In the tradition of the electric toothbrush and the high-speed electric cocktail mixer, the latest effort-saving gadget is the Name Caller, which does away with the need of dialing a telephone. By pressing a button on the device, which can be easily attached to the phone, a user can reach any one of 38 numbers. Besides its speed and convenience, the Name Caller provides a foolproof way for a baby sitter to phone police, firemen or the family doctor in an emergency. The gadgetabout the size of a small bathroom scalehas been available for only four months in seven major markets, including New York City and Los Angeles, and already more than 50,000 have been sold at prices from $50 to $60.
The device is made by Macom Products Corp., a firm that was started in August. Its founder and chief, Howard Mercer, 29, a former ski instructor and disk jockey, teamed up with two Mattel toy executives and designed the device. From August through October, Macom earned $281,000 before taxes, on sales of $1,200,000.
Big Hang-Up. Macom has run afoul of the telephone companies. American Telephone & Telegraph has long contended that no devices can be attached to phones unless A T & T approves and uses its own servicemen to connect them. Usually this involves not only an installation fee but also monthly payments to the local telephone company for use of a "foreign" attachment on its equipment. The phone companies contend that unapproved devices could foul up switching systems, leading to overlapping conversations and perhaps even injuring repairmen.
Newspaper ads and television commercials make it clear that the Name Caller links directly into the switching systems. A user can hook up the device by opening his phone box with a screw driver and connecting a couple of wires. With an IBM electrographic marker, the user records phone numbers on a revolving belt inside the machine in much the same fashion as high school students black out answers to a computerized test. As many as 38 phone numbers can be programmed onto the belt; later, any of these numbers can be changed by erasing the black markings and starting afresh. To dial a number, the user moves a pointer to a name on the selector panel and pushes a button. Inside the machine a computer-like sensing device scans the markings made on the belt and dials the correct number.
Though A T & T has not declared whether the Name Caller can really interfere with its circuits, a subsidiary, Pacific Telephone & Telegraph Co., sent letters to eleven stores asserting that they were violating phone-use rules by improperly advertising the device. Last month Mercer filed suit in federal district court in Los Angeles, charging that A T & T, General Telephone & Electronics Corp. and 41 of their subsidiaries violated antitrust laws by attempting to use Federal Communications Commission regulations to force the Name Caller off the market. The suit also contends that the telephone companies threatened to suspend the phone service of retailers if they continued to sell the device. Indeed, the telephone companies can legally shut off service to any phone user who hooks up a device himself.