The Grabaphone

In the early 1900s in the United States, the design of phones was largely set by Western Electric. The independent manufacturers usually followed these styles and designs because they were, after all, fairly efficient for the technology of the times. This meant large phones with separate transmitters and receivers in most cases, although the more compact candlestick style was coming into wider use. Handsets had been introduced in Europe in the early 1890s, but in spite of some experiments they were not widely used in the United States. Bell Telephone Manufacturing in Antwerp had developed a handset that was used on their European phones in competition with the more common Ericsson handset. This handset did not make it back to the U.S, but many U.S. visitors to Europe were familiar with their convenience. R Brown , who worked for Western Union at the time, had introduced a handset as early as 1878. Despite its weaknesses because of the transmitters of the day, he was able to patent it. It received little interest in the United States so he took it to France. It was used by a number of manufacturers such as Berthon. Handset phones became known as "French" phones because that was where most travellers came into contact with them. John J Carty of Western Electric finally banned their development by WE, partly because of their technical limitations and partly because WE was using the Solid Back transmitter which was unsuitable for a handset. WE did not have the resources to design and introduce another transmitter. In spite of this, U.S. visitors to Europe had seen and used handsets on phones from Ericssons, Berthon Ader, and others, and liked the convenience of using the phone with only one hand.

In 1908 L M Ericssons opened a new factory at Buffalo. They built phones (mostly their steel case models) and parts for the local market. Their motive for this was as for Britain - a local presence would help gain market share. Unfortunately the United States was a free-for-all of telephone manufacturers and networks, not a Government-regulated system as in Europe. Ericssons was a small player in a market dominated by local firms and it was hard to gain market share. The history is uncertain, but they appear to have formed a strategic alliance with Kellogg.


Left: Kellogg "Microphone"

Right: Ericsson-based Grabaphone No. F111





In 1905 Kellogg had introduced probably the first commercial handset telephone built by a U.S. manufacturer. It was a compact telephone to take advantage of the new CB exchanges, which did away with the need for bulky batteries in the customer's phone. It is quite rare. It served as a more modern alternative to the candlestick phone. They called the Ericsson handset the "Microphone" at first (Ericssons called it a Microtelephone), but the name was changed in about 1908 to the Grabaphone when they simplified the design for mass production. Note that the name was applied to the handset, not the entire phone. The name Grabaphone seemed to be applied to any handset-style telephone after a while, a mistake that is still made today. I have even seen bakelite handset phones described on eBay as "Grabaphones". Although inaccurate, this is a tribute to the effectiveness of Kellogg's advertising.

Initially the phone was mostly built from Kellogg parts and the imported Ericsson handset. The handset, although distinctively Ericsson, used unbranded parts. This was Ericssons' normal practice when selling parts to other manufacturers. In Kellogg's later Model F111 they appear to have used the base from an Ericsson candlestick phone, Ericsson cradle and handset. The shaft was covered with a sleeve of bakelite, which they called "Kellite", as used on their candlestick phone. Both Ericsson and Kellogg brands are found on this bakelite sleeve, so the phone appears to have been a cooperative venture at first between Kellogg and the new U.S. Ericsson factory at Buffalo. This model is uncommon. Kellogg gradually introduced more and more of their own parts as the phone proved successful.

The style of phone was not new. Its origins are uncertain, but Sterling in Britain was using a similar phone from around 1900 - 1902, their Model U716. This used a cradle attached to a cutdown candlestick base, and looks more like a forerunner of Western Electric's AA1 desk phone of 1927. General Electric in Britain had a model K144, the Geeko BothCall, that appears to be even earlier. Many companies had models with a simple pedestal mounted on a wooden case. Most of these were based on the Ericsson handset that had been in use in Europe since 1892, although some used the newer Bell Telephone Manufacturing handset from Antwerp, or handsets of their own design.







Left: Sterling's Model U716

Centre: Peel Conner's (and later GEC's) K7796

Right: Grammont, France

Within a year or so the GrabAPhone base had been changed to one adapted from Kellogg's F118 candlestick. The Ericsson handset was remodeled on less elaborate lines, the terminals enclosed and rounded mountings substituted for Ericsson's pillar mounts. Around 1912 the Ericsson cradle was replaced with a simpler pressed steel cradle, finished in nickel plate. By the end of the First World War the nickel plate had disappeared and the whole phone was now finished in polished alloy or black japan, a baked enamel finish.





Left: Still with Ericsson transmitter, but most other parts are now Kellogg

Right: Now with nickelled Kellogg transmitter , No. 111.


The No. 111 was supplied by Kellogg fitted for CB use as standard, but a magneto version was also available fitted with a modified handset and a 3-magnet generator set. The Grabaphone handset was also built onto a conventional desk steel box telephone containing a ringer, condenser and coil to produce the No. 110A. A wall version in a steel case (No. 722) was also available by 1916. In this model, the handset was suspended from the front. A later model from the 1920s , F1809, had the handset suspended from the side of a magneto ringer box. It was called the Magneto Residence Grabaphone Type, and coexisted with Kellogg's separate transmitter and receiver models and candlestick phone. The equivalent side-mounted CB phone was No. F9742. A complete Grabaphone consisted of a base, the appropriate Grabaphone handset, and a magneto or ringer box. Each item had its own model number.


Left: Early surface-mounted dial, about 1925

Right: Later dial on offset base, about 1927



In the early 1920s Kellogg released a dial Grabaphone for the new automatic exchanges coming into use. In the first dial models the dial was fitted into a metal cup screwed to the front of the base, similar to British phones. In later versions, like the Western Electric phones, the pillar was moved to the back of the base to allow the dial to be recessed into the front. This was No. F135. They were not generally supplied with a dial by Kellogg at first, as Kellogg did not yet have their own dial. This allowed the telephone companies to fit a dial that matched their automatic switching system. There was a range of dials in use between the different manufacturers of exchanges, so this was a sensible marketing move for Kellogg. Finally, the introduction of bakelite handsets meant the end of the Grabaphone. Almost. The Grabaphone name had now become part of the language, and it seemed to be applied to any phone with a handset including Kellogg's new bakelite Masterphones. Since handset phones were also often wrongly called "French" phones, this must have been confusing. A so-called "French Grabaphone" could be neither French nor a Grabaphone. The real Grabaphones were still being sold from old stock into the early 1930s.

The Grabaphone had its weaknesses. The transmitter was vertical when in use, so it did not give as strong a signal as a transmitter in which the sound applied directly to the diaphragm. The cup on the mouthpiece partly overcame this. The weaker signal did, however, reduce sidetone a bit (sidetone is when the signal from the transmitter feeds back into the receiver). It also used a "retardation coil", which cut down sidetone from the already lower signal. Mounting the transmitter so it was vertical in normal use helped reduce packing of the carbon granules, so this was a plus. (This explanation is from Ralph O Meyer's "Old Time Telephones").

These comments sum up the reasons for which Western Electric would not introduce handset telephones of their own until 1927. Western Electric was still using the solid back transmitter, which was bulky and unsuitable for a handset, and a booster circuit that would have increased feedback. The GrabAPhone gave Kellogg a technical lead over Western Electric for some years, and increased the customer pressure on WE to provide handset phones.

Other companies bought the Grabaphone-style telephone from Ericssons. The Federal Telephone Manufacturing Co was a major supplier of these, especially after they bought the dies and remaining parts from Ericssons when the factory closed in 1918. They could supply the phone unbranded or stamped with the name of the telephone company they were selling to. The Federal name does not seem to have been stamped into their phones very often. They also offered a wide range of finishes, generally of a slightly lower standard than Ericssons. Examples are known with polished and lacquered brass fittings, polished or frosted nickel plate, or black japan. Some phones were produced without felt on the base. Some minor differences have been noted between the Ericsson and Federal models.







Left: Federal, frosted nickel finish, branded "Mor-Tel Corporation, New York" Photo courtesy Wes Spaid. A good example of a Federal phone produced for another company.

Centre: Federal, brass metalwork on unbranded handset, black painted. A typical "anonymous" Federal.

Right: Federal in polished brass, with black lacquered cradle.



Left: This phone was sold by Federal from old Ericsson stock after the Ericsson factory closed. Federal also called it a Grab-A-Phone because of the handset - an example of how widely known the name had become. From R Knappen "Old Telephones - Price Guide" (out of print)












Some other companies also produced Grabaphone-types, once the popularity of the style became evident. Some appear to have used Ericsson / Kellogg parts, but the details of this are not yet clear. The style even carried over into the earliest bakelite handsets but once the new Western Electric all-bakelite phones appeared in the late 1920s the style soon disappeared.



Left: American Electric Model 46. The elaborate cradle is distinctive.






Left: Weiss. Nothing appears to be known about this model with its stamped cradle.







Left: Loeffler, a rather crude-looking design.





To Essays

If you have reached this page through a Search Engine, this will take you to the front page of the website