The design evolution of the phone over the last 80 years is astounding

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Alexander Graham Bell makes the first long distance telephone call, circa late 1870s.
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Wikipedia Commons

In 1876, inventor Alexander Graham Bell patented the first phone: a bulky device with a curved mouthpiece and earpiece connected by wires. It looked much different than the iPhones of today.

In celebration of the phone’s 140th birthday this year, we’re taking a look back at the design evolution of the device.

The Cooper Hewitt museum recently digitized more than 200,000 items in its collections, including one that chronicles obsolete phones located in its storage facility. Check out some of these phones below, starting with a classic rotary from the late 1930s.


In the 1930s, famed industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss created what many consider to be the first modern telephone: the Model 302. Its design signaled a departure from earlier models: the ringer is in the phone (instead of a separate component), the cradle lies horizontally, and you speak and listen to the same piece resting on top.

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The Model 302 Telephone designed by Henry Dreyfuss.
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Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

Source: Slate


After the Model 302, AT&T realized it could sell the phone to the masses. The phone’s traditionally square base was replaced by a slimmer design with a touchpad, called the Trimline, first produced by the phone company in 1965. Buttons for “*” and “#” were added too.

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The Trimline Telephone, designed by Henry Dreyfuss.
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Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

As the 1960s went on, phones got even smaller. The Grillo Cricket, created by Italian designers Marco Zanuso and Richard Sapper, can fold up, setting it apart from other phones at the time. The clam-shell shape influenced the design of the modern flip phone.

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The Grillo (Cricket) Folding Telephone, designed by Marco Zanuso.
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Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

Up until 1977, AT&T had a monopoly on phone design in the US. But that year, the Supreme Court lifted restrictions that once prevented people from buying and designing their own phones. This decision, along with AT&T’s divestment from the Bell Company, resulted in all kinds of creative phone designs, including the ’80s Beocom one below.

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The Beocom Copenhagen Telephone, designed by Lindinger-Loewy.
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Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

Starting in the early 1980s, some companies experimented with high design phones. The Enorme Telephone boasts a box shape, foreshadowing popular phones to come — with geometric pops of primary colors.

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The Enorme Telephone, designed by Marco Zanini and Ettore Sottsass, Jr.
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Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

Throughout the ’80s, phones became unburdened from the cord. Pictured below is one such design for the cordless phone, called the Dancall 5000, by British designer John Stoddard.

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The Dancall 5000 Cordless Telephone, designed by John Stoddard.
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Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

Phones started shrinking even more in the early ’90s. You could charge the 1994 Talisman phone on the base that came with it.

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The Talisman Telephone and base, designed by Takanobu Fujimoto, Greg Breiding, Seiji Wada, Takeshi Tsuruta, Keith Kresge and Deane Richardson, Mitsubishi Electronic Company, and Fitch Inc.
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Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

Two years later, Motorola launched the the StarTAC, a small gray flip phone with a display screen and oval keys.

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StarTAC™ Cellular Telephone, designed by Albert Nagele.
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Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

The iPhone, which debuted in 2007, transformed the phone by turning it into a tiny, mobile computer. Though other touchscreen phones had come before it, the iPhone’s sleek interface revolutionized mobile phone design.

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The iPhone Mobile Telephone, designed by Jonathan Ive and the Apple Industrial Design Team.
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Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum