Find out about the classic GPO Type 706 phone.
Designer: Ericsson Telephones, GPO and the Council of Industrial Design
Cost: Expect to pay anything above £20 on eBay
Living in the current age of the handheld smartphone, it’s almost impossible to believe that only a few generations ago, telephones were hardwired into a socket in the wall. Perhaps even harder to believe is that just about the only thing you could do with them was talk to one other individual on the other end of the line.
Rather than living in our pockets, the telephones of the 1950s were more an item of furniture, perched ostentatiously on small tables, usually in the hallway. They were also status symbols. The classic of all time was the GPO (General Post Office) Type 706 that made its way by droves into our parents’ and grandparents’ homes at the start of the 1960s.
The Type 706, often called the ‘Tele 706’, was in fact a family of phones based on this blueprint. The dial varied, some had handles and some had letters as well as numbers (but these disappeared towards the end of the 1960s as we moved to all-numeric dialling). They also came in a variety of colours (black, blue, two-tone green, two-tone grey, ivory, red and yellow). The original blue was a hue called ‘colonial blue’. However, the GPO decided against that having concluded, in probably the first example of political correctness in the history of telephone design, that it was not appropriate in the ‘modern world’.
‘Modern’ is one of the key words here and not simply because the 706 was the first phone to include a printed circuit board. In a simultaneous release, MkI was conventionally wired, while MkII had what the leading authority website Britishtelephones.com calls ‘printed wiring’, but it wasn’t just this nod towards our digital future that made the 706 an icon of engineering design. It was the fact that aesthetically it looked so modern (to the point where it became routinely known as the ‘modern phone’). Replacing the antiquated Type 332, the 706 was introduced by the GPO in response to demand from a public that, with increased access to American TV shows, had become aware of sleek units with helical, anti-tangle headset cords.
The resulting unit was consequently designed not just by the engineering departments of the GPO and Ericsson Telephones, but also by the Council of Industrial Design, whose influence extended to making the phone ergonomic in character with smooth curves and modern lines. It was as much about form as function. Although there was a colourful range to appeal to younger users, the designers also included a two-tone grey model to keep abreast of trends in contemporary office furniture design.
Despite the breadth of colour palette, at the end of the 1960s one third of the nation’s installed 706 telephones were ivory in colour, another third were blue, with the other five colours distributed over the remaining third. A decade after the launch of the phone, the GPO conducted a market research survey into user attitude towards the colour of their phones. Conclusions from the survey confirmed the already known popularity of the blue and ivory. Requests for metallic gold and tangerine colours were ignored. The survey also found that consumers were unlikely to change the colour of their phone, which was hardly surprising considering that replacing a telephone required a site visit by a GPO technician, paid for by the customer.
With classic looks and such attractive retro features as the gravity switch mechanism and curly lead, the 706 is an icon of a bygone era that is seeing something of a renaissance on eBay.