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Widget Of The Week

Fonadek 5M4 Telephone Amplifier, 1968

We all know – hopefully -- that the vast majority of so-called celebrity endorsements are little more than crude marketing ploys. In most cases sub A-list celebs and ‘influencers’ with large social media followings are plied with freebies and paid to feature or recommend products, preferably with photos of themselves, gurning benevolently upon it.

 

Some celebrity endorsements aren’t so easily bought, though. Arguably the most exclusive one is the ‘By Royal Appointment Warrant awarded to products favoured by the British Royal Households. It’s no good sending their Highnesses fancy widgets or back-handers on the off chance of a mention on HRH’s Twitter feed or the Buck House Facebook page. To apply for a Royal Warrant one of the senior royals must have been using the goods or services concerned for at least 5 years.

 

The Duke Of Edinburgh or more likely his staff, clearly took a shine to Fonadek’s Telephone Amplifiers, and this version, the 5M4, dating from the mid 1960s, definitely wouldn’t have looked out of place on a regal office desk. It has that almost indefinable, solidly British feel about it. It looks like it was styled (and painted) by Land Rover; it’s as timeless as a fine fowling piece, and built like a brick throne room… The Royals like their stuff to last… 

 

It’s designed to be used with the classic Type 300 Bakelite telephone (type 164 handset), and it’s very easy to use. Placing the handset in the cradle depresses a small button switching it on, turning what moments ago was an ordinary desktop telephone, into a trendy, modern space-age, hands-free phone. A magnetic coil in the top of the unit picks up sounds coming from the earpiece or ‘receiver’. This is connected to a battery-powered 5-transistor amplifier, which drives the matching external speaker.

 

The transmitter part of the handset sits facing a parabolically shaped chamber that reflects the user’s voice into the microphone. There’s a volume control on the side and a recessed sensitivity control on the back panel. The cases are made of steel and it is vastly over-engineered, but on the plus side this one wouldn’t have survived so long, in such good condition, if it had been made of lesser materials.

 

Apart from the remains of the Duke of Edinburgh’s warrant crest on the edge of the case I think it unlikely that this one has any other Royal connections. Stranger things have happened but it’s a long way from Buckingham Palace to the cardboard box full of junk at a Midlands antique fair where I found this one. I almost didn’t see it; the dirty dark green finish was an effective camouflage colour, but the odd shape caught my eye and the pyramid-shaped speaker attached to it confirmed my suspicions. Displaying goods in damp cardboard boxes is often a fair indicator of what a stallholder thinks their wares are worth, and I wasn’t disappointed, or inclined to haggle over the ‘couple of quid’ asking price.

 

It wasn’t a pretty sight but it scrubbed up well using ordinary household cleaners. There was some very light surface rust in a few small spots, where the paint had been worn away or scratched, but this was easily removed and touched up. After an hour it two it was looking quite presentable. Inside it was a similar story, mostly dirt and some light rust patches but there were no signs of battery corrosion and again it was a simple matter to muck it out and clean it up. A quick check of the circuit board suggested all was well and connecting up a PP9 battery produced a welcome pop from the speaker and a crackle from the volume control. Keen to try it out I held my cordless phone close to the magnetic pickup. To be honest I wasn’t expecting much but it produced a really loud dial tone from the speaker when the line was opened. It was clear that it was still in good working order and when I get a moment I’ll hook up one of my Type 300’s Bakelite phones and give it a proper road test.

 

What Happened To It?

Fonadek International Ltd, later Fonadek (Branson) Ltd, are a bit of a mystery. There are only a few odds and ends about the company’s history on the web so as usual I would be grateful to anyone who can fill in the many blanks. The (so far) known facts can be boiled down to them being founded around June 1950, according to records at Company’s House and they were located in Vivian Road in Birmingham. They appear to have stayed there until August 1982, or thereabouts, which was when they last filed accounts, and the trail goes cold.

 

During that time I estimate they produced around half a dozen telephone amplifiers models and a quirky desktop message system, called Permapad. The earliest telephone amps were valve-based with built-in speakers; the one featured here is most likely a first or second-generation transistor version. I’ve dated it to around 1965, based on the types of transistors used (introduced a year or so earlier). Later models, probably made during the 70s and 80s, appear to be made largely of plastic, with horizontal, rather than upright cradles. I suspect Fonadek struggled for several years; I can find no record of what this telephone amplifier originally sold for but I would be surprised if it was less than £30 to £40, which would have been a fair sum back then. Competition from cheap far-eastern products, like this Homer KIT-505, which sold for £3, 2s (£2.10) first appeared in the mid 1960s and would have grabbed a large chunk of what would have been a comparatively small market especially amongst consumers and office users. By the late 70s phones with built-in speakers were starting to appear and Royal Warrant or not, there were just not enough well equipped offices, captains of Industry and wealthy toffs to make expensive high-end models like the Fonadek viable. 

 

By rights such an unusual and apparently highly regarded instrument should be worth a few bob but the few I’ve seen on ebay are typically priced at between £10 and £20, with very few takers. Phone collectors and retro tech like this sort of thing, though, and I can imagine upcyclers eyeing it up as the base of a table lamp. I fully expect to see a butchered example selling for a three-figure sum in a trendy furniture shop, but rest assured this one will be preserved for in its natural state for future generations to enjoy (unless I get a really good offer…)


First Seen:                      1968

Original Price:                 £30 - £40?

Value Today:                   £10.00 (0918)

Features:                         5-transistor amplifier, magnetic pickup, 8-cm 8-ohm Richard Allen speaker, parabolic reflector, volume & sensitivity controls

Power req.                      9v PP9 battery

Dimensions:                    250 x 140 x 130mm (main unit), 170 x 98 x 106mm (ext speaker)

Weight:                           1.4kg (main unit), 700g (ext speaker)

Made (assembled) in:      UK

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest)     7



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