A rotary phone that was both baffling & nostalgic
  • A wooden phone booth from the 1950s
  • A temptress in the form of a red telephone
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    Auction Finds

    It looks like a home phone but this one’s for the car

    You couldn’t tell how the phone was used just by looking at it. A home phone was the first thing that came to my mind, even though it looked rather strange. The phone was in the shape of the old Princess phones from the 1960s, but it had a speaker where the rotary dial should be.

    The words “ITT Autocom” were stamped in red on the front, sandwiched between two knobs. Laying next to the phone was a bright yellow card promoting a “Cinderella” mobile telephone for your car.

    I was looking at an early car phone – something I didn’t recall seeing at auction before. As soon as I left the phone in its spot on the auction table, another curious auction-goer stopped to take a look, too. “I wouldn’t want to be stopped the police using one of these,” he said, joking.

    ITT Autocom car phone, circa 1950.

    ITT Autocom car phone, circa 1950s, up for sale at auction.

    Back when these phones were available – and I’m sure not many people had them – the police didn’t worry about people causing accidents while talking (or texting). With these, you’d have to stop the car; it’d be tricky to try to talk and drive while balancing the phone between your ear and shoulder.

    The yellow card was trying mightily to sell the Cinderella phone, blaring:

    “Extend your telephone service!. Your personal car or business vehicle can be equipped with an ITT Autocom ‘Cinderella’ telephone using Mobile Telephone Service. … If you are out of your car the operator will take a message for you.”

    At first, I figured that this phone was a Cinderella phone but I found one of those on the web. It had the customary rotary dial and it was stamped Cinderella. One site assumed the dial served no purpose and was not functional. I suspect that the auction phone was an ITT Autocom mobile radiotelephone, for which I found an ad noting that the phone could be used to make “important calls,” change appointments, take customer calls, make emergency calls, hold conference calls, reroute shipments and communicate in isolated areas. It was obviously meant for businessmen.

    Up-close view of ITT Autocom car phone.

    Up-close view of ITT Autocom car phone.

    The auction phone came with a volume button and a squelch button (to tamp down on the noise when there was no one to call).

    I was curious about the when and how of the phone. The earliest car phones were bulky, and they, too, relied on radio waves as our phones do today. Bell Laboratories and others were said to be experimenting with them in the 1920s. At least one private person was also tinkering.

    A man named W.W. McFarlane of Philadelphia used a “wireless telephone” to communicate with his wife 500 yards away in their garage as he sat in the back seat of a chauffeured car in 1920. He spoke to her through a transmitter while several other people in the car listened on a receiver as she answered. No one had yet figured out how to transmit and receive in one device.

    Bell was still at it in the late 1940s, becoming the first in June 1946 to introduce mobile calls to and from cars. Testing the system, a Southwestern Bell foreman picked up a handset from a unit underneath his dashboard and spoke into it. The system had been developed by a team from Bell, Western Electric Corp. and AT&T. A few months later, Motorola’s car radiotelephone equipment was used by Illinois Bell in Chicago. Other companies were also offering car phones, including General Electric.

    ITT Cinderella car phone, circa 1950s.

    ITT Cinderella car phone, circa 1950s. Photo from Geoff Fors radio site.

    At the time, Western Electric Corp. designed the new car phones for Bell, and Bell Laboratories developed the overall system for operating them. The phones were built on top of police radio equipment, with the addition of a handset and decoder that rang when a number was dialed. The Western Electric car phone itself required a receiver and transmitter in the trunk, along with a phone box and headset under the dashboard. Check out this page to see how the phones were used in a car.

    By the late 1950s, car phones were upgraded with transistors along with miniature tubes that didn’t drain the batteries. They also had multiple channels.

    The car phones were apparently not cheap. As early as 1984, GE was waiting for the FCC to approve a phone it was proposing that would cost under $500. The phone would be able to connect two people in cars 30 miles apart. The range at the time was five miles.

    A promo card for the ITT Cinderella car phone.

    A promo card for the ITT Cinderella car phone.

    GE wasn’t the only one working on a better way to communicate in the car. Audiotel had a cellular phone that could record up to eight messages when you weren’t around. Spectrum Cellular Communications had a modem-like device that allowed the phone to transmit data to a laptop in your car.

    I could find out very little info on the web about the Autocom phone for sale at auction. It resembled Western Electric’s Princess phone presumably because ITT was licensed to make Princess phones.


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