PARSIPPANY, N.J. – 1964. Styles were changing –
fast. The Beatles brought us long hair. Twiggy turned our heads with short,
short skirts. And AT&T gave us a sleek new telephone.
Twenty-five years ago this month, the
Trimline* telephone made its appearance. It was a curvy, contoured set with a
twist – the dial, located in the handset, now "came to you." It paved the way
for today's cordless telephone.
While long hair, mini skirts and other
styles come and go, the Trimline is now the most popular phone in America.
"We estimate that more than 75 million
sets have been bought or leased by customers since its introduction 25 years
ago," said Rich Tilden, AT&T's consumer telephone product manager. "The
Trimline still is appealing for the same reasons it proved so successful in
1964 – style, convenience and quality."
Today, the Trimline is considered an
American classic, but 25 years ago it was dramatically different than any
other telephone. Developed with the help of the noted industrial design firm
Henry Dreyfuss Associates, just one year after its introduction it was
selected by The Museum of Modern Art in New York City for its permanent design
In its May 1977 issue, Fortune magazine
named the Trimline one of the country's 25 best-designed products. Three years
ago, the Trimline was selected for the "Designed in America" exhibit produced
by the U.S. Information Agency.
The introduction of the Trimline took an
exhaustive amount of research – more than a decade's worth of work – on the
part of AT&T. Scientists at the company's Bell Laboratories had to not only
perfect the inner workings of the new phone, they also had to make it easy to
handle, light to hold and good looking.
That was no easy task. In fact, the
evolution of the Trimline is a little like the tale of the ugly duckling.
The Trimline telephone is based on a
homely looking handset with a built-in dial that was developed in 1939 to help
AT&T craftsmen test telephone lines. The development of a dial-in-handset for
the public began with an experimental model constructed at Bell Labs in 1952.
Subsequent models included one – known
as the Demitasse – that had a small dial around the transmitter, or
mouthpiece. A version known affectionately as the Schmoo had a bulge in the
middle of the handset in order to accommodate a full-sized dial.
Each early version of the new telephone
was thoroughly tested for customer acceptance. The Demitasse, for example, was
put through its paces with customers in Brooklyn, N.Y.; San Leandro, Calif.;
and Columbus, Ohio. The public liked the concept but not the style.
The Schmoo, on the other hand, had a
more attractive silhouette but was just too hard to handle, in the opinion of
customers in a New Brunswick, N.J., test group.
According to John Karlin, who headed up
the Human Factors Research Department in Bell Labs at the time, "The rotary
dial made the telephone bulge out too much in the middle. People just couldn't
hold on to it comfortably at all."
AT&T tried various ways to make the dial
smaller, including a dial with spokes in the rim instead of holes. That idea
was rejected quickly; fingers kept slipping off the spokes. Making the holes
smaller made it difficult for many people to dial.
The breakthrough came, Karlin said, when
a Bell Labs mechanical design engineer developed a moveable fingerstop that
slid subtly past the zero whenever a number was dialed, thus eliminating the
space between the "1" and the "0."
"It was an example of the innovation
Bell Labs is famous for," said Karlin, who is retired now. No one previously
had questioned the space between the "1" and the fingerstop. "Many great
inventions are the result of people questioning why things are the way they
are," he said.
The new "floating" fingerstop worked
well, but AT&T wondered whether it would meet customer approval. As it turned
out, most users took the change in stride, and a good many weren't even aware
that the fingerstop moved at all.
Taking advantage of the smaller dial and
other innovations such as printed circuits and miniaturization, the
transmitter and receiver became smaller, as did the ringer, which now fit
snugly into the telephone's trim base.
In the summer of 1964, AT&T began
manufacturing the Trimline in an Indianapolis plant, and the first new phones
were offered to customers in Michigan just a few months later.
As the Trimline celebrates its silver
anniversary, AT&T researchers and developers continue to use the latest
technology to ensure that the Trimline is highly efficient as well as cost
effective to use and produce. Most of these changes are transparent to users,
but important nevertheless.
The success of the Trimline is based in
large part on the human factors research that went into perfecting a phone
that would please the public at large.
"When designing the Trimline, or any
phone for that matter," says Karlin, "we have to think of more than just the
human ear. We have to take into account people's wants, needs, comfort levels
and even their likeliness to make mistakes when dialing.
"Human factors research helped us make
the Trimline phone the pride of our industry."