The Ericofon / Cobra 1956 (1954)

It was not by accident that the Ericofon, or Cobra phone as it is usually known, is on the cover of both foreign and Swedish books about telephones. Making a telephone in one piece was long a dream of the world’s telephone makers. The first to succeed was Siemens & Halske in Germany as early as 1930, but the project did not get any farther than a short test series of a far from complete device. Instead it was Ericsson that made it work after happening on information about the German experiment. 

The project initiated intense effort among the company’s engineers. Hugo Blomberg, the company’s highest technical manager, got involved personally and approved the start-up of a development effort that soon was given the pretentious title Erifon. Once it was clear that there were no patent hinders to his concept of a table telephone standing on the actual dial, the work pace increased. The concept also placed a button in the middle of the dial to control the cut-off function and the ring-signal was placed in a special box on the wall, as in its German predecessor.

In the summer 1939, Blomberg brought new talent on board at Ericsson to handle the design segment. His name was Ralph Lysell and today he is considered one of the true pioneers in Swedish industrial design. Trained as an engineer in the US, his superb visualization capacity led him to work mainly as a designer. During his time in America he had been involved in a number of projects, including an advanced, extremely streamlined sports car, but as WW2 broke out he returned to Sweden. This contact would prove to be an unexpected success. In Lysell, Blomberg had found someone who not only could provide the phone with an apt design, but whose presentations also could sell the project using persuasive renderings and clay models.

By the spring of 1941 the work was in full swing and Ericsson’s first design employee could quickly present a large number of sketches and model proposals. Round handles were matched against square ones, straight ones against curved, a traditional receiver angle against an angled one and various handle angles were tried. Two similar models were finally chosen for further development and the Ericsson carpentry workshop created prototypes to be tried in practical use.

But at this point the artistic work was shelved. Among the reasons was a parallel project with a revolutionary, horizontal one-piece phone called the Unifon, also one of Lysell’s projects, this one together with engineer Hans Kraepelien. It was not until 1949 that Ericsson would make a final choice, once again turning seriously to the Cobra phone. By now the device technology was led by Gösta Thames and Lysell had left Ericsson to start his own design company in Oslo. Since Thames needed help with the project and could not sketch, Lysell was contacted and came to Stockholm to develop additional clay models. These improvements and subsequent ergonomic trials with the highly skilful Ericsson model makers led to the final form of the one-piece phone. At this time the name was changed to Ericofon.

The original idea was to compression mould the Ericofon using Bakelite, but as the production was to start, the new thermoplastic ABS had become available. Not only was it considerably more impact resistant. It could also be made in any colour wanted, as opposed to Bakelite’s usual basic black. After a trial series in 1954, most of the production was placed in Karlskrona where more than 2.5 million phones were made between 1956 and 1982. Only 20% or so reached the Swedish market. When what was then called Swedish Telecom made it part of its range, it was offered at a surcharge and only in five colours of the thirty made. But it was never available in black.

The Ericofon marks a paradigm shift in telephone design. The both obvious and spectacular design combined with ease in handling, luscious colours and high surface finish forms a complete break with the heavy, black Bakelite devices. It is also the first Swedish phone to have its own name, rather than only a number and letter ID; the first sign that it was seen more as a consumer product than as merely an extension of telephony as a system.

Author: Lasse Brunnström

Contribute to this story