Monday 8 July 2013

Dial Nine To Continue, Then Press Hash - No Thanks. Not With This Beauty.

I've wanted a Bakelite rotary-dial telephone for quite some time and I finally got one off eBay back in December. It was a nice, heavy jet-black model dating back to the late 1950s. Perfect. Made me want to put a call through to Marilyn Monroe.
There's something about rotary-dial phones that give me a sense of comfort.
Perhaps it has to do with nostalgia for the 20th Century, before everybody carried a mobile phone with their entire lives loaded into them.
Perhaps it has to do with seeing too many old movies, where the shrill sound of the ringing bell would startle the character on-screen before they lifted the  receiver from its cradle to be told of the ransom demands, or where the double-agent would be at a certain time, or were asked why haven't they checked the children.*
I suppose like typewriters, a rotary-dial phone only does one thing, but it does it well. There wasn't much that I took from my Mother's house after she died last year, but I did take this;

This AWA ivory-coloured model was the main telephone in our house when I was a kid. I still recall the six-digit phone number, which is still just barely visible, handwritten in faded BIC ballpoint on the paper insert of the rotary dialler. I think this one goes back to 1968, based on the numbers on the underside and I'm amazed that it still works. This telephone saw a lot of use, thanks to my Mother.  There was no such thing as a 'quick phone call' , as far as she was concerned. And if I had to use the phone after her, the receiver would be quite warm from being pressed against her ear for an hour or so.
Around 1980, she got a job as an after-hours cleaner at a sub-station of Telecom, the Australian phone company along the lines of AT&T or Bell. After that, I think that almost every room in the house had a phone line installed. And she managed to snag a few more telephones along the way. Nothing wrong with having a spare...or three. Somewhere, I have a brand new, still-wrapped-in-plastic phone that she got in 1982, but never used. It's pretty much identical to this one above.

Here's something funny- she used to stay up until two or three am so that she could ring relatives back in Italy when it was convenient. For them. And in turn, whenever they called us, it would be around three or four am in the morning Australian Eastern Standard Time.

About eight or ten years ago, I was visiting an overpriced and snootily-owned antiques bazaar where they had a bunch of phones for sale. One of them was an Ericsson Ericofon, which is also sometimes referred to nowadays as a 'cobra'.

I suppose if you take enough LSD, this phone probably could resemble a cobra with its flared hood, but I think it's a bit of a stretch, personally. Still, the name has stuck whenever I see these advertised from time to time on eBay.
However, I have always called it 'The Skippy Phone'.
"Skippy the Bush Kangaroo" was an Aussie television series produced from 1966 to 1968. It is Australia's equivalent to "Flipper", but with much, much less water. And it is considered a sentimental favourite among many of my generation.

I don't really know why I ever called it The Skippy Phone. As far as I'm aware, this style of telephone did not appear in any episodes (some "Skippy" experts, feel free to chime in now), but if there's anything that screams of a certain aspect of 1960s Australia to me, it is this television show and this telephone. Although, having said that, I sometimes get a quick vision of "The Thunderbirds" flashing through my head when I look at this telephone. Something to do with its mid-century futuristic design. Just the kind of phone that Lady Penelope would use to call Virgil Tracy on. Again, as a kid, I would sometimes wake up at the unGodly hour of 6:00am on a Saturday morning to watch this fantastic show.
"Thunderbirds are GO!!!"

Look at her. Less plastic than some of today's Hollywood stars.

About a year ago, my wife called me at work one Friday evening to tell me that the power had gone out at home. She was calling me from her cellphone and she said the battery was extremely low and the phone might cut out any second. She couldn't call me from the land-line because the hands-free phone was plugged in to the (currently non-existent) electricity supply. I told her I would call around for an after-hours (and pretty damned expensive) electrician.

When I got home to a dark and cold house (t'was mid-Winter), I realised that the Skippy Phone was in a box in my daughter's bedroom. Had I been thinking a little more clearly, I would have told my wife to plug this phone in and call around for an electrician, since I was still at work and didn't want to risk getting blasted by management for making personal calls, despite the fact that it was an emergency. The beauty of a standard land-line telephone, with a rotary dialler or push-button one, is that it has one RJ plug for both the phone connection AND the source of electricity for the phone, which runs along a separate line directly to the telegraph pole in the street. I think.
Anyway, what it means is that you can still use these phones in the event of a blackout because they have no internal battery.

Now, my darling wife and I have watched the "Terminator" series of films on numerous occasions and we fully understand that they are about technology letting people down, but we were caught off-guard that night and not thinking straight. It was cold, we were in the dark, and we hadn't prepared anything for dinner. Luckily, I went out to get us some pizza and we ate it by candle-light in the lounge room while the electrician worked on the fuse box outside.

The Ericofon is pretty cool. First designed in the late 1940s, this particular design first emerged around 1952 and was marketed towards hospitals. It was designed so that patients could make phone calls from their beds without having to lift a receiver and then stretch across with their other hand to dial a number. It was a precursor to today's handset telephones.
One catch with this phone. If you are talking to somebody and you place the phone down in its upright position to grab a pen and paper or something, you will disconnect the call. The rotary dialler has a spring-loaded section which pushes down when the phone is placed down, thus disconnecting a call. That's how you hang up these phones.

See? A big, fat red button in the middle of the dialler.  Obvious, really.

So anyway, back to this new phone that I got. Here it is. Beauty, ain't it? All black and chrome like a Fifties Buick.

When it arrived just before Christmas, I unplugged the plastic, push-button, hands-free monstrosity that sits on the buffet near the front door and plugged this phone in. I lifted the heavy receiver and held it up to my ear. The dial tone purred.
I started dialling my mobile phone number and after turning the dialler to imput the first two digits, I could still hear a dial tone. 
"Oh, no, no, no, no", I thought to myself. 
I continued dialling my number. When I got to the end of it, I heard the phone company's dreaded recorded message; "The number you have dialled is incomplete or incorrect. Please check the number before dialling again."
I tried again. Got the same response. Aww, hell!
I called my home number from my mobile phone. The bakelite phone rang loud and clear. I picked up the receiver and spent about twenty seconds talking to myself;
"Hey, teeritz, how are ya?"
"Yeah, I'm good, teeritz. And you?"
"Yeah, pretty good."
And then I hung up on myself. Well, at least it took calls without any problems. But it still meant that this phone could only do half of what it was supposed to do.

I tried the phone a few more times. I called the Time (1194), but couldn't get through without hearing that faux Australian accented recorded message. To you folks reading this in Australia, do you know ANYBODY who speaks like that? To the rest of you, it's an accent that sounds somewhere in between Australian and British. A lot of newsreel voice-overs from the 1950s and '60s used to sound like that, and some of the older ladies who work in David Jones department stores still sound like it.
Anyway, I wound up calling the seller. He told me to drop it off to his house and he would sort it out. Which was cool. Except, he lives 90 minutes away from my house. And so, a few days later, I took the phone back to him. He hung onto it for a week or so and then called me to say that it was fixed. 
I drove back to his house to pick it up. He said he'd tested it and it was all working as it should. Great. I took it home, plugged it in and tried to make a call and...nothing. Same problem as before.

I love the rotary dialler. Yes, yes, I know it doesn't have a hash (#) or star (*) key, but who cares? This phone is what I would use when I want to ring actual people, not corporations that have you on hold for twenty-five minutes or have recorded voices saying "Press star to continue". 

I contacted the seller again and arranged to drop the phone back to him. When I got there, I explained that if he couldn't fix this once-and-for-all, I would prefer a different phone altogether. He said "Sure, sure", and I left it with him again to be repaired. 
Life got busy and I wasn't able to collect the phone for a month or two. I went back to get it and he assured me that the problem was solved, explaining that he called me using this phone and it worked properly. He also explained that my issues with it might have something to do with my internet modem. 
Okay, this was all over my head and made no sense to me since, as far as I understand, this phone is analogue and the internet is digital and one should not affect the other. Still, I figured he must know what he's talking about, so I left it at that and said thanks. I took the phone back and went on my way. 
Well, you know the rest. I got home, plugged it in and tried making a call. And again, the same problem. After the steam stopped spewing from my ears, I waited a day before calling him back. He said he would replace the entire guts of this phone and put a new rotary dialler on it too. 
When I dropped it back to him for the third time, he said "Just pick it up when you're next in the area."
I drove home in a foul mood. And of course, my wife started getting a little annoyed at all the fuel I was wasting in pursuit of this folly. So, I called the seller and told him to mail the phone back to me when it was fixed and I would pay the cost of postage. I preferred to do that rather than get stuck in traffic on the way to his house on the other side of town. The trip would involve going through some heavily built-up main roads that were quite narrow and have trams (cable cars to you folks in The States) sharing the road with cars and I didn't want none of it anymore. 

Dial M for MuthaF******! All of these hassles were beginning to take the shine off of this experience.
The phone arrived last week and I set it up and dialled my cell-phone. 
I left the phone plugged in for a few days. And it worked just fine. Later in the week, I unplugged it and left it on the buffet and reconnected the hands-free phone. That night, I got a call from an Auntie in Italy and spoke to her for about half an hour before the battery in the hands-free phone went dead and the call cut out. Shite! I plugged the bakelite phone back in and tried to call her back. The line was engaged. She was trying to call me back. I hung up the phone and waited. A minute later, the shrill and glorious sound of the bell echoed through the room and I picked up the receiver and continued the conversation for a few minutes. 
Aside from looking cool, these phones are dependable. They work. As long as they are properly restored.

I've packed this black phone away in its box for now. I have a dream, one that involves the next house that we move to (whenever that is) where there will be a study. All of my books will be out of their storage boxes and up on bookshelves which line one wall of the room. My wife and I will have our desks positioned in this room and there will be a phone line in the skirting board where this phone will be plugged in. There will be a filing cabinet someplace, holding all of the paperwork necessary for the admin of running a household. There will be a stationery cupboard in there, so that when I need a stapler or a paper-clip, I'll know where to find one. The room will have a decent-sized window, allowing natural light in. And maybe there'll be an armchair in a corner with a coffee table next to it where we can sit down with a book. My typewriters will be stored in there somewhere, and I may need to cull the collection down to machines that are used rather than just kept for display or sentimental reasons. And maybe I'll have one permanently on display, with a cloth cover over it to keep the dust out. And it'll be on stand-by for times when I feel like typing.
That's the plan, anyway. It may not work out exactly like that, but I'll try and get it as close to that as possible.
At any rate, I've got the telephone situation worked out, so I can cross that off the list. 

Atticus Finch (retired Judge, Maycomb County, Alabama) about to make a phone call, circa 1958.

I've seen a few reproduction rotary phones for sale on eBay. These modern ones have two extra holes in the dialler with a hash and star symbol next to them so that you can spend time calling your Water company to query a bill and "press star to continue".
But this vintage bakelite phone will suit my purposes just fine. I was thinking of getting an American dial-up telephone to scratch my "Mad Men" itch, but I don't know if they will work on the Australian phone exchange. 
After the saga involved with getting this phone working properly, I'm inclined not to tempt fate any further with regard to old telephones. I was tempted to go for a reproduction candlestick telephone off eBay, but these phones require two hands to use and something tells me that would get old real quick. 

Nope, this 'Buick' will do me just fine.

Okay, I'm hanging up now. Thanks for reading!

*"When A Stranger Calls" (Dir: Fred Walton, 1979)


  1. That's really gorgeous! I have several old phones and they all work fine. I use an old Radio Shack tone dialer from the 90's that I had intended to turn into a Red Box but never got around to. I'm glad I have it to use with the rotary. I can also use it to send codes to the ham repeater.

  2. Do you get a problem with a hissing noise if the modem is on or is it plugged into a different phone socket than the modem? My old PMG 802 was one of the best investments I've made. Nothing on your Bakelite Buick tho!

  3. I've got a healthy supply of PMG 802s and parts, too, and I agree with Steve: each and everyone was a good investment. It gives a sense of purpose to using the phone. But I sadly admit to coveting that jaw-dropping Bakelite model of yours...

  4. I have been on the lookout for a rotary phone that's 'THE ONE' for a few years now. I probably would have pulled the trigger on one or two along the way, but then talked myself out of it. I don't, and haven't since living on my own, have a landline telephone. Hell, no one calls me on my cell...why another line? That Ericofon is really awesome! I've never seen anything like that phone. To eBay!

    On a side note; you mentioned the faux-Autralian accent used by the Time (which I assume is a number you call for the time of day?) and other various places. Very funny story to tell here.

    At the Typewriter Collectors Meeting last October, we all went out to Outback the night before. You know, that 'Australian themed' steak house here in the states. Well, as I always mention when in an Outback, I started talking about the guy they have doing the commercials. I mean, he has the WORST sounding Australian accent I've ever heard. Completely fake sounding. I always question why they wouldn't just get someone with a REAL accent to do the commercials. Well, the guy across from me actually had an answer to my (up until that moment) rhetorical question.

    Apparently, he had been roommates with that guy's brother. The guy in the commercial had been born in Australia, but moved to the states when he was a kid. He decided to try and keep his accent while his brother (this guys ex-roommate) just went along with the flow. Being so young, you would have to TRY to keep the accent, you know? Which is what he did, resulting in his terrible TERRIBLE fake sounding Australian accent.

    WEW. That was a whole lot for one comment. Sorry for the rambling...just such a funny story. I've been making fun of those commercials for YEARS, and now I have an that makes me musings much less funny..

  5. heh, I have my GPS set to the "Australian" accent because I can't understand the British or American computer-generated voices at all. It's quite amusing to hear it wrestle with the Spanish street names here in town like "Guadalupe" or "Ocotillo".

    Outback is kind of a funny restaurant. Their on-menu food is more an Americanized version of Australian (at least according to an NSW friend of mine that visited a few years back), but if you actually ask, they will make you an "Aussie-style" hamburger, complete with fried egg. I'm sure they get enough requests for it from actual Aussies that the kitchen staff is relatively educated in preparing fairly authentic versions of what they have on the menu... if you specifically request it.

  6. That's a mighty fine example of the last of the bakelite telephone designs. And it is even better that it works so well!

    Careful with the telephone collecting - it can be as insidious as typewriters. Actually, it is the phones that brought me to typewriters. I have a collection of my one, which I will share when I get some time.

    As for Skippy - I can actually answer that question. Historically the Ericofons were never authorized for use in Australia on Australian phone lines. This didn't stop thousands of home from having them, as they were highly fashionable and quite desired. As such Ericsson began producing them out of their Broadmeadows plant.

    However, by the end of the 60's and the early 70's, the phone had become superseded by the phones that PMG/Telecom used to replace their aging bakelite standard stock. The mighty 802, which was a licensed copy of the Western Bell design.

    As such, Ericsson used the plastic dies to produce handsets for use in radio communication. Where the earpiece speaker once sat, they now placed the microphone. And where the microphone once was, they put the radio actuation and call keys.

    Skippy often depicted children being educated over 'school of the air'. If I recall, the radio in use had one of these modified Ericofon handsets.

    These phones are actually very sought after these days. And of course, I have one. Actually.. I'm trying to seek the green version which matched the early Hermes 3000. I think they would be perfect side by side.

  7. Thanks, all.
    @ notagain, yes, these rotary diallers are rock-solid.
    @ Steve Snow, I haven't noticed a hissing sound, but I was so caught up with just getting the phone to work. However, when it did work properly, I didn't detect a hissing sound. The modem is plugged into a dedicated socket on the opposite wall away from the phone line. I still have a hard time understanding how a phone line and separate modem can interfere with each other.
    @ Jasper Lindell, I've got a couple of 802s, plus two of the later push-button phones from the mid-Eighties, but they lack the coolness of the rotary diallers.
    @ Ken, I would think that you would easily be able to find a black Bakelite phone like the ones seen in every Hollywood movie from 1940 to 1960. Just as well I don't have a need/want for any more of them. I'd go nuts.
    @ Ted, I have never understood the appeal of a fried egg in a hamburger. Same thing with the "Aussie Pizza"- Tomato paste, cheese, ham (shredded) and an egg. I just don't get it. And I was a pizza-maker for five years.
    @ Scott, I forgot that you were into phones. I'm sure that I've seen a green Ericofon on my travels. I think I paid $95 for my one about six years ago. These days, I see them selling for anywhere between that price and $165. Unless it's red. The red ones always seem to fetch more. Sure, they look pretty flash, but too rich for my blood. And yes, the 802 design is classic.

  8. I'm already into watches and other old gadgets, so I don't need another obsession! Seriously, though, I think having one of these phones around is fantastic and probably a good conversation piece when people visit. Might stash some money away for one of these!

    Love your blog, by the way.

    1. Thanks very much for following, TMA! These phones are handy during blackouts, since they don't rely on an electrical outlet for power, so you can still order pizza in the dark! And you really only need just one.

      You got a great blog too, by the way, but I'm very rusty (ha, ha!) on Heavy Metal, being more into softer rock (if you can call it that), like The Stones and The Black Crowes. And AC/DC are a National Treasure where I come from. Bon Scott was a legend!

  9. I'd like to use the picture of the black phone on tabletop for an educational vid at work. I work in a hospital setting.

    1. Okay, Mr. Dupuis. That would be fine, as long as it's used only in that video. Best of luck with it. And thanks for asking, too!