referenced to a “C” message filtered signal over noise then established as a zero reference for signal quality control), know what 2800 Hz is used for, the difference between +7 dBm and -16 dBm and which one goes which direction. Groups and Supergroups and which group is inverted in the baseband. Orphaned and lost technology.
            Old school common carrier monopoly rules prohibited direct connection into the public switched telephone network without the manual intervention of an operator (person) at the PABX/PSTN interconnection point. Example of FCC rules blocking available technology to preserve monopoly revenues. It’s why Union had 2 separate phones.

  3. What about the Batphone? (And suddenly I wonder how theycouod use that without tracing back to the Batcave. Someone had to wire it up).

    There were “phones” without dials, like the Batphone. I thought they were standard phones, minus the dial. Someone I knew had an RCA phone, I assumed for remote use of two way radios. I’m sure I’ve seen photos of similar phones from Motorola.

    About 1974, a kid at school very interested in phones spent his money on a lineman’s handset. A complete working phone, but more portable, with clips to hook to the line.

    Fifty years ago, places like Lafayette and Radio Shack sold phones and maybe other telephone equioment. I thought actual WesternElectric phones. I forget how they promoted them,maybe “for use as intercoms”. But it was before telephone jacks etc.

    1. I figured the batphone was some sort of radio system and not a physical connection. Being the decade it was, the transceivers would be stashed under the desk with a handset to sit on top for convenience.

      1. I never gave it any thought until now. Radio would work, but then the bad guys could send out a radio direction finding van, and find the Batsignal, and thus the cave

        1. 50 years ago there were things like 100 pair termination boxes. You had to have a road map to decipher which set of wires went to where. About 3 points higher than the average persons capability, hard but not impossible. Batman had so much stuff wrong, you just went with it, otherwise you got really cinical and stopped watching

      2. I always assumed Wayne manor above had a massive trunk coming in and Alfred just wired a few to the basement. A microwave link somewhere on the Wayne estate could have worked too.

  4. You were lucky! Up until the mid 1980’s in the UK, it was illegal to attach anything other than the British Telelcom (nee’ Post Office) standard set. And there was little choice, and they were expensive (usually paid for on the bill quarterly).

    I was a bit of a renegade therefore attaching a cheap DTMF phone I bought in a shop…. but no one ever came round to nick me. Of course, things are a little less regulated now.

    Now, it’s cooler to have the old pulse dial rotary telephones instead!

  5. I remember the designer phones… the football phone, fuzzy pink princess phone, the Bang and Olufson sculpture phone, the clear phone, and the phone that looked like a manikins’ arm. I collect Harley toys (Maisto and Matchbox only). I have the gas tank phones which is just the bike tanks and several bike phones where the the handset is part of the gas tank on the bike.

    1. The section at the end where he looks back at making the programme is very relevant to this forum, especially the bit where he says he hopes the joy of building things by hand doesn’t get lost.
      I’m surprised he doesn’t mention the Trimphone, which was BT’s attempt to modernise the handset, and became iconic here in the UK in its own right.

  6. Back on the day a KC Bearifone was my main office phone sitting behind a shared tenent services PBX. The speaker phone was surprisingly good. I’d often move him to the conference room for meetings. He tended to keep meetings short and silly, just the way I liked them.

  7. Can anyone point me at a circuit that can make a landline ring? My daughter just convinced me to get her a fake rotary (actually touch tone) for the ‘cool’ factor. (Now that’s an 11yr old with class). I was thinking it would be cool to be able to make it ring to let her know it was time for dinner or whatever, instead of texting her.

    1. ATA:
      Theres a ton of these for 15 bucks on ebay.

      It connects to the internet but requires a subscription for phone service. If you connect 2 (one each) of these to 2 phones, Callcentric will permit you to dial from one to the other without a contract/subscription/monthly fee across the internet.
      So your daughter could have a friend with another phone-ATA and be able to call each other with a private (you could call it secret) phone network for free.

  8. I used to work for ITT. Really impressive company that still makes a ton of different things. They make for example brake pads for different companies. They make cable looms for aerospace and automotive applications, shock absorbers for racing cars, like F1 and Dakar. They make night vision goggles for military applications. Pretty cool stuff. As a consumer you won’t see many things with their brand name on it.

  9. Gee! No GTE. We had an alternate world back then. In Laff, In. we laffed out loud with Earnestine’s skits as the smug operator done by Lilly Tomlin for Generous Telephone Company on Laugh In back on the late 60’s.

    If you left the bell and series cap unconnected in your pirate phone you were good as they used ringer cap measurements as a way to police their lines. A Simpson 260 VOM and flip the reverse/forward ohms switch was all it took.

  10. There are only two phones.
    1. Swatch phone where the case is clear and you see all the guts, plus the base AND handset have speakers and microphones so TWO people can talk on the same phone at the same time and
    2. The Ertofon in pale pink. Closest thing to a real life plumbus ever made.

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