Fun fact, the term “intercom” is an abbreviation for “intercommunication.” Before this internal communication system, the only way to alert someone within the building was to pull a complex system of ropes and bells. Anyone who’s seen a single episode of Downton Abbey might find the image of a bell board stationed in the servant’s hall familiar. Whenever someone yanked on the rope, the corresponding bell would jingle, and the servant would be alerted. But this system was as problematic as it was straightforward. The bells could only notify staff that they were needed, but not what they were needed for.
That all changed when Alexander Graham Bell patented the telephone. “It can even be argued that the very first “intercom” was invented when Alexander Graham Bell spoke to Watson in 1876 with those famous words “Watson, come here…I need you!” In any case, most multifamily and commercial buildings had adopted intercom systems as standard by the 1950s.
One of the first intercom systems was patented by the Kellogg Switchboard and Supply Company in 1894. The system was primarily designed to be used in apartment buildings, a breath of fresh air to property managers of more upscale buildings. Luxury apartments tend to have doormen on staff, just like they did years and years ago. Before intercoms were made available, allowing visitors into the building was cumbersome and time-consuming. After greeting the guest, the doormen would have to lock the visiting guest outside (rude), trek all the way over to the tenant’s apartment, and inquire whether or not the tenant wanted to meet the guest themselves. Then, depending on what the tenant said, the doorman would have to go back and either officially welcome the guest into the building or grin and bear the awkward situation of escorting the unwanted guest out.
As one can imagine, this method got increasingly inconvenient for occupants and guests as apartment buildings expanded. Instead of having the doorman temporarily banish the guest from the building and then rush up and down the hall to question the tenant, tenants could speak directly with the guests thanks to Kellogg Switchboard and Supply Company’s intercom (that mimicked the design of old-fashioned candlestick telephones). Kellogg’s intercom design had a unique feature which we now associate with intercoms today: the iconic buzzing noise.