Snake-charming

- An artist cannot be trained as an industrial designer, but an industrial designer can learn to be an artist.

These words belong to Gösta Thames, who should know, since he was both the designer and the artist behind Ericsson's successful Ericofon, popularly known as the Cobra. Trained as an engineer, he gradually learned the art of form.

- I have always been fascinated by beautiful things, and that has taught me a lot.

Gösta Thames was employed in 1938 as an engineering apprentice at Ericsson. The following year an event occurred that would be decisive for Ericsson's launch of the Ericofon many years later. At this time, Gösta Thames had nothing to do with it.

The event in question was that Ericsson's technical director at that time, Hugo Blomberg, received a telephone call from Berlin. It was a young Swedish engineering student, who described a telephone model developed by Siemens. The entire telephone was in one piece. The microphone, earpiece and dial were all mounted in a single unit.

- Wouldn't such a handy telephone be something for Ericsson to produce? wondered the engineer.

- Yes, it certainly would, replied Blomberg, who after leaving his position as technical director in 1940 worked together with designer Ralph Lysell to produce two models of the one-piece telephone, which were presented in 1941.

Much development work was required before Blomberg and Lysell's prototype could become a working phone. In the midst of a raging world war, however, there were neither the resources nor the ambition to conduct such a project. Instead, Hugo Blomberg began working for Ericsson in the US in 1942, while Ralph Lysell left the company in 1944.

Development work resumed in 1949, thanks in large part to sales director Sven Ture Åberg, subsequently president of Ericsson, who became acquainted with Blomberg in the US and joined him in promoting the one-piece telephone. Now it was time for Gösta Thames to enter the picture.

- Industrial design was my greatest interest as a student, recalls Gösta Thames. - I was chosen to lead the work on the one-piece telephone because of the loudspeaker phone that I had designed. I had succeeded in combining the various components in a single unit, and the telephone was also considered attractive.

Gösta Thames was appointed to lead development work for the Ericofon, as the one-piece phone was called. This was a job that would take several years. It took some time to get all of the components into the phone, but Thames was unyielding on this point. The Ericofon would not need a box on the wall.

- It was important to be able to move the phone, explains Gösta Thames.

Gradually, Thames and his co-workers succeeded in reducing the format of a number of components, including the transformer, so that they could easily be placed inside the phone. This was made possible by new materials launched after the war. Even the thermoplastic that was used as a case was a post-war invention. The phone did not have a ring signal, and if it was to be used as the master phone, a separate ring unit was required that was mounted on the wall. The fact that the ringer was not included in the telephone itself also contributed to reducing the form factor.

Because the relationship between weight and size changed when the components were made smaller, a shape that was perceived as perfect for one prototype might not be practical for the next one.

- My starting point in choosing a shape was always that the phone had to be easy to hold. It should be light and feel comfortable in the hand. You had to be able to feel how to hold it even in the dark, says Gösta Thames.

Colors for the Ericofon were chosen by about 25 persons with a feeling for style that included dressing stylishly who voted for the best shades for each color. When the phone was introduced on the market, there were six different colors. This was something of a revolution, since black and white had been the standard colors for phones.

The first Ericofon was presented to Televerket, the Swedish PTT, in 1953 in conjunction with the operator's 100th anniversary. Although the phone was launched around the world, the Ericofon was primarily intended for the US market. With its spectacular new phone, Ericsson wanted to compete with the "candlestick" phone so popular in the US that had a microphone at the top and the earpiece hanging on the side. The Ericofon was also a success on the other side of the Atlantic.

- When it was launched, the Ericofon still had two mirror-image halves that were glued together. A large group of workers polished the phones so that the joint would not be visible, says Gösta Thames.

Soon, however, in 1958, the Ericofon could be spray-molded in a single piece. To achieve this, the neck of the phone was bent. It had also been shortened to improve transmission efficiency.

In 1958, the Ericofon became know throughout the world. It was included when the Museum of Modern Art in New York in the early 1970s presented the best 300 industrial designs of the century. And by combining functionality with elegance, it came to represent a typically Swedish design.

Gösta Thames was interviewed in 2000.

 

Author: Mats Wickman

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