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Widget Of The Week

Mehanotehnika Intercom Telephone 1973

This may not be the first vintage intercom featured in dustygizmos, far from it, but it is most definitely the first, and probably the last one to be made in the former Yugoslavia. It’s the Mehanotehnika Intercom Telephone, dating from 1973. Okay, so it’s a toy, but we won’t hold that against it. The design goes right back to the first principles of telephony, established in the late 1870s  and -- lest we forget -- ably demonstrates that there was once a time when you could do quite clever things without bucket-loads of microchips.

 

The two stations are roughly three-quarter size replicas of domestic telephones, complete with rotary dials that are used to ‘call’ the other station. Although this appears to be a very basic function, routing call and two-way audio traffic through a two-core cable is a surprisingly complicated business involving a fair amount of what we now call logic, yet it achieves this using just a couple of simple switches and some ingenious wiring. These days it would all be handled by a microcontroller, at the very least. 

 

The phones are powered by four 1.5-volt D cells (two in each phone) and connected together by the previously mentioned two-core cable, which is around 10 metres long. Each phone also has a red call light and an internal ringer, or rather a buzzer. To call the other station you have to lift the receiver and turn the dial at which point the lamp on the other phone lights up and the buzzer sounds, It’s also possible to set off the lights and buzzers on both phones by leaving the receiver in its cradle and turn the dial. To answer the call the person at the other end just has to lift the receiver and chat away.

 

Internally the two phones are identical. Two leaf switches are mounted on top of the battery holder; one is linked to a plunger or button on the handset cradle and the other is actuated by rotating the dial. The buzzer – a simple electromagnet with a spring metal interrupter switch – is on the right side of the base panel and the call lamp is mounted on the left side (incidentally, this looks a lot like a Christmas tree bulb). On the rear of the panel there’s a polarised two-pin socket for connector cable. Inside each handset there’s a magnetic earpiece and a carbon microphone.

 

According to the stallholder at the Kent car boot sale where I found them, they started the day with a £10 asking price. That would have been fair, had it not rained stair rods in the half hour before I arrived. What started out as a nice little outfit, complete with its original cardboard box, now looked a very sorry sight indeed. The box had almost disintegrated in the downpour and in the stallholder’s haste to pack his more precious wares away, the cable and instructions it allegedly started out with had vanished. Clearly he’d had enough and the price of everything left floating in the mud had been reduced to £1.00. Not wishing to add to his misery by haggling I paid my pound and scooped the soggy mess into a carrier bag. As it turned out the casualty list was fairly short, with the box being the only part of the package beyond help.

 

The two phones appeared to be in good shape and just needed a wipe over to remove the mud and muck. After fitting a set of batteries and connecting the two phones together I wasn’t too surprised when nothing happened. There were several minor faults. The easiest ones to fix were the contacts on the switches on both phones, which were badly tarnished, but it was nothing a quick scrub with a glass fibre brush couldn’t remove. The cable sockets were also a bit manky. Wires going to both earpieces had come adrift, and were swiftly reattached with my trusty soldering iron. This time the two phones came to life with the signalling lamps and buzzers all working, but there was still nothing in the way of voice communications. A few dabs with the multimeter suggested that the problem lay with the two microphones, and the likely cause was moisture getting into the capsules, which contain a small quantity of fine carbon granules.

 

Carbon mikes are one of the oldest microphone technologies. The carbon granules, about the size of grains of salt, are contained within a small metal pot, which acts a contact with the electrically conductive granules. A second smaller conical-shaped electrical contact, attached to a thin metal diaphragm, sits in the pot of granules, insulated from the metal pot and sealed from the atmosphere by a soft rubber gasket. Sound waves make the diaphragm vibrate, agitating the conical contact, which you’ll recall is also in contact with the granules. The agitation of the granules changes the resistance between the two contacts, so a current passing between them varies in direct proportion to the frequency and intensity of the vibrations. What could possibly go wrong? Very little, as it happens, except that damp granules stick together and do not agitate.

 

Finding a pair of direct replacement microphones for this vintage toy would be difficult, and probably quite expensive. Working carbon mikes scrounged from old phones might be persuaded to fit but I thought I would have a go at fixing them myself. As it turned out it wasn’t as difficult as I feared. The front and rear parts of the mike capsule are held together by fold-over metal tabs and once they are separated it is possible to gently lift the diaphragm assemblies out of the rubber cupped metal pots containing the fine granules. I emptied the contents of both capsules onto a clean sheet of paper and placed in the oven (150 degrees C) for around 15 minutes. I would like to say all this had been carefully researched or worked out but the truth is the time and temperature were just guesswork. Fortunately it seemed to work and the sticky granules came out of the oven as a fine loose dust. I carefully poured them back into the containers and the capsules were re-sealed.

 

It was a partial success. One of the mikes worked quite well, the other was barely audible. It’s possible that the division of granules wasn’t quite equal, or the contact surfaces of the duff mike might be tarnished, but taking them apart again risks breaking the metal tabs that hold the parts together, so it’s on the to-do list and at least I know that the phones can be made to work.

 

What Happened To It?

The manufacturers, Mehanotehnika, were founded in the early 1950s, and according to the company’s archived history, the name came from the first toy they made, which happened to be a puzzle. Throughout the late 50s and sixties numerous other toys and games followed; details are a tad skimpy but apparently they were produced with ‘superior psychological and pedagogical content’… Stamps on the bases of both phone show that they were made in 1973 and it seems to be the part of a move to more sophisticated mechanical and electrical toys. In 1990 the company changed its name to Mehano and by this time it had become a highly regarded manufacturer of model trains, which it continues to make to this day. Bizarrely this is in spite of the company being declared bankrupt in 2008, following a decade of declining profits and mounting debts.

 

Toy telephone style intercoms used to be fairly common though they tended to fizzle out in the 80s as most kids, and parents, would have regarded them as rather old fashioned. In any case by that time there were much more exciting ways for children, and big kids, to communicate. Walkie talkies had been around since the early 60s and the market was awash with cheap, mostly character or TV show themed models, aimed at pre-teens. These were technically illegal but tolerated as they operated at very low power levels but at around this time the brief craze for Citizen’s Band radio had begun to take hold. More sophisticate and powerful walkie talkies started filling the shelves, and eventually a sanitised system was legalised in the UK but the novelty quickly wore off as rival attractions, like video games and electronic toys began their apparently unstoppable takeover.

 

Mehanotehnika/Mehano Intercom Telephones from the 70s turn up on ebay fairly regularly, though all of the ones I have seen so far were clean and boxed examples. Most of them were in good working order and priced at between £30 to £50. This one, in its current partially working state is probably only going to fetch between £5 and £10, for spares or repair but this is an area where bargains can still be found  and there is clear potential for bargain hunters and collectors.  


Orginal Price:                        £5.00?

Value Today:                         £5.00 – £50.00 (0418)

Features:                               Two-station intercom/telephone, buzzer and signal lamp, rotary dial, handset plunger, magnetic earphones & carbon microphones, 10 metre connecting cable.

Power req.                            4 x 1.5 volt D cells

Dimensions:                          128 x 153 x 95mm

Weight:                                 280g

Made (assembled) in:           Yugoslavia (Slovenia)

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest)          6



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