Ericsson's Unifon was a telephone model that remained in the project stage, but in terms of design, it had a significant impact on the development of landline telephones up until today's mobile telephones. It was created in 1941 as an internal project, competing in parallel with the famous Cobra telephone, and like that phone, it involved creating an all-in-one telephone, i.e. a complete telephone in a single handset. The man behind the idea was the engineer Hans Kraepelien, whose design was heavily influenced by the handsets with built-in dials that linemen used as test handsets. But this project was more complicated because a telephone for regular consumers had to allow a person to easily and quickly switch between the ringing and talking position. This was supposed to be solved by means of a telephone cradle that was activated by a steel wire with a mounting lug when the receiver was lifted or hung up on a hook. The task of making this design attractive, user-friendly and sellable went to designer Ralph Lysell. What the designer had to work from was a telephone receiver with a bent handle that contained multiple components, a mounted dial and a built-in cradle switchhook. Each part was added from an engineering standpoint without any consideration to the overall design.
Lysell's goal was to give the new telephone its own character so that it no longer looked like a re-built telephone receiver. He seized upon the idea that the telephone's weight would trigger the actual cradle function but changed the entire design from a hanging receiver to a recumbent receiver that was intended to be placed on a table top. This allowed the device's weight against the table surface to trigger the cradle function and create a distinct design element. It now took the shape of a spring-loaded microphone cover, which when switched from the folded to the unfolded position, was so big that the sound-capturing part of the cover landed in front of the speaker's lips in the talk position. Even the handle was changed from a narrow handle, with a cramp-like grip, to a curved handle, like a clothes brush, that was contoured to the hand's anatomy. The design also made it possible to grasp the device from the bottom, at the microphone end, so that it could comfortably rest on the inside of the palm. The previous handle had suddenly been changed to a cover that could now be divided into two halves, making manufacturing easier, and there was even room for a simpler signaling device. In order to make room inside the cover's exterior contour and protect the phone from knocks and blows, the diameter of the dial had to be reduced. Ericsson's engineers solved this problem by introducing a revolutionary so-called moveable finger stop that reduced the diameter of the dial by 13 ½ mm.
The entire telephone now had a streamlined shape with obvious similarities to the more advanced car designs of the time. The selected trial models were lacquered in a matte green finish. The Unifon was trademarked in April 1944, and a patent was obtained for the switching mechanism. The cover was planned to be manufactured from three millimeter thick Bakelite, which would have given the phone a total weight of just over half a kilogram, or roughly as heavy as the standard Bakelite telephones at the time. Everything was set up for production. The model was tested and worked flawlessly. Everyone seemed satisfied, but suddenly setbacks appeared. Due to the military mobilization in Sweden, Ericsson had a shortage of available personnel because its main efforts had to be focused on the production of weapons and signal equipment. The remaining resources only seemed sufficient for one large project at a time, and at this time it was decided to concentrate on redesigning and improving the materials of the standard Bakelite telephone. Afterwards, the Cobra telephone came on the stage, which thanks to its upright design, was considered to be much better suited for the treasured American market. The reason for this was that through the dominant Bell system, people had become used to upright or so-called candlestick telephones.
The Unifon project tackled problems that designers and engineers in the telephone industry had struggled with throughout the entire 1900s. It also had several imitators. Bell's laboratories were already well aware of the Swedish project in 1946, and their Trimline, dial-in-hand telephone from 1964 is very much based on Ericsson's project. This is also the case to an even greater extent with the telephones of the 1980s, such as the Italian Cobra, the Swedish Ouno and the Norwegian Tastafon Compact.
Author: Lasse Brunnström