1A2 Phone Systems (page #1)

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The 1A2 Key System is an analog multiline key telephone system that was installed in small businesses and large homes until the mid-1970s. Unlike more modern multiline systems, every telephone line serving a particular phone is wired into that phone, and electromechanical switches (the "keys") select a line to be used.

A 1A2 system consists of a central control unit, known as a KSU (Key Service Unit), phones, accessories, and cable.

The KSU has a power supply (either internal or nearby) that converts the standard 110 volts AC to various AC and DC voltages necessary for system operation. For example, lamps (light bulbs) operated on 10 volts AC, ringing is about 90 volts AC, and intercom uses 10 or 20 volts DC.

Intermittent pulses of power to provide light flashing and rhythmic ringing is provided by a motorized switch called an interrupter. It uses a rotating camshaft with multiple lobes that caused metal contacts to make and break contact to apply and remove power as needed. Later 1A2 KSUs used electronic interrupters instead of electromechanical ones.

The "architecture" of the 1A2 system used six wires in three pairs for each line going to each phone:

The first pair, known as "tip and ring" carried voices, and the dialing signal from a phone. The second pair, "A and A1," provided a switch closure when a line key was pressed to energize a "line card" to turn on the lamps to indicate that a line was in use.

The third pair, "L and LG" (lamp and lamp-ground) provided the power for each lamp on a phone.

A1 and LG were both connected to the ground side of the power supply, and there was no need to provide separate AI and LG wiring paths to each line position in each phone. Some phones used one common ground wire that was shared within a phone, to reduce the number of wires needed.

The most common 1A2 phone has six buttons. One button is for Hold, and the other five could be used for a mix of lines, intercom and features. It uses a 25-pair (50-wire) cable, but not all of the wires were connected. There are many variations of the common six-button phone, with modifications including  a headset jack, amplified handset, and a key that can rotate to control a function.

The 10-button phone has one horizontal row of buttons and provides up to nine lines with the same 25-pair cable.

Similar phones with 20 or 30 buttons use 50-pair and 75-pair cables.

Early large 1A2 phone had vertical strips of six buttons and were called "Call Directors." A model with 30 line keys used a 100-pair cable.

Initially the 1A2 cables were connected to "terminal blocks" near each phone by attaching wires to individual screws. This method was labor-intensive and could easily lead to mistakes and malfunctions. In YEAR, phones started to be equipped with 25-pair plugs. The were initially manufactured by Amphenol, and today "Amphenol cable" is the general term for a telecommunications cable with a 25-pair connector on it, even if the connector is made by another company such as AMP or 3M.

Generally, each phone's cable was run back to the central location where the KSU was located, and "punched down" onto a "66-type punchdown block" which connected to the KSU's circuitry.

In small installations, all of the cables could be connected with the KSU cabinet. Larger installations used external blocks which were connected to the internal block with 3-pair "cross-connect wire."

Large 1A2 installations could have several points where phone cables came together, to limit the cable necessary to reach the KSU. The blocks in these locations are called an IDF (Intermediate Distributing Frame). Blocks near the KSU are an MDF (Main Distributing Frame).

Besides the power supply and interrupter, the other main component in a 1A2 KSU is the "line card." It's a plug-in circuit board that provides light control and hold operation for one line. The general family of cards used for central office line operation is the "400 card," and various models were made including 400C, 400D, etc. Later models incorporated advanced circuitry that made them smaller and less expensive, and added features such as music-on-hold and LED indication of card operation.

The same card format was also used for other functions, such as the 401 manual intercom card.

KSUs were made with various capacities starting at four lines. Big systems consisted of multiple "584" panels that could hold up to 13 line cards each.

Phone operation

To make a call, a 1A2 phone user selects an available phone line simply by pressing the appropriate un-lit line button and picking up the handset or activating a speakerphone. A caller could place a call "on hold" by pressing the red HOLD button. Pressing the button also causes a depressed line button to pop up, and the line card and interrupter would cause the lamp to flash to indicate a call on hold. The flashing rhythm is different for ringing and holding.

People in an office can have different phone models with different lines appearing on them. A small system where each phone has the same lines is called a "square" system.

These systems also support buttons and buzzers, intercoms (with or without selective ringing), music on hold, paging and other  features. The features were provided by the installation of particular Key Telephone Units (KTUs) plugged into a socket in the KSU. Some accessories were mounted outside the KSU.

Optional components for the 1A2 could also provide a function called I-Hold or Exclusive Hold, where a call could only be taken off hold at the phone where it was placed on hold. The cadence of the 'I-Hold' lamp signal was steady illumination punctuated by a series of rapid blinks (produced by a module called a 'flutter generator') every couple of seconds.

Audible signals (most often ringers or buzzers) could be handled several ways. The first is that the ringer in a specific telephone set could be hardwired to one specific phone line. This had the advantage that the phone would ring any time a call came in on that one line, even during a local power failure, but it also had the disadvantage of limiting ringing to that one line. No other lines could be connected to that ringer without causing problems.

The second method, sometimes known as "common audible," utilizes the internal circuitry of the KSU's power supply, and circuitry in the individual key telephone units serving each line, to provide a separate and locally-generated ringing signal for each phone line. This way one bell in a phone could ring on multiple lines. It had the disadvantage of not working during a power outage. Uninterruptable Power Supplies ("UPSes") were not commonly used with 1A2 systems, as they are with modern phone systems.

Some times ringers were connected to relays so that during a power failure, they could be powered by the phone lines.

Buzzers used to indicate an intercom call were usually powered by 10 volts AC from the KSU's power supply. Later phones and KSUs could provide intercom operation, with announcements from speakers and hands-free response.

The lamps (light bulbs) in the phones allow the user to easily determine the status of all of the lines that "appear" on a phone:

Lamp off — The line is idle
Lamp steady on — The line is in use for a call
Lamp flashing slowly (half second on, half second off) — The line is ringing with an incoming call
Lamp winking fast — A call on the line is "on hold"

The 1A2 system is uncommon today, but some very large installations are still in use due to the high cost of replacing them. There are also several systems in use by collectors of vintage telephone equipment. 1A2 systems are also very popular, still, with radio stations. This is because, being analog, they are easily patched into the studio equipment for putting callers on the air.

Unlike most electronic key systems or PBX's, 1A2 systems remain partially functional during a power failure. The telephones themselves are still able to make and receive calls, assuming the phone company's central office stays alive, but the system is unable to provide any sort of visual (lamps) or audible (buzzers or ringers) signaling during a power outage. The 'Hold' function and intercom services would also be inoperable.

Although the 1A2 systems have mostly been replaced by more recent electronic, digital, and IP phone systems, the simple and modular design of the 1A2's components provide a degree of versatility and reliability that few of its modern successors can match. This is why 1A2 equipment is in service in emergency operations centers, and older police and fire stations.

The photo at top/right shows a 4-line AT&T "shoebox" KSU. Photo from TelecomHistory.org

1A2 on TV


1A2 phones have been used on TV by Ellen DeGeneres, David Letterman, Jimmy Kimmel and "Mad Men." We've sold phones to Ellen, Jimmy and "Mad Men," but not yet to Dave.

The second-row photo shows Bill Murray using Dave's 6-button 1A2 phone.

The bottom photo shows Christina Hendricks as Joan Harris and Elisabeth Moss as Peggy Olson. There's a 6-button 1A2 phone at the right.

What killed 1A2?

1A2 died a slow death, starting with the growing popularity of "electronic" key phone systems in the early 1970s, and ending around 2006 when Cortelco stopped making the ubiquitous 2564 six-button phone.

Here are some of the factors that helped electronic phone systems to kill 1A2:


  • Simpler, faster, easier installation with fewer wires

  • New features such as memory dialing, voicemail, computer programming and Caller ID

  • Competition from new manufacturers

  • Integration of cordless phones into systems

  • Smaller phones that could handle many lines

  • Fewer mechanical parts that could wear out

  • System features -- such as which lines ring at which phones -- could be easily set up and modified by programming, rather than by wiring changes

  • Phone displays

  • Smaller KSUs that use less power

  • Decline of electronic manufacturing in the USA and growth in Asia

  • End of government-endorsed Bell System monopoly in providing phone equipment

  • End of Western Electric manufacturing in the USA

  • Increasing number of computer people involved in corporate telecommunications departments

What about 1A3?

"Northcom 1A3" was the model name given to a 6-line X 16-phone electronic key phone system distributed by North Supply in the 1970s. They chose the name to imply the same simplicity and reliability that 1A2 provided.

The phones were a minor variation of a TIE phone.

ITT Terryphone: fancy 1A2

Terryphone was a maker of intercom systems which was absorbed by ITT. The combined company used the ITT Terryphone name on modified versions of ITT 1A2 key systems.

1A2 Advantages

  1. Systems can grow almost without limits to number of lines and phones.

  2. Phones will work during a power failure (not all features).

  3. 1A2 systems are less likely to be damaged by power surges than electronic key systems.

  4. Compatible phones and circuit boards were made by many manufacturers.