A Brief History of the Telephone, From Alexander Graham Bell to the iPhone

The way things look.
May 15 2012 6:15 AM

Hello?

A visual history of the telephone.

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Long before The Clock—Christian Marclay’s enveloping “real-time” digital panorama of clocks depicted in films—became an art-world smash last year, the artist produced a similar, if less ambitious piece. Telephones (1995) stitched together nearly eight minutes of Hollywood stars, present and past, engaging with the phone—being startled awake by its shrill clamor, gazing anxiously for an anticipated ring, fingers fumbling through the now seemingly endless rotary dialing sequence, playing a small pantomime as they wait for the person on the other end of the line to pick up.

Telephones (which Apple rather shamelessly appropriated for its debut iPhone advertising campaign) anticipates The Clock not just in technique, but in the staggering ubiquity of its object: In modern life, even before the presence of the mobile phone, you were likely to be as close to a telephone as you were to a clock. One can trace a literal progression to our very hearts: The telephone, once it began to penetrate the household (at first just the wealthiest homes), moved from front hallway to living room to kitchen to bedroom and then, finally, into the pocket. It is quite likely that the closest clock to you is now your phone.

During that trajectory, the phone went from a crafted piece of furniture to mass-produced icon of standardized industrial design to anonymous commodity object—with only a few memorable detours into “design” along the way, like the MOMA-enshrined, Gosta Thames-designed “Ericofon,” which was made by Sweden’s Ericsson, looks like something out of Woody Allen’s Sleeper and seems much better to look at than to actually use. And, then, finally, into its current form as a dematerialized “function,” one of many, on a “smartphone.” You don’t even need a “phone” anymore to make a phone call—you simply need bandwidth and an input/output device. The phone as an object reflects these fascinating changes, not only in the patterns of consumer capitalism, but the role of communication technology in our lives.

Don’t forget to read about the key, the book, and the other objects featured in our series on everyday design.

Tom Vanderbilt is author of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do, now available in paperback. He is contributing editor to Artforum, Print, and I.D.; contributing writer to Design Observer; and has written for many publications, including Wired, the Wilson Quarterly, the New York Times Magazine, and the London Review of Books. He blogs at howwedrive.com and lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/tomvanderbilt.

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