The Vanished Era of the Magical AT&T Merlin Phone System

Posted by Michael Pinto on Aug 23, 2009 in Tech |

This rather well produced 1984 commercial showcases the then new AT&T Merlin system — which finally was discontinued in 2006. Today this technology doesn’t look like much, but back then it was a breakthrough, in fact I remember being lectured once in the early 90s that what was on my desk “was not a phone, but a voice terminal!” What made the Merlin unique was that it had a central control unit, and also that a small business could now afford all those nifty features like conference calling and speed dialing.

Yes I know these features today don’t sound amazing at all, but back in the 80s this was quite the breakthrough. The Merlin was also a game changer due to the fact that it saved business owners a ton of money on doing point-to-point wiring in their offices. Also by making the phones into “voice terminals” the cost of the handsets also went down as well.

Below: That’s not a phone — but a voice terminal!

Merlin Terminal

Although frankly I don’t miss the good old days myself: While this sort of system was great for a company that had more than 20 employees it was a bit of overkill if you were doing a several person startup with just a few employees. In the mid 90s I found myself in that situation and had to get a lesser system. We bought it used and it was still several thousand dollars, and required custom programming to configure: Although it did all sorts of “cool things” like play music when you were put on hold. Needless to say that a few years later that system was worth zero.

Below: An AT&T Merlin system awaits fate (photo by Matt Hannan).

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