The earliest telephones were made from expensive materials such as mahogany and brass, and could be either wall mounted or free-standing, but both types were heavy and cumbersome. Technological innovation allowed componentry to reduce in size so that the mechanism could fit into one case, as opposed to requiring several separate boxes. At the same time, increased consumer demand induced manufacturers to seek quicker and cheaper production methods. Moulding in plastics offered the solution with the resultant effect of creating a physical form that became more efficient, smaller and lighter.
The first UK model made entirely from plastics was the GPO (General Post Office) 162 ‘pyramid’ telephone (1). Released in 1929, it combined the transmitter and receiver into a single handset positioned across the body of the phone, although models did not yet incorporate an internal bell. Made from compression moulded phenol formaldehyde (PF), lighter colours were introduced a few years later in urea formaldehyde (UF) (2).
In 1937 the GPO introduced their 300 series telephone (2) as a fully combined set, in a one-piece moulded case. This was cheaper to produce than several parts that then required assembly. Although the set was still relatively heavy, the width of the case was designed to ease gripping when lifting.
With the commercial availability of a new plastics material in 1954, acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) completely changed telephone design. Suitable for injection moulding, ABS was also rigid, hard, impact resistant, durable, resistant to chemicals, opaque, glossy, and it could take any colour. It was the perfect material for an object that was fast becoming not only desirable, but now considered by many as essential for the home. It facilitated a range of fresh, new, modern, lightweight, and fashionable designs that would appeal to a new generation of potential callers, including the Ericofon (3-4) in the 1950s, the Trimphone (5) in the 1960s, and the Viscount (6) in the 1980s.
Still tethered by a cable, the telephone became progressively more portable until the invention of the cordless phone (7), which allowed free movement as long as the handset was within range of the base aerial, followed by the arrival of the mobile (8). Both of these examples are also made from ABS.