The Bakelite telephone 1931

When Ericsson’s Bakelite telephone was first distributed world-wide in the 1930s it was called the Swedish type of telephone and set the standard for how a modern plastic telephone should look. Actually it was a Swedish-Norwegian collaboration since it was both developed and designed in Oslo by the historic manufacturer Elektrisk Bureau A/S. But Ericsson had bought that company in 1928 and asked AB Alpha in Sundbyberg in Sweden, another subsidiary, to make and distribute the Bakelite phone. Ericsson badly needed a completely new telephone for automatic switching to hook up to the company’s successful, 500-switch system and to replace the old sheet metal telephones and their built-on finger dial. The management chose the new soft material Bakelite and the skilful designer Johan Christian Bjerknes was picked to solve the problem together with artist Jean Heiberg.

For the telephone manufacturers the move from plate to Bakelite was a total revolution. It has been suggested that the time needed to make the casing was reduced from one week to around seven minutes. That is about how long it took for the hot moulding compound to cure and then, when the Bakelite press spit the casing out, it was ready to assemble over all components on the bottom metal plate. In many ways Bakelite was the perfect material for telephones at the time. Basically they could be moulded into any shape possible, even the soft streamline shapes preferred. The material is homogenous, evenly coloured and hard, with a lovely lustre. It is also comfortable to hold, does not draw moisture and is easy to keep clean, a contributing factor to its early use for both telephone receivers and toilet seats. In fact, colour was the only problem. For technical reasons, black was the only possible colour, or perhaps some related drab nuances.

The US company Automatic Electric had made a Bakelite telephone as early as 1925 where everything but the metal cradle was made in plastic. The new Ericsson telephone was completely formed in Bakelite with the cradle integrated in the actual casing. The integrated sculptural form departed from the more additive, engineer oriented design of the plate era. Contemporary commentators praised the Ericsson’s phone for its simple, stylistically pure form, making it the favourite of functionalistic designers and a natural for the homes of the Swedish Welfare State. In many contemporary pictures it stands in sole majesty on the hall table, often with the receiver held by the house’s mistress. Thus it was presented as a symbol of the communicative spirit of the welfare state, differing radically from another, nearly contemporary Bakelite apparatus, namely the Volksempfänger of the German radio – a utility radio set designed on Goebbel’s order for one-way Nazi propaganda broadcasts. 

The Bakelite telephone initiated a closer collaboration between the Telegrafverket, precursor to today’s Swedish Telecom, and Ericsson. The authority had its own manufacturing right and in 1933 the phone became standard on the Swedish telenet with the model number m33. Prior to that time, however, Ericsson had succeeded in selling it to several larger foreign networks with its largest breakthrough being the 1936 acceptance as the standard for the comprehensive British General Post Office system.  It also became an important prototype for the giant Bell Group’s new 300-model that in 1937 began to replace the unpractical, standing candle holder telephones prevalent in the US. In 1947 the Bakelite telephone was redesigned, using more plastic and American design. One change was that the previous metal finger dial was replaced by one in impact resistant thermoplastic.

Author: Lasse Brunnström

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