Wallace and Gromit’s World of Invention: Eiffel Tower telephone

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Powerhouse Museum Collection, object H5332-2. Gift of L J Williams, 1954.

After walking up the garden path, visitors to this exhibition will enter Wallace & Gromit’s front room and discover three showcases filled with inventions. One traces the history of the telephone, from an early wall-mounted wooden box with hand-wound dynamo to the first mobile phone designed and made in Australia. There are also four futuristic Nokia concept phones, which reinforce the storyline that invention is not a once-only process. As soon as the first phone was invented, its developer (Alexander Graham Bell) and others sought to improve all its parts, and the process has never ended.

This ‘EiffelTower’ telephone was made by US company Western Electric around 1900. It was probably made in Britain, which supplied most of the Western Electric phones used in Australia. Its design was copied from an Ericsson phone, and its nickname derives from the shape of its legs.

The user turned the handle to generate an electric current, which activated a bell in a distant telephone exchange. The bell alerted an operator, who then connected the phone to the number requested. Dial phones did not come into use until exchanges could connect numbers automatically.

Earlier phones had separate receivers and transmitters, whereas this one has both combined in a convenient handset. Its highly decorative design resulted from competition between telephone makers, who had to find ways beyond the utilitarian to make their devices attractive.

The phone is made from several materials, including iron, nickel plating and paint, with copper for the electric coils and wires. The shiny part of the receiver is aluminium, which had been more expensive than gold until the electrolytic process for refining it was developed in 1886; it was still sparingly used in consumer products when this phone was made. The decorative handset handle is made of ebonite, a hard moulded rubber that was later supplanted in such applications by synthetic plastics. Phones have changed a lot since 1900, but they still incorporate a range of materials, some of which are functional and others decorative.

Written by Debbie Rudder

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