The First Cordless Phone

by Colin Berkshire

The first cordless phone ever built and publicly demonstrated wasn’t developed by Bell Laboratories. It was a fun little side project done by Pacific Northwest Bell (PNB) for the 1962 world’s fair.

PNB was a maverick of a Bell Operating Company. It wasn’t 100% owned by AT&T. It was one of the few Bell companies that was partially publicly owned. And, they were created through a mutiny. The Washington and Oregon territories were originally part of Pacific Telephone, the Bell affiliate operating in California.

In the 1950s there was strong debate about how the phone business should be run in Washington State. The managers there thought that the market was very different from California. In California, trunks were cheap and profits came from message unit billing for local calls. Washington hated this. Up in Washington there was a love of the #5 crossbar central office, which was vastly superior to the Step-by-Step switches preferred by Pacific Telephone.

So in the late 1950s Pacific Northwest Bell was spun off into a separate company. It’s the only time a mutiny was successful in Bell System history.

The company was dominated by smart engineers. And they were always trying new things up there in the northwest. They would eventually create what today is known as Centrex.

But one of their more interesting inventions was the cordless phone.

They basically crammed two radios into the plastic shell of a standard model 500 rotary dial phone. The two radios and battery completely filled the phone, and it was heavy, and it only lasted a short while.

The phone was used in the Space Needle Restaurant. Customers could ask for a phone and place calls from their dining tables. Since the phone batteries didn’t last very long, the were actually a bank of them at charging stations, and only one would be used at a time.

AT&T decided that there was no market for cordless phones in 1962. So this phone that wasn’t designed by them anyway was simply ignored. It continued to be used throughout the 1960s at the Space Needle and was quite an attraction until it was retired before the end of that decade.

Pacific Northwest Bell continued as a partly-owned operating company until divestiture. At that time AT&T acquired all of the stock and then combined it with Mountain States Telephone and Northwestern Bell and then spun it off as “US Worst”. (Sorry, I meant to write “US West”). By then, all of the shots for Washington and Oregon were strictly run by the gestapo located at the new US Worst HQ in Denver and engineers were driven out of the company and innovation ended.

Most don’t remember how creative the non-captive bell companies were. PNB! Pacific Telephone, and Cincinnati Bell were the real Mavericks.