Ericsson's wall telephone set (the pulpit telephone) from 1882

The oldest telephones had large and bulky components that had to be arranged in the most appropriate manner. Because the microphones were sensitive to vibrations and required that one spoke in a relatively static position and at a specific distance, they were mounted on planks that were attached to the wall at a suitable height. In a similar manner, Siemens for example, gathered all the parts for its oldest vacuum cleaners on a cart that could be pulled around between rooms. The plank assembly, however, was quickly replaced with more practical, wall-mounted wooden boxes or cabinets. Such box assemblies were manufactured with slightly different designs in the leading telephone-manufacturing countries. In the US, they were called coffin sets and housed the ringing inductor's horseshoe magnets, coils and connection devices. The crank, hook-switch, dual bell ringer for signaling and the suspension device for the receiver were fitted to the outside. Coffin sets were simple and unadorned, and the German phones were just as unpretentious even if they were generally deeper so as to house more of the components.  Ericsson chose a different approach and engaged skilled cabinet-makers to construct esthetically pleasing wall boxes. The first model was ready in 1880 and even then, the artistically high level at which Lars Magnus Ericsson wanted his telephones to maintain was apparent. With their arched side-pieces and jig-saw cut cover, where the decorative upper-piece rose up like the facade on a false-front building, Ericsson's devices clearly differentiated themselves from their competitors.    

Two years later, Ericsson presented a significantly more sophisticated model – the pulpit telephone – with a three-part construction. A stationary microphone was mounted along with a dual-bell ringer at the top of a jig-saw cut back-piece. At the middle of the back-piece, there are two brackets that support a small writing pulpit with an openable top. The inclined top has a stop-strip for a note pad and the ringing inductor is under the pulpit top. There is a crank on the right side of the pulpit that is needed to activate the device and make contact with the switchboard, while the receiver is on the left, resting on a hook-switch. The space-demanding batteries are concealed at the bottom behind a decorative metal plate. The device's wooden components are veneered and finished in lively patterned walnut. So that the battery cover's metal surfaces would be in harmony with the whole, they were painted to imitate wood. They were also adorned using a decorative technique called decalcomania.    

Ericsson's wall telephones sets had many similarities to contemporary decorative wall clocks. The resemblance was not accidental. The clock, which represented exactness and discipline, held high status in the developing industrial society, where trade and transportation were essential elements. Imitation generally played an important role before entirely new products gained their own unique forms. This normally occurred only after formally schooled, artistic expertise was engaged to assist in product design. It is interesting to compare Ericsson's wall telephone sets with the dominating American Bell telephones from the same period. The three-part construction is similar but Bell's three-box telephone, as it was called, was not only much simpler in actual design, it was also less practical in that the microphone and inductor switched positions. Due to this, the awkward cranking action had to be performed above head-level instead as on the Ericsson telephones, at a more comfortable waist-level. Lars Magnus Ericsson, who designed the company's telephones himself at least until the mid-1890s, had an obvious feel for elegant and minimalistic constructions that were also very practical. His pulpit and skeleton telephones represented the period's engineering at its very best.  

The pulpit telephone set was produced with minor variations for several decades and was exported to several countries. Ericsson became strongly dependent on its foreign market early on and at the beginning of the 1900s, exports accounted for all of 95 percent of sales. Two of the remaining pulpit telephone sets were used at the Norwegian royal castle in what was then called Kristiania (Oslo). The cabinets for these were manufactured by cabinet-maker G. Malm and differ from the standard telephones primarily by the pulpit top featuring marquetry inlays of various kinds of wood, and complemented with thin strips in silver. The main decorative theme is the Swedish-Norwegian Union coat-of-arms, and is likely a reason as credible as any other as to why the telephones were removed and returned to Sweden in conjunction with the dissolution of the Union in 1905. 

Author: Lasse Brunnström

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