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Decimo Vatman 120D Calc
Labgear Handi-Call 2-station Intercom, 1962
Strange to think that until comparatively recently having an intercom on your office desk was a status symbol, a sign of power, or subservience. The more buttons it had -- indicating the number of people you could contact – might mean that you were either a receptionist or a really hands-on boss. Conversely an intercom with no buttons suggested you were the office nobody, or a really important bigwig with your primary link to the bothersome outside world an intercom manned (or more likely woman-ed) by a stern gate-keeping personal assistant.
At the other end of the scale simple two-station intercoms, and we’ve looked at several of them in dustygizmos, were popular as baby alarms and for door entry, but the Labgear Handi-Call featured here was clearly intended for more serious applications, though it might not be immediately obvious from the photo. It looks a lot like the countless cheapo, Japanese-made two-station intercoms on the market in the 1960s and 70s. It’s only when you see the Handi-Call alongside one of them that it becomes clear that it was never intended for anything as mundane as domestic use.
It is huge, roughly five or six times larger than a typical compact intercom, (see right) and it was built to last. The cases are made of a Bakelite-like material, a tough thermo-setting plastic that is heavy, hard and durable. It’s the same stuff that the classic vintage GPO telephones were made of. The large Fane speakers used in both the master and slave stations are also meant to be heard, and they are loud, which is all the more remarkable as the amplifier uses just two germanium transistors (NKT 254 & 255).
Handi-Call is a great example of how circuit designers managed to squeeze every last ounce of juice out of those early transistors, which, at the time, were very expensive. For those who may be interested the amplifier is a Class B type, using a pair of complimentary transistors (matching PNP and NPN types), with a push-pull output. What’s all that about, I hear you say? Well, the particular advantage of a Class B amplifier is that it draws almost no current when not in use, (aka the quiescent state), which makes it ideal for battery powered devices that need to be operational for extended periods. The downside is that a lot of the heavy lifting has to done by transformers, which significantly increases the cost. Well you did ask…
It’s almost devoid of features, not even a ‘call’ function on the Slave unit or a volume control on the Master station. These were almost standard fitments, even on the cheapest Japanese intercoms of the time. There is a volume adjustment, but it’s an internal preset (a slide potentiometer) only accessible when the base plate has been removed. The single button on the Master unit is the Push-To-Talk (PTT) key. In normal operation the Slave station’s loudspeaker acts as a microphone, picking up sounds that are piped through to the Master station, via a two-core cable, and from there to the amplifier and the speaker. To talk to the Slave unit from the Master station the button is pressed and the roles of the two speakers and the amplifier are reversed. It is powered by four 1.5 volt ‘D’ cells that with intermittent use and low background noise would probably last for weeks, if not months.
Vintage intercoms are plentiful on ebay and tend not to attract much attention, unless they are very old or in mint and boxed condition – more on that shortly. This Handi-Call was no exception and even with a low opening price of £5.00, and being in apparently good condition, didn’t get a single bid. It was on my watch list and I planned to place a modest bid. The model was unfamiliar but I knew Labgear as a British manufacturer of good quality test instruments, but I completely forgot about it. As soon as I realised I’d missed it I emailed the seller, offered £5 and they accepted. The £5.00 asked for the postage seemed a touch steep, but it all made sense when the large and surprisingly heavy box arrived. Had the seller included something in the photo or description to give an idea of how big it was I have no doubt it would have generated more interest.
The Master and Slave were clean, inside and out but there were a couple of small cracks on the corners of the Master station’s case and a layer of grime on some of the parts. To make life easier I stripped it down and started with the case cracks. They weren’t serious and being Bakelite, it’s easy to stabilise using an epoxy adhesive, and with a little time and effort, make them disappear using a pigment stirred into the resin. To finish it off a fine grade wet/dry and an abrasive polish (Brasso works really well on Bakelite). All of the metal parts cleaned up well; the copper battery contacts were spotless. Once reassembled, the base station connected and powered up, it worked first time, with plenty of volume at both ends. I generally replace the electrolytic capacitors on electronic devices made prior to the mid 70s, especially on anything made in Japan or Hong Kong. However, the ones on the Handi-Call were fine, so it was a simple case of if it ‘aint broke…
A quick word on the date of manufacture. I can be reasonably certain it was made in the early to mid 1960s. By then Bakelite had been largely replaced by thermoplastics and the hand-built ‘tag board’ circuit is typical of the time, but there were even better clues. The germanium transistors it uses, made by a UK company called Newmarket, were discontinued in the mid 1960s and there’s a price marking on the box of £9 15s 6d. This also puts it into the sixties. Whilst the UK officially switched to decimal currency in 1971, the conversion process had begun several years earlier with items commonly priced in what was then known as the ‘new money’.
What Happened To It?
Stand-alone multi-station office intercoms started to disappear from the mid 70s onwards as the function was increasingly integrated into internal phone systems and PABXs (Private Automatic Branch Exchange). Also at around this time the prices were falling, thanks to the impact of digital electronics on all areas of communications technology. This spilled over into the home and within a few years domestic intercoms would be replaced by cheap multi-handset cordless phones, many of which had an internal call facility. A few models lingered on, and to this day can be found in specialised applications like baby alarms and entry phones.
Intercoms from the 60s have yet to acquire any sort of novelty value in the mainstream collectors markets. To be honest most of the ones made at around that time are not that useful or visually striking. It is likely to be a while before vintage models become scarce or increase significantly in value, which, as usual is good news for some of us. Go back a few years, though and prices really start to perk up. Wooden cased items, like the Dictograph Master Console, and big old Bakelite jobbies with lots of buttons are obvious exceptions. Alas some of them suffer a terrible fate, being upcycled into table lamps and quirky ‘Nixie’ clocks, so it is your duty to save them while they can still be found in an unmolested virgin state! Toy intercoms also have quite a following, especially if they are tied in with cartoon characters, TV shows and movies. The Labgear Handi-Call deserves recognition too. It’s big and super-rare and almost certainly one of, if not the first British-made Intercom to use transistors, which must make it worth a bit more than a fiver. As is so often the case, there is an opportunity to get in on what will undoubtedly become the next big thing. If past experience teaches us anything, recently deceased technologies have a habit of suddenly becoming trendy, and expensive. Probably… `
First Seen: 1962
Original Price: £9 15s 6d (£9.78)
Value Today: £10 (0421)
Features: Two-station intercom, simplex operation. Master Unit: 2-transistor (NKT 254/255) complimentary pair Class B amplifier, push to talk switch, 75mm Fane speaker, on/off slide switch, screw terminal for cable (2-core), fixed (internally adjustable) volume,
Power req. 4 x 1.5 volt D cells
Dimensions: 175 x 153 x 85mm (both units)
Weight: 1kg (base station) 550g (slave)
Made (assembled) in: England (Cambridge)
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest) 9
Academy Y-WT 15 Walkie Talkies, 1980?
For anyone growing up in the sixties and seventies the must-have tech gadget was a pocket transistor radio – things were a lot simpler back then... And if you were a boy you’d probably hanker after a pair of portable hand-held two-way radio transceivers, aka Walkie Talkies. They were cheap and plentiful and frequently linked with popular cartoon characters and TV shows. It didn’t matter that most models had a range of just a few metres and generally fell apart after a few weeks of use. They were toys, but the ability to hold a private conversation with a nearby friend was exciting, rebellious even. It probably sounds a bit sad now, but you had to be there to appreciate that this was as good as personal communications got for pre-teens in those far off days, before the Internet and mobile phones…
Over the years interest in walkie-talkies waxed and waned. The Citizen’s Band craze in the late 1970s produced a sharp upturn. Illegal and surprisingly powerful CB radios, imported from the US and the continent, working on frequencies around 27MHz on the Short Wave band, became a popular novelty. However, there were legitimate concerns over interference and in 1981, in a half-arsed attempt to stamp it out, the Government of the day banned American ‘rigs’ and legalised a weedy and guaranteed fun-free FM system (also operating on 27MHz). But by then the genie was out of the bottle and wireless gadgets were everywhere, from baby alarms and radio-controlled toys and model aircraft, to cordless telephones and yes, even more cheap walkie-talkies.
Most of those new generation devices operated on a frequency of 49MHz, in the VHF band, which at the time was still being used by 405-line TV. Once again the UK Government’s telecommunications regulators were late playing catch-up with the technology. Eventually it produced vast swathes of legislation, setting out who and what was allowed to use the hallowed airwaves. Needless to say it resulted in much confusion and countless grey areas, and in the midst of it these Academy Y-WT 15 walkie-talkies -- and many like them -- started appearing in the shops. Thanks to multiple changes in UK and EU legislation -- that may or may not be relevant -- it’s still difficult to say if they’re legal or not.
Either way, with an RF output of only 10 milliwatts or so they wouldn’t have been very controversial or problematic in terms of interference. However, these particular walkie-talkies, whilst still effectively toys, were clearly designed to look a little more grown up. That includes noticeably superior build quality and the styling, which closely resembles professional two-way radios. It continues inside the case, starting with a separate microphone and loudspeaker (on most walkie talkies the speaker doubles up as a mike, which doesn’t do much for sound quality). Instead of a simple and noisy 2 or 3 transistor regenerative AM receiver and crudely designed transmitter this one has a sensitive FM superhetrodyne tuner and a more refined transmitter, together using half a dozen transistors and a mystery microchip. There’s a proper ‘call’ facility too, that doesn’t pretend to have anything to do with the Morse Code, an earphone socket, a tough 8-section telescopic antenna and it came with a wrist lanyard and well made leather cases
It is a fixed, single-channel, half-duplex design (send and receive but only one person speaking at a time) so there is a minimum of controls. The push-to-talk (PTT) button is on the left side and above that is a rotary on/off volume thumbwheel. A single red LED on the front panel shows transmit function and battery level, and the ‘call’ button is mounted on the top of the case, along with the earphone socket.
Power is supplied by one 9-volt PP3 type battery, which fits, into a compartment on the underside of the case.
This pair came from ebay and, as is often the case, seems to have slipped under the normally eagle-eyed vintage tech collector’s radar. There were no other bidders and it was mine for the opening bid of £5.50. To put that into perspective it was less than half what similar models currently (early 2021) sell for, given that they were listed as being in good cosmetic condition and in working order. They also came with a set of new batteries, which had to be worth a quid or two. The description was accurate, though the ‘call’ buttons on both handsets were on their last legs and needed replacing. Luckily they are standard 6mm micro ‘momentary’ tactile switches, that I had to hand, but even if I’d had to buy them they would only have cost a pound or so. Both hansets needed a good clean up, inside and out but, otherwise they were good to go and a brief test showed speech quality to be reasonably good and the range upwards of 100 metres in the open.
What Happened To It?
Walkie-talkies have come a very long way since the very first ones appeared in the mid 1930s. Until the late 50s their use was largely confined to military, law enforcement and industrial roles, then something remarkable happened. Almost overnight the transistor transformed the technology, from bulky metal boxes full of tiny valves -- something that only governments could afford -- into a cheap and cheerful mass-market product.
From the very beginning, in the UK at least, the public was banned from using any sort of radio transmitter without a licence. Bizarrely, until comparatively recently walkie talkies could be bought and sold quite legally, you just weren’t allowed to use them. This didn’t stop them selling in huge numbers, but their transient appeal, poor quality construction and young, heavy handed users, meant that relatively few escaped the rubbish bin. Character themed, TV show and movie linked models from the 1960s have always been popular, with prices to match, especially if they’re in good condition and come with the original packaging. Later, plain looking models like the Academy Y-WT 15 don’t have anything like the same appeal, nevertheless they have a following and prices are unlikely ever to fall as they get older and tidy working examples become harder to find.
First Seen: 1980
Original Price: £10.00?
Value Today: £20.00 (0221)
Features: Analogue FM VHF transceiver, half-duplex operation, single channel crystal controlled (49.831 Mhz), 6 transistor, 1 microchip, superhetrodyne receiver, 10mW RF output, call function, 8 section telescopic antenna (1 metre fully extended), earphone socket (3.5mm jack), LED PTT/Call indicator, electret microphone, 30mm ohm speaker, rotary on/off volume control, lanyard, leather carry case
Power req. 9 volt PP3 battery
Dimensions: 165 x 52 x 28mm
Made (assembled) in: China
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest) 6
Mehanoteknika Intercom, Iskra ATA 31, 1968?
It might be argued – but not by me I hasten to add – that vintage toy Intercoms, telephones and walkie-talkies from the 1960s can be a bit dull. To be fair those who weren’t there are forgiven, but the world was a very different place back then. Personal communications for the young was limited to how far you could shout and home telephones were a luxury for many families, and definitely not to be used by kids. It is also fair to say that a lot of toy intercoms and phones had the tendency to be a bit samey, due them being made by a relatively small number of companies in Japan and Hong Kong. But there were exceptions. This telephone set from Mehanoteknika is one of them. And as the packaging and the phones themselves proudly claim, it’s a ‘True copy of the Iskra Kranj Type ATA 31’.
In case you were wondering that was quite a big deal. The phone manufacturer Iskra (Kranj was the town where they were made) may not be well known outside of Slovenia (formerly part of Yugoslavia), but it is a familiar name in telephone enthusiast and collector circles. Even if you haven’t heard of Iskra the ATA 31 phone, manufactured between 1965 and 1968, and its many stable mates, might well ring a few bells. Iskra were responsible for a fair number of instantly recognisable and very stylish phones in the 60s and 70s. They often crop up in the movies and TV shows of the day and the sleek and colourful designs are said to have been inspired by iconic vintage supercars from the likes of Ferrari. The ATA 31 was up there with the best of them and highly regarded its heyday, winning several prestigious design awards.
This replica phone set was made under licence by another Slovenian company, the toy maker Mehanoteknika, probably during the latter years or soon after the original ATA 31’s production run. Outwardly it is indeed a faithful copy of the original, differing in size by just a few millimetres here and there, though being a toy it was made from lighter and less durable materials, with somewhat simpler fittings and innards. The rotary dial is an obvious cost-cutting phoney; it does turn, and springs back – a bit too quickly to be authentic – but its real job is to operate the Call function, which makes a bulb glow and a buzzer sound on the phone it is connected to. The cradle switch is also functional and when both handsets are lifted you can chat away with whoever is on the other end – pure magic to a sixties pre-teen. The outfit comes with a reel of cable (twisted pair), which possibly started out at 20 metres or longer long as the one that came with it measured 13.5 metres. That’s a weird length and suggests a chunk of it fell afoul of a vacuum cleaner’s brush roller, a common fate shared by a lot of toy intercom connecting cables.
Unlike most vintage intercoms this one uses pukka telephone technology for simultaneous or duplex two-way conversations. This means there’s no need for a press to talk button, but the trade off is both units need their own independent power supply, in this case two 1.5 ‘D’ cells. All of the communications stuff happens in the handsets. There are no amplifiers or indeed any sort of electronic circuitry. Each handset has a carbon granule transmitter (microphone), and a magnetic receiver (earpiece). It’s an elegantly simple setup; on the microphone fine carbon granules are sandwiched between a thin metal diaphragm and a conducting plate in the rear of the sealed capsule; both are connected to terminals. When sound – i.e. the users voice – hits the diaphragm the carbon granules vibrate, and being conductive, cause the resistance between the two terminals to vary in sympathy with the sound. The earphone in the each handset is connected to the other phone’s microphone, via two switches and a pair of D cells. Inside the earpiece there’s a coil of wire mounted close to another metal diaphragm, which vibrates as the current flowing through it changes. The signalling buzzers and lights work on an equally simple principle controlled the switches operated by the phone cradle and rotary dial.
Thanks to the C19 lurgies, still rife at the time of writing, ebay remains one of the few sources of vintage tech. This ATA- 31 toy copy was no exception, costing an uncontested £9.00. The promised cosmetic condition (very good) and the fact that it came with the original box and instructions made it worth a punt. And so it was; a quick wipe over was all that was needed to restore the cases and handsets to a scratchless and almost as-new shine. The description also admitted to some light battery leakage but it was swiftly dealt with, thanks to a rotary wire brush and some vinegar.
It was billed as a non-runner, and remained so, even after the battery contacts had been cleaned. This was almost entirely due to the truly awful original wiring and the nastiest switches and plug connectors imaginable. I find it hard to believe that they would have lasted more than a few months in the hands of a typical youngster. I could have replaced them but since it wasn’t going to be subject to much use, let alone any abuse, I decided to keep it as original as possible and recondition the installed ones. The thin brass spring contacts had bent slightly and needed scraping to remove layers of oxide and crud. The two buzzers, which at first produced only a feeblest, stuttery clicking sound, received the same treatment and they responded well. The two tiny incandescent signal bulbs worked, but probably wouldn’t have withstood much use. They’re and odd size and almost certainly long obsolete, so one day, when I get a moment I’ll swap them for LEDS, not forgetting to tape the original bulbs to the inside of the cases for the benefit of any future owners or restorers.
What Happened To It?
Iskra, which means spark in Slovenian, was founded in the late 1940s is still going strong. It started out making phones under licence from Siemens. Nowadays they’re a global player in the telecommunications, security, electrical components and energy markets. They don’t manufacture smart-looking home telephones anymore but they do make a lot of the equipment that connects and powers phone networks, and much more besides.
Given that kids today appear to get their first smartphone within weeks of birth it is a little surprising that toy, wire-connected telephone-style intercoms are still being made. Production probably never stopped and should you wish, you can find them on ebay and Amazon selling for less than £15.00. The cost of this one when new is uncertain but a faded price sticker on the box, written in the pre decimal style says ‘£3/-‘, so we’ll go with that, even though it sounds a tad cheap. The fact that I paid £9.00 for this one and I’ve seen others go for less than £30.00 indicates that they have yet to become the desirable collectables they deserve to be. To be fair most toy phones, even if they do date from the sixties are always going to be a minority interest but this one is clearly a bit different. For the record an original Iskra ATA 31 is an exhibit in the Science Museum Collection and you’ll find them on ebay from time to time selling for between £40 and £60. Some of the rarer models can set you back three-figure sums, so maybe there’s a chance toy versions of this iconic phone will put on a few quid as the years roll by?
First Seen: 1968?
Original Price: £3.00
Value Today: £10 (0520)
Features: Two-way duplex operation, call remote station feature with buzzer and light, carbon ‘transmitter’ (microphone), magnetic ‘receiver’ (earpiece), dummy rotary dial call switch, 20 metre connecting cable
Power req: 4 x 1.5 volt D cells (2 per phone)
Dimensions: 145 x 145 x 65mm
Made (assembled) in: Slovenia (former Yugoslavia)
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 7
Homer KE-10 Miniature Transistor Intercom, 1967
When it comes to teccy thrills, on a scale of one to ten, cheap two-station intercoms like this Homer KE-10 outfit only rate a very modest one or two. However, in the context of this particular specimen, it being well over 50 years old, and taking into account that it manages to achieve intelligible two-way audio communications over distances of several dozen metres, using just two transistors and a small handful of electronic components, it is a quite remarkable achievement.
Okay, let’s not get too carried away; the KE-10 is little more than a glorified baby monitor. But that doesn’t take anything away from the fact that modern equivalents, doing more or less the same basic job, cost several times as much – even allowing for inflation – and use vastly more sophisticated circuitry, though to be fair most of them do have a few extra tricks up their sleeves….
The KE-10 was one of scores (possibly hundreds) of low-cost intercoms on sale in the early 1960s. It might seem a bit odd when you look back as to why there were so many of them, and why they were so popular but again, context is everything. We have become accustomed to carrying pocket-sized devices with a worldwide communications capability; back in the early 1960s telephones were still something of a luxury and by no means ubiquitous in most people’s homes. Even something as humble as a cheap 2-station intercom was regarded as a technical marvel, and whilst it doesn’t really compare with a phone, just being able to hold a conversation with someone you couldn’t see, even if they were within shouting distance,, was a real novelty. Doubtless some of them were actually used for serious applications, like inter-office communications, though it is likely that the majority of cheap low-end models, like this one, were bought as baby monitors or playthings.
The styling and cosmetics of this model suggests that the manufacturers were aiming at more grown-up applications and there’s a note in the instructions warning against its use as a baby monitor, as battery drain could be excessive. The two units, known as the ‘Master’ and ‘Sub-Station’ are housed in identical cases, with the Master contains the electronics and battery. The Sub-Station has a single push to talk/call switch, a small speaker, which doubles up as a microphone, and a single capacitor. This is part of the call signal circuit, that causes the amplifier in the Master unit to oscillate and generate a loud tone. The only outward difference on the Master unit is a rotary on/off switch; inside there is a small circuit board and the 9-volt battery that powers it. A thin 20-meter twin cable, terminated at both ends by 2.5mm jack plugs, connects the two units. Operation is incredibly simple. Pressing the Call button on either unit generates a call tone on the other one, irrespective of whether the Master is switched on or off. In the on position the Master is in listening mode, hence the baby monitor application. The Call button on the Master has to be pressed when talking to the Sub-Station.
Ebay was the source of this KE-10. It was accurately described as complete, cosmetically okay, in its original box, but in non-working condition and easy to see why it was a Buy It Now sale for just £4.50. At some point in the last 50 years a battery had been left inside the Master unit and inevitably it had leaked. Most of the caustic gunk had found its way onto, and eaten away the battery connector. A small amount also ended up on the speaker frame and the inside of the case. Overall it wasn’t too bad, though, and cleaning it all up didn’t take very long. The battery connector was replaced, the speaker, which was largely undamaged, just needed a few minutes worth of wire bushing with a rotary tool, and after a complete strip-down the brown residue on the inside of the case brushed off after a ten minute dip in warm vinegar. The last item to be repaired was the connecting cable as the plugs at both ends had become detached. A short length of cable had to be removed as it had been badly damaged, probably by an encounter with a vacuum cleaner or tight fitting door. The first power-on test was a disappointment, not a peep, but after replacing the three electrolytic capacitors, which all measured leaky, and cleaning the contacts on the two push button switches it came alive.
What Happened To It?
We’ve looked at several Homer products in dustygizmos over the years, like the KIT-505 Telephone Amplifier and HR-408 ‘Thunderbirds’ mini tape recorder. However, Homer was simply a brand rather than the name of the manufacturer. It was common practice for US and Japanese distributors to ‘badge’ products for retailers. These were made by one of the many small companies that proliferated in Japan in the early 1960s. Most of them disappeared decades ago or were taken over by larger concerns so it is difficult, if not impossible to say who actually made the KE-10. Establishing its likely date of manufacture was much easier, though. The guarantee card that came with it is date stamped 1969. Identical models, usually with different names, first started appearing in UK magazine adverts (the one above is from Exchange & Mart, May 16th, 1968), catalogues and leaflets from around the same time, so it’s safe to assume it had been around for at least a year or two before that.
Adverts for this and the numerous other models based around the same or similar 2-transistor amplifiers continued for the next 10 years but by then office intercoms and PABX systems had become cheaper, and a lot more sophisticated, and baby alarms had started to go ‘wireless’.
As far as I can make out 1960s intercoms are not, as yet, popular collectables so there’s not a great deal of interest, or money to be made squirreling a few away. That means that should you be so inclined and fancy taking a punt on it taking off one day, it is not going to cost you much to get collecting. Ebay is the place to start looking, at least until life returns to normal (this was written in the midst of the Corvid 19 outbreak), and there’s plenty to choose from costing from around £5.00 upwards. Whether or not you’ll ever see a return on your investment remains to be seen, but speaking as things stand at the moment, there’s bugger all else to do…
First Seen: 1967
Original Price: £2.75 (55 shillings)
Value Today: £15.00 (0420)
Features: 2-transistor amplifier (50mW output), simplex operation, rotary on/off switch, push to talk/signal button, 2 x 55mm speaker/microphones, 20-metre connecting cable with 2.5mm jack plugs
Power req: 1 x PP9 9 volt battery
Dimensions: 104 x 42 x 76mm
Weight: 160g (master) 100g (sub station)
Made (assembled) in: Japan
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 5
BC-611/SCR-536 Signal Corps ‘Handie-Talkie, 1941
Numerous iconic British artefacts emerged from the Second World War but nothing says US Military louder and clearer than the Willys GPW and the BC-611 (aka SCR-536). You’ve probably worked out the Willys bit. The clue is in the ‘GPW’ designation, which stands for General Purpose Willys. The story goes – and it is one of several -- that US troops turned GP into ‘Jeep’, a tradition that allegedly lives on with the HMMWV (High Mobility Multi-purpose Wheeled Vehicle) or ‘Humvee’.
The BC-611 you’ll immediately recognise from the pix on the right and below as the ubiquitous US Army hand-held field radio of WW2. Like the Jeep it has featured prominently in countless movies and TV shows and became an enduring example of American ingenuity. Also, like the famous off-road vehicle, it made its mark on the English language, coining the word ‘walkie-talkie’ (though originally it was known as a ‘handie-talkie’).
The story begins in 1940, when Motorola started development work on a lightweight two-radio. It was originally intended for civilian use but it came to the attention of the US Army Signal Corps (hence the alternative SCR or Signal Corps Radio designation). It was an immediate success, replacing heavy and bulky radio backpacks. More than a quarter of a million BC-11s were manufactured throughout the war, making it the world’s first mass-produced, self-contained, battery-powered, hand-portable transceiver.
The BC-611 was designed to be used by ordinary GIs so it had to be tough, really tough, very easy to use and fix, when it went wrong. It ticks all of those boxes, and a few more besides, but the one thing it couldn’t do – contrary to many Hollywood movies -- is communicate over distances of more than a few hundred metres. That is about as far as you can shout, unless it is used in flat, open terrain, in which case the range can go up to around 1.5km. That wasn’t necessarily a problem for advancing ground troops. Shouting orders whilst under fire or when trying to stay hidden wasn’t a good idea and soldiers in those situations usually only needed to be able to talk to their comrades and commanders who were hopefully close by. That was precisely the sort of situations they were used in, on the Normandy beaches, the battlefields of Europe and North Africa and numerous other war zones where BC-611s made vital contributions to military communications and doubtless saved a great many lives.
Its durability is mainly down to the heavy-duty alloy casing. It’s waterproof; with rubber seals protecting all possible entry points and that includes the telescopic antenna, which normally lives under the stubby removable cover on the top of the case. This is actually one of the BC-611’s cleverest design features. The antenna cover is tethered to the case by a short chain. To stop it rattling against the case, and possibly give away your position, there’s a threaded mounting stud, which keeps it out of the way. Fully extending the antenna switches the unit on and puts it into the receive mode. Retracting the antenna is supposed to switch the unit off, but to stop it being accidentally left switched on and draining the batteries, replacing the antenna cap ensures that the aerial collapses fully and returns the power switch to the off position. There is only one other control and that’s the rubber covered press-to-talk (PTT) switch on the right side of the case. As you can see the earphone and microphone are built into the case and arranged like telephone handset. There’s also an adjustable canvas webbing wrist/carry strap on the back of the case. One other nerdy tidbit; the BC-611 was designed and balanced for left-handed use on the premise that most soldiers were right-handed and needed that hand free to operate their weapons.
Inside all of the electronics are mounted on a single, easily removable one-piece chassis module. In fact it can be taken out in just a few seconds by slackening off a single screw on the top of the case. The chassis then slides out, through the open battery compartment on the base. (Normally it is protected by a waterproof hinged cover). This ingenious quick release feature serves two purposes. Firstly it makes it easy to change radio channels – more on that in a moment – and second, it greatly simplifies maintenance and repair in the field. Speaking of which, the US War Department issued a remarkably detailed Technical Manual (TM-11-235) for the BC-611. Now declassified it has become the Bible for restorers with just about everything you need to know to keep these old beasts in good working order, as well as how to destroy them, to stop them falling into enemy hands...
Since this is a 1940’s vintage technology it uses valves (tubes). There are five of them, all miniature types that are held securely in place by spring-loaded clips. As you doubtless know, unlike transistors – which didn’t appear in a useable form until the early 1950s -- valves operate on high voltages; which brings us to the batteries. The BC-611 uses two custom battery packs. The first, a BA-37 delivers a low voltage (low tension or LT) 1.5 volts supply for the valve’s heater filaments. The second is a BA-38, which is the high voltage (high tension or HT) pack providing just over 100 volts. Under normal conditions – whatever they might be – a fresh set of batteries was expected to last for around 15 hours. By the way, the original battery packs are no longer available but it is a relatively simple matter to put together home made battery packs using two D cells wired in parallel, for the 1.5 volt LT supply, and a stack of eleven 9 volt PP3 batteries for the HT pack. More recently packs have been developed using inexpensive step-up or ‘buck’ converter modules to generate high voltages from a couple of 3 volt lithium rechargeable batteries.
The BC-611 operates on the Short Wave band, on a set of 12 channels or frequencies between 3.5 and 6MHz. It is single channel only operation and channels are set by plugging in a quartz crystal and a matching coil module into sockets on the chassis. There’s a small holder just below the PTT switch where the user is supposed to insert a small card showing the frequency being used. The RF output, and the reason for the limited range, is just 360mW. To put that into some sort of modern context, Citizens’ Band walkie-talkies, popular in the 80s and 90s, which also use the Short Wave band, operate at power levels of up to 4 watts, giving a range of several miles in good conditions.
As you can see this one has had quite an eventful life, as befits something that is getting on for 80 years old and may well have seen active service. I acquired it a couple of years ago, exchanging it for some vintage radio gear, with a fellow collector. It was an abandoned restoration project, but as far as I could see hardy anything had been done, though it had been scavenged for parts. It came without any valves, crystals or coils. The antenna switch linkage was broken, there was considerable damage to some of the contacts on the switch plate but otherwise it was in pretty good condition. I fully intended to finish off the restoration but after listing all the missing components, and totting up how much they would all cost, it was put to one side. Getting it working again is theoretically possible but it would be a long and costly exercise. On the other hand it would be quite easy to spruce up the case and have it looking like almost new again but I’ve resisted the temptation. That would be a mistake. Every scratch and dent has a tale to tell and is a part of this radio’s long and unique history.
What Happened To It?
You don’t have to look far in dustygizmos to see what happened next in US Army field communications. The BC-611 was replaced by the AN/PRC-6 (aka Green Banana or Prick 6) in the 1950s and this model served in both the Korean and Vietnam wars and other conflicts up until the early 70s. They look quite similar and share a lot of instantly recognisable design features. Both units also use valves and the performance is broadly the same, but the PRC-6 was the last of the line as transistors and eventually digital electronics revolutionised military communications.
Large numbers of decommissioned BC-611s found their way onto the civilian market in the 50s and 60s, often for just a few dollars. Amateur radio enthusiasts snapped up a lot of them as they could be easily converted to operate on civilian frequencies. By the 1970s sources of cheap BC-611 had largely dried up, just as new markets opened up. They became increasingly popular with collectors of vintage military equipment, WW2 re-enactment clubs and societies, and inevitably prices for the dwindling supplies started to soar. Although they were manufactured in comparatively large numbers, and not just by Motorola -- many thousands were also produced under licence by factories in the US and Europe -- the ones that have survived are now mostly held in collections and museums. When occasionally they come on the market, and ebay is one of the few places you will find them in the UK, they generally sell for between £200 and £500, depending on condition. There are some very convincing replicas doing the rounds, one in particular is very close to the original, until you look inside the case, which has been kitted out with a modern walkie-talkie. There are also BC-11 ‘inspired’ telephones and a great many toys that have come and gone over the years. However, a genuine original is the only one worth having if you want a truly iconic piece of Second World militaria and a genuinely innovative example of mid twentieth century technology.
DUSTY DATA (Manual)
First Seen: 1941
Original Price: £?
Value Today: £250.00 (1019)
Features: AM Short Wave transceiver (3.5 – 6.0 MHz), 360mW RF output, single channel crystal-controlled frequency selection, 5-valves (1 x VT-471, 1 x VT-472, 1 x VT-473, 2 x VT-474). integral microphone and earphone, press to talk (PTT) switch, telescopic antenna with integral on/off switch, adjust able carry strap, operating range 30 metres – 1.6km (100 feet – 1 mile) depending on terrain
Power req. BA-37 1.5v filament supply battery pack & BA-38 103v HT supply battery pack
Dimensions: 420 x 125 x 95mm
Made (assembled) in: USA
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 8
National Standphone Intercom, 1970?
It can be difficult for the uninitiated -- those not of a nerdy, vintage gadget-loving disposition – to appreciate something as humble as a simple two-station intercom, but these National Standphones are the sort of thing that can get a hardcore aficionado’s juices flowing… Apologies for that but assuming you are so inclined, prepare to be impressed! (Or not, in which case there’s bound to be a website catering to your own peculiarities). Anyway, back to the National Standphones, and as you can see it was clearly inspired by the iconic Ericcson Ericofon 600, otherwise know as the ‘Cobra’ phone. This one-piece design dates back to the 1950s. Arguably it was and still is one of the most elegant and functional telephones of all time. The really clever feature, though, is the lack of a cradle or base unit; to make or take a call you simply pick it up.
The Standphone is a good example of what in the 1960s was regarded as the Japanese trait of copying and adapting Western designs and innovations, sometimes even improving on them. However, Standphone goes way beyond simple mimicry. When you pick one up there’s something else you’ll notice straight away. It’s unexpectedly heavy. It only becomes clear why when you open one up. They’re made entirely of metal, and that’s definitely something you don’t see every day, not since the 1930s at least, when the first all-plastic (thermo-setting resin Bakelite) phones were introduced. You certainly wouldn’t know from the outside, the colours and contours all point to them being made of plastic.
Whilst it is open you might spot another unusual feature. Until comparatively recently most intercoms worked on the Master/Base-Substation principle. In other words the Master unit contains the amplifier and station selection switches whilst all of the Substations usually have just a speaker, which also acts as a microphone, and a call button. Normally the Master unit user has to press a button whenever they want to speak and each side has to be careful not to talk over one another. Each National Standphone handset has it’s own amplifier. It’s a simple one-transistor affair, and it allows a pair of them to work in full duplex mode. This means both parties can speak and listen to each other at the same time, just like a normal telephone. Each unit has to have it’s own independent power supply and this comprises a pair of standard 1.5 volt C cells. They’re housed in a tube with a locking cap on the base of the handset. The battery holder is next to the Line switch; the button protruding from the base, so that when it is on a flat surface the phone is in Standby mode. To make a call the button on the neck of one handset is pressed and this sounds a call tone on the other handset’s speaker. When both parties lift up their respective handsets the line is open and the conversation can begin.
It is possible the Standphone was produced in other configurations, with multiple Substations working with a central Base Station. However, there’s no evidence of this on the web -- at least none that I could find – or anything else for that matter. In fact there’s nothing to suggest that it ever existed, let alone anything like model variation, the original price and so on and the many gaps in this story are now waiting to be filled by someone more knowledgeable.
Its journey to dustygizmos began quite a while ago, on ebay, where it languished for several months with no bidders. I tagged it, but didn’t take any action due to the price, which at the time was a bit more than I was prepared to pay. It finally fell off my radar until by chance I spotted it again, this time at a substantially lower starting price. I was interested but completely forgot to put in a bid, but nor had anyone else so it disappeared. Some time later it was re-listed, at an even lower price so I decided to have a go and placed a bid of a pound above the reserve price just as the auction ended. As you can see I won, though with no other bidders it wasn’t much of a competition…
It was exactly as described, in good working condition with just a few light blemishes. It had been well looked after and seemingly little used, needing no more than a quick wipe over. Nevertheless I took both units apart, more to see what made them tick and check for date marks etc, rather than do any restoration work. It was the same story inside, almost factory fresh and by the looks of it, the first time they had been dismantled. Although both units work I suspect that the volume isn’t what it could or should be so the amplifier boards are on my to-do list for a capacitor swap. The original caps look like typical sixties or early seventies vintage, which have a nasty habit of failing and that ties in with the use of germanium transistors, which had been mostly replaced with more robust silicon types by the late 70s.
What Happened To It?
The suggested manufacturing date of 1968 might be off by 5 years either way but there other clues, like the National name badge. National, one of the sub brands of the mighty Matsushita Corporation, was used on most products of this type until the mid to late 1970s after which it became National Panasonic. National was dropped in the 80s and it became simply Panasonic. Normally it’s fairly easy to pin down National’s consumer products but this particular one was probably not widely marketed. It may even have been distributed by one of its more specialist divisions, hence the lack of information on the web, so the price, like the date is also a guessimate.
Its value today is basically what I paid for it, as there have been no others -- which I am aware of -- to compare it with. It is possible there are more out there but even if there are the demand for them, and most other intercoms from that era tend to generate little excitement, making it an area ripe for anyone want to get into collecting vintage tech. I’m the first to admit that collecting old intercoms is an acquired taste but having seen so many other old and forgotten technologies suddenly -- and sometimes inexplicably -- acheive collectible status, and soar in price, now would be a good time to get involved. There are still plenty of them on ebay but I’m pleased to say, the Standphone appears to be in a class of its own.
First Seen: 1968?
Original Price: £ 20.00
Value Today: £ 20.00 (0719)
Features: 2-station one-piece phone-style transistorised intercom, duplex operation, ‘call’ button, base mounted line switch, 18-metre, 2-core cable with plug connections
Power req. 4 x 1.5v C cells (2 per station)
Dimensions: 215 x 8 x 90mm
Made (assembled) in: Japan
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 9
Realistic TRC-503 5-Channel Transceiver, 1989
What do these somewhat plain looking walkie-talkies have in common with howling babies and weather forecasting? Well, quite a lot actually. They operate on the same band of VHF frequencies -- on and around 49MHz -- as many baby monitors, various other ‘wireless’ household gadgets of the day (cordless phones, garage door openers etc.) and the exotic-sounding Wind Profiling Radar. Since you ask this is used to determine wind direction and velocity; who knew?
With so many wireless widgets sharing the same set of frequencies there is a strong possibility of interference, so the next time it’s blowing a gale outside and the forecast is for dead calm conditions, or vice-versa, you know who to blame. It’s all those baby monitors; walkie-talkies like these Realistic TRC-503s are unlikely to be involved as relatively few of them were ever sold. The ‘licence exempt’ portion of the 49MHz band, known in the trade as MPT 1336, was introduced in the mid 1980s. It was set aside for low-power devices like the 503 but it didn’t last very long, as least as far as walkie-talkies were concerned. Thanks to power restrictions range was poor and a by the mid 90s it had been replaced by the vastly superior licence-free European Private Mobile Radio system (PMR446). This system operated on the UHF frequency band; with a range of a couple of kilometres in the open and being largely digital in nature offered a lot more in the way of bells and whistles.
The MPT 1336 specification was originally touted as an alternative to chaotic Citizens Band radio with backers claiming it would be a boon for those with a practical use for walkie-talkies, such as crowd control, traffic marshalling and other sensible applications. Predictably transmitter power limits and interference from all those other gadgets, in particular large numbers of cheap toy walkie-talkies, made it virtually unusable. On a good day, and even with the wind in the right direction and flat, open terrain the best you could hope for was a range of a few hundred metres or about a quarter of a mile. To get around the interference problems the TRC-503 has 5 selectable channels, an automatic ‘squelch’ to mute background noise and any weak signals and a ‘call’ facility, that sounds a tone on partner units set to the same channel. And to set it apart from all the toys flooding the market it was given a plain, professional-looking black case, a sturdy belt clip and a simple 7-section telescopic antenna.
This pair caught my eye at a local car boot sale. They appeared to be in excellent condition and even had their original -- though somewhat battered -- boxes and instructions. The stallholder was asking a modest £4.00 for the pair and the clincher was the fact that they came with batteries so they could be shown to be working; and they did. No haggling necessary and the two fresh batteries were worth half the asking price. For once they didn’t even need a clean up. It looked as though they had only been used a couple of times, spending the majority of the past thirty or so years in their boxes. Everything worked, sound quality is entirely adequate for speech and the range, although nowhere near the claimed quarter mile, was still a bit further than you could shout and therefore potentially quite useful in a few very undemanding situations, like a two-handed scouting mission at a car boot sale, for example...
What Happened To It?
A quick word on Realistic, which, as old-timers and regular visitors to dustygizmos will know was one of Tandy’s house brands. Tandy Electronics was the UK division and franchise of the once mighty US Radio Shack Corporation. Alas Tandy, which until 1999 had a presence on almost every British high street is no more. The US parent company is now just a shadow of its former self, trading mainly as an on-line concern, with only a few stores and concessions remaining.
Personal short-range two-way communications first took off in the mid seventies with the brief CB radio fad. Initially there was only illegal in-car ‘rigs’ and hand-held transceivers, imported from the US and Europe. They used part of the 27MHz (Short Wave) band, split into 40 channels and employing AM modulation. The problem was this part of the radio spectrum was already occupied, by radio control modellers, who, along with other legitimate users of the band were somewhat irritated by the interference CBers generated. At one point they were even being accused of threatening the lives of people fitted with heart pacemakers… Government attempts to catch and prosecute 27MHz AM CB users were largely ineffective and in response to public pressure in 1981 it introduced an entirely new licence-free FM system, imaginatively called Open Channel. This operated over 20 channels at a much higher frequency (928MHz) but at significantly lower power levels than illicit AM CB. Needless to say it was useless and a complete flop. In any event interest in CB was on the wane; the legal and illegal CB bands had become home to cranks and idiots and children’s playground, making it unusable for anyone actually needing a simple short-range, point-to-point communications system. And cell phones were also just around the corner. The MPT 1336 system couldn’t fill the gap; it simply had too many limitations. The net result was that walkie-talkies, other than cheap toys and novelties, and professional high-end systems requiring a licence, effectively disappeared until the introduction of the PRM446 system a few years later.
Vintage walkie-talkies have recently become quite collectable and the big money is being paid for 60s and 70s models linked with iconic movies, TV shows, characters and cartoons. For example a pair of original Thunderbirds walkie-talkies in good condition could set you back £500 or more! The Realistic 503s are from a different era though, and in spite of their comparative rarity are, at this stage, worth little more than I paid for them. I don’t hold out much hope for them ever being much of an investment but they’re still interesting for being yet another one of those forgotten backwaters of the tech revolution of the last century and deserve at least a few lines in the footnotes of its history.
First Seen: 1989
Original Price: £39.99
Value Today: £10.00 (0719)
Features: VHF FM operation, 5-channels (49.830, 49.845, 49.860, 49.875, 49.890MHz), crystal stabilisation, call function, automatic squelch, 7-section telescopic antenna, rotary volume on/off, channel selection belt clip
Power req. 1 x 9 volt PP3
Dimensions: 155 x 66 x 30mm
Made (assembled) in: Philipines
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 5
BT Kingfisher 203A Answering Machine, 1986
Here’s a handy privacy-related tip. If you have an old answering machine and are thinking about disposing of it, or selling it, either remove or wipe the message tape or memory. You would be surprised how much personal information phone messages can reveal…
I probably shouldn’t have listened to the message tape that came with this BT Kingfisher 230A telephone answering machine (TAM), but it was compelling stuff. It also left a lot of questions unanswered, like what happened to Andrew and Julia at Bristol Airport, and who was Emily’s real father?
In my defence all these little dramas probably happened a while back, possibly as long as 25 years ago, judging by what was being said and a couple of messages that had mid-nineties classics playing in the background. That ties in neatly with this machine’s timeline. It first appeared in 1986, when telephone answering machines were actual boxes you had at home, containing recording equipment to store your messages, rather than a distant digital storage device on a remote server that could be anywhere in the world, belonging to your phone service provider. This machine was probably used for 10 years or so before it stopped working, ending up in the owner’s loft or garage, until it came into my possession.
The BT Kingfisher was a state of the art twin-tape design with one standard Compact Cassette handling incoming message (ICM) recording duties and a second, specially adapted ‘endless loop’ cassette for the OGM or outgoing message. It has a number of quite useful features, like voice activated (VOX) auto stop when the line goes silent or the caller hangs up, adjustable number of rings before it picks up, pay phone detection (giving the caller time to put in the coins). A pair of 7 segment LEDs show operating mode and how many messages have been recorded and the tape transport controls allow messages to be quickly scanned and replayed.
Another useful feature is remote control. It comes with a small handset fitted with a telephone style keypad and a speaker that sounds DTMF ‘dialling’ tones. Whilst away from home the TAM owner calls their machine. When it answers the remote’s speaker is held against a phone mouthpiece and by entering various codes on the keypad, it’s possible to access recorded messages and control a range of functions. Build quality is excellent – it was made for BT by Panasonic – and a doddle to use. There’s a rotary function control and four buttons on the top panel to select playback mode and message recording. It also has several discretely located switches, buttons and a thumbwheel for selecting recording time (1 minute or VOX control), the number of rings before it picks up (2 or 4), ICM tape erase and volume on/off. The built-in microphone is mounted on the front of the case and around the back there’s a captive lead with a standard BT phone plug on the end, and a socket for an external AC mains adaptor. It runs on 17 volts DC, and the socket is wired back to front with a centre pin negative. Presumably this convention defying setup was meant to dissuade owners from using non-BT issued adaptors.
TAMs are no strangers to car boot sales but they tend to be the more recent digital variety, which is why this one caught my eye, not just because it uses cassettes but the fact that it was in such good condition. It looks almost like new. The clincher was the 50 pence asking price. It didn’t come with the original mains adaptor so I powered it with my bench supply. I didn’t expect miracles and it was no surprise that it didn’t work, just some vague clicking noises and a hiss from the speaker. Luckily it was nothing serious. All it needed was two new drive belts; the originals had stretched and broken. Everything now works; the recordings on the message tape were crystal clear and hadn’t deteriorated over the years. The OGM message was almost inaudible though. It’s possible this had been degraded by magnets in the drive motor, which is immediately below the OGM cassette deck.
What Happened To It?
The first practical telephone answering machines date from the 1940s, which is more recent than you might suppose, considering phones and audio recording devices had been around since the late 1800s. Credit and disputed patents for the first, not so practical telephone answering contraptions are variously attributed to messrs. Ludwig Blattner in 1929, William Schergens in 1931 and Bell Laboratories in 1935. The jury is out as to who was really first, but the first model to actually go on sale was the Tel-Magnet, in the US in 1949. It wasn’t a success but later the same year another US company launched the Electronic Secretary, which did sell. It combined a gramophone for the OGM and a magnetic wire recorder for the incoming messages. Phonetel, the company behind the legendary Ansaphone brand began producing TAMs in the US in the 1960.
Magnetic tape recording systems for OGMs and ICMs became the norm from the early sixties onwards, thanks largely to the success of the Compact Cassette, and a little later, the Micro Cassette formats. They became increasingly sophisticated and a few models even managed to get by with a single cassette. The OGM is recorded at the beginning of he tape and the machine automatically fast-winds to the next segment of blank tape to record the ICM.
By the late 70s digital technology started to take over, initially with tape deck control logic then simple solid-state recording circuitry for the OGM and finally entirely solid state OGM and ICM message recording. Later in the 80s TAMs found their way in fax machines but gradually, as telephone networks were digitised, cellphone technology advanced and mobile handsets fell in price, the job of recording messages, or rather voicemail, as we call it now, was taken over by the phone companies and by the early noughties it became obvious that the days of the stand-alone TAM had come to an end.
If you are looking for a future collectible to help boost your pension pot then vintage telephone answering machines could be a strong candidate. Currently models from the 70s and 80s are quite cheap and relatively plentiful. This Kingfisher 230A was a high-end model, originally costing £149.00 (1987 Argos catalogue) and would probably sell now for as much as £10 on ebay, but the ones that are most likely to appreciate most in value in the coming years are early models from the 1960s. Prices are rising steadily with some rather optimistic sellers asking three figure sums; and they will probably get there, eventually... The Holy Grail, though, is equipment from the 40s and 50s. It is not inconceivable that the odd one will end up at a car boot sale or antique fair, so if you spot one, even if it is only in poor or salvageable condition, at a fair price, grab it.
First Seen: 1986
Original Price: £150.00
Value Today: £10.00 (0419)
Features: Twin cassette tape incoming & outgoing message (1 x standard, 1 x 30 sec endless loop), answer only mode, call counter indicator, voice operated stop recording, line break stop, 2 or 4 ring answer, call monitoring, call timer, built-in microphone, pay tone detection, full tape detect, coded remote control & volume adjust, fast tape erase, auto line release (when phone handset in use) fast forward & rewind, earphone socket, power fail indicator
Power req. 17-volts DC (via external mains adaptor)
Dimensions: 240 x 185 x 55mm
Made (assembled) in: Japan
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 8
15-Station Desk Intercom, 1940?
If anyone knows of a company where a Mr F Kuehn, Mr Kewen, Mr Becmer and Mr Esdaile worked together, that had Stencil and Counting House departments, a Garage and two offices or departments, simply known as ‘D/M’ and ‘DMS’ please get in touch. It might just provide a lead to the maker of the company’s intercom system and this odd looking phone. Web searches of combinations of those very unusual names proved fruitless so it is more likely that someone out there recognises this 15-station desk intercom, if so please get in touch as the only thing I can be reasonably sure of is that the handset is British made, by Ericsson; whether or not they made the rest of it, and when it was made is all a bit of a mystery.
The fact that this phone has 15 buttons and the names of the various departments suggests it once belonged to a medium to large company and Mr Kewen’s position on the number one button might indicate he was the boss. Maybe it was his secretary’s phone, who knows? Either way it’s a pretty imposing instrument and the sort of thing that only company high-ups would have had on their desks. The number of labelled buttons is also a fair indication of the user’s status. It’s unlikely that dogsbodies and lickspittles would need one to communicate with all those important sounding people. By the way, here’s a little piece of historic tittle-tattle from that long forgotten office. It seems that Mr Becmer took over from Mr Hooper, who’s name had been hastily scratched out. Mr Esdaile was also a fairly recent addition to the staff as his name is also written in by hand. Had I the time and inclination it might be possible to tell who this phone’s user called most often, by examining the wear on the contacts and buttons under a microscope, but maybe that’s taking the story a bit too far…
Whoever made it didn’t skimp. The Ericsson handset is a familiar item. It’s a hefty type 164 (GPO number), made of Bakelite, used on generations of telephones made from the 1930s until the late 1960s. The base unit is housed in a sturdy metal case, supported by a pair of detachable angled desk stands with four rubber feet. However, it’s clear where the money was spent, inside the case. The elaborate switchgear and buzzer are fine examples of early to mid-twentieth century precision engineering but it’s the beautifully crafted -- and I use the word advisedly – wiring loom that steals the show. The skills required to make a bundle of 30 wires look that elegant and the neat and tidy wiring are sadly lost arts.
This desk intercom has been in my mish-mash of a telephone collection for at least 25 years. I have no recollection of where it came from and how much I paid for it but at the time I rarely paid more than a couple of pounds for these things. The condition is fair to good, showing the inevitable signs of wear and tear. There are a few light scratches and paint chips on the case but the innards look as though they were made yesterday. Such was the quality of manufacture, and the reliability of the major components that I have no doubt whatsoever that it still works. However, apart from some basic checks on the earpiece (receiver) and microphone (transmitter), without access to another phone like this, or the equipment it used to be connected to, there is no easy way to properly test it.
What Happened To It?
Everything about the design and styling points towards it being made somewhere between the late 30s to mid 50s but there are no obvious maker’s marks, apart from Ericsson embossed on the underside of the handset handle. There’s what may be a model or serial number printed on the inside of the back plate. For the record it’s ‘N 1622 A’, and there’s a couple of square boxes, which look a lot like quality control stamps, on the chassis that read ‘Test 6 Room’ and ‘Test 23 Room’; make of that what you will.
In the wider world of vintage multi-station office intercoms the basic design doesn’t seem to have changed very much until the late 50s. By that time intercoms with banks of individual push-buttons were being replaced by more familiar looking phones with rotary dials. Part of the reason for that is larger businesses and organisations were increasingly using PABX (Private Automatic Branch Exchange) systems, which meant tidier desks as a single instrument could be used for making both internal and external calls.
Vintage phone collectors, and it’s quite a big thing, especially in the US, are natural magpies and many of them also seek out oddball designs like office phones and intercoms. Not knowing the name of the manufacturer makes putting a value on this one quite difficult but I am reasonably sure it would fetch upwards of £25.00 or so on ebay, possibly more with a more detailed provenance. Some models, like wooden-boxed Dictographs can fetch twice as much and there are probably even more sought after models out there but either way, don’t pass up the chance if you spot one like this at a car boot sale going for a fiver or so. Providing they haven’t been too badly treated they’ll generally clean up quite well, and even if the only thing worth salvaging is the handset -- especially if it’s one like this and in good condition -- as it still has a value – between £10 and £20 – to collectors and restorers for spare parts.
First Seen: 1940?
Original Price: £?
Value Today: £25? (1218)
Features 15 self-latching station selector keys, call buzzer, handset cradle, magnetic earpiece, carbon microphone, cotton covered braid cable
Power req. n/a line-powered
Dimensions: 220 x 155 x 170mm
Made (assembled) in: Britain?
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest) 7
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
Over the years – since the 1930’s in fact -- there have been scores of designs for one-piece telephones. However, with very few exceptions – the Cobra and Eiger phones being the most notable -- almost all of them have disappeared without trace. That’s a little odd when you think about it, as it seems like quite a good idea, until you actually have to live with one of them… The trouble with some designs is that you can never be entirely sure you’ve ended the call when you put the phone down, and there’s the risk of it becoming ‘unhooked’ if it gets knocked or slides off a shiny surface. The Inphone Slimtel range, launched in 1984, was BT’s take on the idea and in addition to the drawbacks already mentioned, the Slimtel 10, which appeared a year later managed to add several new ones to the list.
It’s an awkward flat-on-its-back hammer shape – possibly inspired by the Gfeller Eiger phone -- and quite uncomfortable to hold for long periods. It has tiny keypad buttons, not well suited to anyone with even slightly larger than normal fingers and one of the most annoying rings ever devised. Oh yes, and the transparent cover for the number label had a habit of falling off or cracking…
The original Slimtel 1 design had what was then an innovative one-handed ‘Easy Dial’ button that let the user key in a number whilst the handset was resting on a desk or table. Unfortunately it didn’t have a built in-speaker so unless you craned your head over the earpiece you couldn’t hear if it was dialling or being answered. The model featured here was its hastily revised replacement, launched in 1985. The Easy Dial and last number recall functions had been replaced by a tricky 10-number memory that relied on the user remembering, or writing down what was stored in each memory location.
The unwieldy shape is largely down to the use of two densely populated circuit boards and a vastly over engineered mechanism for the cradle switch. This is an amazing contrivance, comprising an odd-shaped double coil spring, a pair of levers acting on a cantilever plate, which in turn presses down on a pair of micro switches. For all that it clearly didn’t work very well and a weight (a chunk of steel) had to be fitted to the inside of the case to make sure the switches operated properly when the phone was at rest. Quite what possessed the designers to go such lengths will remain a mystery, unless someone out there can enlighten me…
On the plus side it is quite sturdily built and the phone functions all perform well enough, though the memory probably wouldn’t have got much use due to the lack of a display. By the way, contrary to appearance the keypad isn’t a touch-tone design; back in the early 80s telephone exchanges were still in the process of being upgraded to digital operation. Instead it uses a pulse dial system, which replicates the stream of pulses produced by a rotary dial. It’s compatible with digital exchanges but the lack of Hash and Star Key functions severely limits it use.
It was found languishing in a cardboard box at a large antique fair in Surrey. It appeared to be in fair condition so I was pleasantly surprised by, and didn’t bother haggling over, the £1.50 asking price. Underneath the usual coating of dirt the case and cable looked almost as new and plugging it into a phone socket confirmed that it was in full working order, as was the shrill, strident electronic ringer. Dismantling it to check and clean the insides and take photos turned out to be a bit of a nightmare, though. It came apart easily enough but getting it back together took a good half an hour. The problem was that switch, and in particular the return spring, which pinged out as soon as the top PCB was removed from its support pins. It took a while to work out how it fitted together and when eventually I did, wrangling the spring and jiggling the PCB back into position required at least one extra hand. My advice for anyone thinking about poking around inside one of these phones is take a photo before you separate the parts; better still, leave it alone, unless you have to.
What Happened To It?
BT wisely decided not to design any more one-piece phones in-house, though it was by no means the first or last model they supplied and they are still around, though nowadays they’re mostly cordless models. The Slimtel 1 is the rarer of the two and by rights should be the more valuable version. They’re easy to spot with a black Easy Dial button positioned between the microphone and keypad. Slimtel 10s are not exactly common either and that should also help with prices, but the few 1s and 10s I have seen on ebay tend to generate little interest. If you are patient you should be able to pick one up for under £10; £25 and above buys a near-mint example, hopefully with its original box and instructions. I would like to think that prices will go up but it doesn’t seem likely. Sadly the Slimtel lacks the kudos and style of its more successful contemporaries and it just doesn’t look that interesting, despite just about qualifying as a vintage phone.
First Seen: 1984
Original Price: £?
Value Today: £10 (0718)
Features: One piece design, last number recall, 10-number memory, digital keypad (pulse dialling), electronic ‘ringer’.
Power req. n/a line-powered
Dimensions: 224 x 90 x 54mm
Made (assembled) in: UK
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest) 7
Field Telephone Set J, 1960
In any armed conflict secure and reliable comms are as important, if not more so, than the quality and quantity of the troops and weaponry involved. After all, someone in charge has to be able to tell everyone where and when to go, and what to do when they get there. Two-way radios have been in use by the military since before the First World War but until comparatively recently radio messages have been vulnerable to interception and jamming, not to mention the restrictions imposed on soldiers carrying bulky equipment -- often with a relatively short effective range – into battle.
World War II saw the rapid development and deployment of highly secure encryption systems. Equally important was the groundbreaking work on code breaking, which, as we now know, had a role in the development of the modern computer and the digital revolution. But advanced communications and encryption systems, especially in the early days were expensive and unreliable and sometimes too clever for their own good. Before digital electronics and satellites eventually took over military field communications, often the quickest and simplest way to send and receive messages over distances of several miles was to use tried and tested technology, developed in the nineteenth century. Telephone Set J was one of the last in a long line of military field telephones used by British armed forces and Civil Defence organisations and it says something for its reliability that it, and models very much like it remained in service until the 1990s.
Telephone Set J is the business end of a simple two-wire field telephone system that first saw light of day towards the end of the Second World War. Each unit can be used with another Telephone Set J, or as part of a network, connected to a central exchange. The most impressive feature, though, is the range. Using what’s known as a D8 cable, reliable voice communications are possible over distances of up to 20 miles and variants with built-in amplifiers can operate over 30 to 35 miles. It’s a classic design, housed in a tough water-proof (technically ‘immersible’) steel case with a hinged lid. Inside there’s a familiar-looking Bakelite handset, very similar to the ones used on domestic phones (100 – 300 Series) but with a large press to talk (PTT) switch or pressel in the middle of the handle. It is connected by a thick rubber coated cable to the main unit, which features two sets of screw terminals. The large ones on the right side of the case, marked L1 and L2 are for the ‘line’, and the two smaller ones on the left side are for a second handset. In the middle there’s a waterproof compartment for a pair of 1.5-volt batteries and in front of that is a button marked ‘Key’ which is for muting the internal ringer – quite important if you don’t want to give away your position to the enemy…
The crank handle on the right side of the case is connected to a small electrical generator or magneto. Incidentally, the top of the crank handle is hinged, so it can be safely stowed away when the phone is being transported. Once the phone is connected to another phone or an exchange, to make a call all you have to do is rapidly wind the handle. This rings the bell on the phone or exchange at the other end. When the call is answered it is used much like an ordinary telephone, though it is necessary to press the PTT switch on the handset when it is your turn to talk. Incoming calls will either be signalled by the internal bell, or if it has been silenced, by a buzz in the handset receiver or earpiece. When the call is over the procedure is to signal that the line is clear by turning the magneto handle. The two protrusions on the front of the hinged metal lid are for the handset and line cables, so the case can be left closed to protect the innards from the elements. Inside the sealed base module there are a pair of moveable metal links for switching between magneto or Central Battery (CB) operation; this setting depends on the type of phone or exchange it is connected to. It’s a well thought out design, evolved from the generations of field telephones that preceded it. The quality of the materials and standard of construction are outstanding. It is also about as bullet and bombproof as it can practically be and virtually idiot-proof too, when it comes to using it. If and when it should ever go wrong it was designed to be easy to fix with almost every single part easily accessible and clearly identified with a part number and the classic military arrow symbol. There’s even a full circuit diagram and some abbreviated instructions on a plate inside the lid.
Based on the overall condition and the components I am leaning towards this one being a later model, probably from the 1960’s, not that the design appears to have changed very much over the years. I have no recollection of where it came from, or how much I paid for it and it has been stored in boxes in my loft and garage for the best part of 30 years. One thing I can say, though, is back when I bought it, I wouldn’t have paid more than a pound or two. Throughout the 80s and 90s tens and possibly hundreds of thousands of them came onto the market as they were decommissioned and sold through military surplus sales and stores.
This one had clearly never seen service, let alone spent any time in a field. It was and still is in almost as-new condition, which suggests it has been in storage for most of its life. The only marks are probably due to periodic stock movement and testing. I checked it with another, much tattier, Telephone Set J I picked up a few years ago and both of them are in working condition, not that there is much to go wrong. However, without a supply of D8 cable it’s hard to say if it can still manage a 20 – 30 mile cable run, but that is unlikely to be something that changes with age. As a matter of interest the magneto can give you quite a nasty tickle; my voltmeter measures between 60 and 80 volts on the L1 & L2 terminals, depending how fast it is cranked. There are plausible stories that field telephones – not necessarily this model -- have been used as instruments of torture, being a handy way to deliver painful shocks.
What Happened To It?
If anyone has compiled a detailed history of British Army field telephones I have yet to find it, and if one does exist please let me know as I am keen to fill in the many gaps in my knowledge. A few facts have come to light though, and this model was standard military issue in several countries, including Canada and Australia, and doubtless others with close ties to the UK. The earliest reference to the Set J I have found so far is a War Office instruction leaflet published in 1945. It’s closest relative in terms of design and layout seems to be Set L. This was clearly an earlier design but the L in this case allegedly stands for ‘Lightweight’ rather than any indication of model progression.
There is no indication of who made it, either on the unit or anywhere on the web but it was probably one of a number of approved military contractors, working to a very precise MOD specification. Set J appears to be one of the last of the line at least as far as basic, non-amplified, cabled field telephones are concerned. During the mid 80s my guess is the Ministry of Defence procured some stop-gap replacements for the J Set from Pye but by then fixed-line phones had been largely replaced by radio systems for personal and vehicle field communications.
Vintage field telephones are definitely collectible but there is no clear pattern as to what they are worth, judging by the wide selection of models appearing on ebay and occasionally turning up at car boot sales and antique fairs. They vary from the absurdly optimistic to cheap-as-chips, sometimes for genuine rarities. Should you be in the market for one Telephone Set J’s can be found for anywhere between £10 and £80. This is often irrespective of condition, so the simplest thing to say is be patient. I’ve put a value of £25 on mine as it is in a clean and apparently unused condition. It is by no means unusual, though, and sooner or later there will be one to your liking with your name (and price tag) on it.
First seen: 1945
Original Price: £?
Value Today: £25 (0518)
Features: portable field telephone, 2-wire connection, hand cranked generator/magneto, internal bell/buzzer, handset with push-to-talk (PTT) switch, call & bell cut-out switch, external handset connections, carry strap lugs
Power req. Central Battery (CB) or mag powered and 2 x 1.5 volt Dry X Mk II batteries
Dimensions: 265 x 150 x 125mm
Made (assembled) in: Britain
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest) 5
It goes without saying that microchips are truly wonderful. They can be built and programmed to do just about anything these days. The only problem is they are now so clever and complicated that they can only be created and manufactured by microchip-controlled machines, which in turn were made and designed by other machines and computers. The upshot of all that meat bags, sorry, us humans are now several times removed from what makes the technology surrounding us tick. That’s not to say the robots are about to take over because we’re no longer useful. Of course that is going to happen, but not just yet, for the simple reason we (or they) still haven’t invented a decent battery. Also, for as long we remember to fit accessible on/off switches to any technology that can potentially wipe us out us we’re probably safe for a while.
So where is this all leading? To this pair of Companion CR-313 walkie-talkies, of course. They brilliantly illustrate how, up until 1970 BC (before microchips), things were mostly designed and made by humans without little or no help from computers, and because materials and manufacturing processes could be expensive, it encouraged economy and moderation. The circuit board in each of these cheap little walkie-talkies, for example, has just three transistors, a quartz crystal to ensure frequency stability and a handful of common components to transmit and receive voice messages over a distance of several hundred metres. Admittedly the range isn’t up to much, but wire-less two-way communications over any distance is actually a remarkable feat, especially when you consider that when new they cost just a few pounds, and were effectively just toys. What’s more, proper grown-up walkie-talkies with better range and a few more features didn’t cost a great deal more.
The Companion CR-313 outfit was by no means special. It was one of hundreds of walkie-talkie sets on the market in the early 60s. Most of them, like this one, operated on a small portion of the Short Wave band, around 27MHz, set aside for Citizen’s Band radio. This was, and still is a set of frequencies used for local two-way radio communications, that anyone could use, with minimal regulation or formalities or the need to have a transmitting licence. They have just two controls, a volume, on/off thumbwheel, and a press-to-talk (PTT) switch on the side. The loudspeaker doubles up as a microphone; each unit has a 9-section telescopic antenna, and they are powered by 9-volt PP3 transistor radio type battery. It really doesn’t get much simpler than that.
The compact and surprisingly smart-looking cases are clearly well made, having managed to survive this long intact. They weren’t a pretty sight when I found them, though. They were in a box on electronic junk at a car boot sale and by the looks of it, veterans of a good number of Sunday outings in wet and muddy fields. It didn’t take long to clinch the deal though. The asking price was ‘a quid’, which would still be an absolute bargain, even if they didn’t work.
As it happens they did, after an extensive strip-down and clean up. Unusually for a 60s vintage electronic device the electrolytic capacitors didn’t need replacing and the only maintenance needed was a few squirts of switch cleaner to get rid of pops and crackles from the PTT switch and volume control. One of the aerials had lost its ball tip; I just happened to have a spare in my box of bits, and there had been a minor battery leak at some point. Luckily the only damage was to the foam pad it sat on, and again this was easily replaced.
I doubt very much that the current range sound quality is significantly different to what it was when new, and needless to say neither is going to win any prizes, but let’s not forget that it manages to send and receive intelligible voice communications using just a few cheap components. Anyone familiar with old school electronics should be able to understand how it works, and like most pre-digital gadgets, stand a very fair chance of fixing it, should anything go wrong, with nothing more complicated than a multimeter, screwdriver and a soldering iron.
What Happened To It?
Cheap toy walkie talkies have been a hardy perennial since the early sixties and since 1981 we have even been allowed to use them, following the introduction of a poorly thought out Citizen’s Band radio system in the UK. Before that even very short range models like these CR-313s were technically illegal, though they were sold openly and generally tolerated by the authorities since they were difficult to detect and rarely caused problems (though pilots of radio control model aircraft, which use the same frequency, may well disagree). The current generation of inexpensive legal ‘consumer’ walkie talkies operate on multiple channels on UHF band, have many flashy features, like LCD displays, winky lights and a range of between 3 and 5km, but where’s the fun in that?
Collecting cheap vintage walkie-talkies isn’t yet a big thing, though models like the CR-313 fall into the toy category, where things can get a bit expensive. The undoubted stars are themed feature and character models, linked to movies, TV shows, personalities and so on. However, the high prices, and this is important, depend almost entirely on them being in near mint condition and complete with their original box and packaging. The only people these CR-313s are going to excite are a few elderly vintage tech-nuts, like me, and maybe a handful of Baby-Boomers who remember owing them the first time around. They’re undoubtedly worth a little bit more than the £1.00 I paid for them but since a lot of similar (and even better) non-themed examples turn up at car boot sales for not much more, it will be a very long time before they get a gasp from an Antiques Roadshow audience.
First Seen: 1964
Orginal Price: £3 19s 11d (£3.99)
Value Today: £10.00 (0518)
Features: 3-transistor crystal-controlled transceiver circuit (27.124MHz Short Wave/CB operation), 55mm speaker/microphone, approx 500m range, 9-section telescopic antenna (1.13m fully extended), push-to-talk (PTT) button, rotary volume on/off control
Power req. 2 x 9-volt PP3 batteries
Dimensions: 140 x 65 x 32mm (ex. antenna)
Made (assembled) in: Japan
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest) 6
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.
First Seen:: 1973
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
Made (assembled) in: Yugoslavia (Slovenia)
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest) 6
TR Gooseneck Microphone, 1965?
Few, if any, electronic devices can rival the diversity of the humble microphone. When you think about it they have just one basic function, to pick up sound, but a list of all the different types and designs would almost certainly run into the thousands. This TR Gooseneck mike, made or possibly marketed by Telephone Rentals, definitely warrants a mention. However, its intended application is unclear – to me at least -- so I’ll take a guess at it being designed for conference work, or maybe in some sort of broadcast or PA function, where it is necessary to tell whoever is using it to start or stop talking.
The layout is fairly obvious, it comprises a heavy hammer-finished metal base with a flexible chromed gooseneck stem and a detachable microphone module on the end. For the record this turns out to be a low impedance (18 ohms) magnetic type; I would like to be more specific but the housing has so far resisted all of my attempts to take it apart, and I really don’t want to damage it. The mystery lies in the purpose of the two lamps (red and white) and the single push-button switch on the base. It is almost certainly a PTT (push to talk) function, part of a separate circuit and meant to operate or signal something remotely. The two lamps are also for used for some sort of signal, hence my assumption that it is used to tell speakers when to say their piece. It doesn’t appear to be a top-notch broadcast-quality design, though it would certainly be good enough for public address work. This also fits in with the sort of product or system the Telephone Rentals dealt with, but more about them in a moment.
Otherwise it is a fairly conventional gooseneck design and the detachable mike module allows different types to be fitted, presumably to make it compatible with as wide a range of equipment as possible. As a bonus it would also make repairs a lot easier, though I doubt that happened very often. The materials used and mechanical build quality are all excellent. The internal wiring is a bit of a rat’s nest but in practice it wouldn’t matter too much; once the case is closed it can’t move around and would be unlikely to cause problems.
This TR Gooseneck (I can find no evidence of a model number, or indeed any reference to it on the web) was an accidental find on ebay. It was in one of those ‘you might also be interested in’ pop-ups that appear during searches. The odd thing was I wasn’t searching for mikes, or anything remotely connected; ebay knows me far too well… There was only a day to go and with no bidders on the £10 opening price. I admit to only glancing at the details and the seller had craftily included the word Tannoy to the title. Normally I’m more careful but it enough to persuade me to put in a speculative £10.99 bid, fully expecting it to be beaten. By rights a genuine vintage Tannoy mike should sell for a good deal more than £10. There were no more bids, my opening bid won and I took the time to read the description. This rightfully pointed out that the maker was, in fact ‘TR’, though as I later discovered there was a vague Tannoy connection. Nevertheless it was still a pretty good deal for a class-looking vintage desktop gooseneck mike, in good working order and needing little more than a quick polish to return it to near-showroom condition. Audio quality appears to very good. It is clearly optimised for speech, adequately sensitive and quite directional though the results are highly subjective. By necessity, and in the absence of any tech specs on the mike’s characteristics, my test rig had to be a bit of a lash-up. The date of manufacture is a complete guess based on nothing more than the styling, internal components and wiring so it could easily be five or six years either way, unless someone out there knows different?
What Happened To It?
The roots of Telephone Rentals date back to the start of World War 1 and the formation of the Telephone Manufacturing Company. TMC was set up to make and supply phones to a number of telephone companies operating in Britain that had previously relied on instruments manufactured in Germany. TMC’s first factory in Dulwich grew rapidly, but suffered a serious reversal during the depression and was split into manufacturing and rental divisions, one of which became Telephone Rentals. TR’s fortunes improved with the coming of WW II with lucrative government contracts and for a while it included Tannoy equipment in its list of products. More factories were opened in Canterbury and Malmsbury to meet the demand. After the War TR expanded into overseas markets and growth continued until the mid 1960s when it took over Dictograph telephones, giving it a foothold in digital telephone exchange systems. TR prospered well into the 1980s but following a succession of mergers, buyouts and closures it became a shadow of its former self. As far as I can see TR ceased trading in or around 2003, which, according to company records is when it last filed accounts.
Clearly desktop gooseneck microphones haven’t gone away. There are scores, if not hundreds, of different designs on the market, though for the most part they have morphed in to thin, spindly insubstantial looking things, mostly made of plastic and unlikely to still be around in 10 years, let alone the 50 to 60 years this one has survived. That makes it special, and seemingly quite rare, but sadly not especially valuable, at least not yet. As it stands the £10 I paid for it was about right, but I’m in no hurry to sell it. Vintage microphones have become highly collectable, however. Many models, especially high-performance examples, made for broadcasting and recording studios, can fetch eye-watering sums. It’s a fascinating subject, old mikes can be things of beauty and clever collectors and dealers can make a lot of money out of them. But it’s also a minefield for the unwary, littered with replicas, copies and fakes, so if you are thinking of getting involved, do your homework!
#First seen: 1965
Original Price: £?
Value Today: £10.00 (0218)
Features: detachable low impedance (18 ohm) magnetic microphone, red & white cue lights (12 volt), press button switch, flexible gooseneck, weighted base
Power req. n/a
Dimensions: base: 120 x 75mm, neck: 160mm, mike: 80 x 35mm
Made (assembled) in: England
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest) 8
Tohphonic HP-2T 2-Station Intercom, 1962
You wait for ages then four of them appear at the same time. No, not London busses -- and to be fair they do seem to be a little more evenly spaced these days – we’re talking about cheap 2-station intercoms/baby alarms from the early 1960s. Quite how I came to acquire four of them in the space of as many weeks is a bit of a mystery. It’s not as if I go looking for them; they just seem to catch my attention at antiques fairs, car boot sales and on ebay. In truth they were probably always there but the increasing scarcity of interesting sixties electronic gadgets is starting to make them stand out.
This weeks offering is the Tohphonic HP-2T and it’s a familiar concept. It comprises two small boxes, each about the size of a pocket transistor radio. The Master and Sub-station or ‘Sub’ are connected together by a thin 36metre (120 foot) 2-core cable. The Master contains a simple 2-transistor amplifier, a small loudspeaker that also acts as a microphone, a push-button ‘call’ switch and a rotary on/off volume switch. The Sub is mostly full of air, apart from a second small dual-purpose speaker, a call button and a single capacitor, which we’ll come to shortly. It is powered by a single 9v PP3 type battery that lives in the Master unit. At switch-on the Master station is connected to the sub and picks up any sounds in the vicinity of the Sub’s speaker (at this point acting as a microphone). This and the many similar 2-station intercoms around at the time were sold and used as baby alarms but they function equally well as intercoms. When the Master is switched off pressing the Call button on either unit generates a loud tone at the other station. If the Sub calls the Master it has to be switched on and the caller simply has to speak close to the Sub’s speaker/microphone, whilst the Master user has to press the Call/Talk button when they want to reply. By the way, call tones are produced by making the amplifier oscillate, and that is where the capacitor in the sub station (and another one in the Master unit) comes in. The Call switches in both units simply short out the capacitor, which is in series with one of the speaker connections.
The rest of the circuitry is equally straightforward. The designers managed to keep the transistor count down to just two – they were still comparatively expensive in the early 1960s – by using miniature transformers. There are three of them in all; they do not act as amplifiers, as such, but they can do some of the work that transistors would normally do in an amplifier, matching high and low impedances at the input and output stages. Both units are solidly built, and there are a couple of fairly unusual design points. First, the shiny panel covering the top third of the case is a reverse-painted clear panel moulding. This involves quite a tricky manufacturing process and it means that the logos and labelling do not wear off, as they are on the inside. It might not sound very interesting but this is a prized feature on very early transistor radios and often adds to the value. The other one is the folding wire stand/carry handle/hanging loop. It’s a simple but clever idea and means the two units can be conveniently used on a desk or table, or hung up, out of the reach of a child. The only weak point is the thin, and very fragile cable that comes with the outfit. If it is not carefully suspended, or covered it’s very easy to snagged and snapped, and it acts like a magnet to carelessly manoeuvred vacuum cleaners.
Ebay was the source of this one, and with no other bidders in contention it was mine for the starting price of £4.50. The condition of the two units was very good indeed with only minimal signs of use, suggesting it was only ever used as a baby alarm before ending up in long-term storage. The cable hadn’t been so lucky, though, and after its brief career it had been loosely wound, kinks and all. Over the years the plastic in the kinked sections became brittle and split. In short it was unsalvageable. The amplifier circuit showed some signs of life when powered up but it was horribly noisy and unstable, pointing to the failure of at least one, and probably more electrolytic capacitors. Rather than try to find the ones responsible I elected to replace the lot as any that were still working were well past their use by date and would eventually go short or open circuit. There are only five of them and they’re all common values so it didn’t take too long and at the end of it, it was working as well as the day it was made. A few squirts of switch cleaner sorted out the dirty contacts on the call switches and the crackly volume control.
What Happened To It?
The Tohphonic brand doesn’t seem to have lasted very long and web searches suggest that the HP-2T may have been its only product. Apart from anything else the name doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue, nor is it memorable, and wouldn’t have sat easily with Western consumers. My guess is that like many other similarly afflicted Asian concerns, by the end of the 1960s it had either disappeared or been absorbed by another company. An ad in the excellent May 1962 edition of the US magazine ‘Boy’s Life’ (thanks Google Books) shows that when new it cost $14.95, an astonishing $122 or around £87.00 in today’s money. Time and inflation plays tricks on this sort of calculation and the fact it was advertised in a kids magazine means that it was essentially a (American) pocket money price. It is also obvious that there is no way it’s worth anything like that today but it would be nice to think that its comparative rarity puts its current value into at least double digits. Sadly the collecting world has yet to appreciate what vintage intercoms have to offer so what I ended up paying for it was about right. But mark my words well; now that sixties widgets are becoming so thin on the ground it probably won’t be long before cheapie intercoms are the next big thing and my personal stash will be worth a small fortune!
First seen: 1962
Original Price: $14.95
Value Today: £5.00 (0218)
Features: 2 transistor amplifier, 2-way (simplex), remote tone call, on/off volume control, 3.5mm mono jack connection, 36 metre connecting cable
Power req. 1 x 9v PP3 battery
Dimensions: 100 x 65 x 30mm
Weight: 150g (sub 100g)
Made (assembled) in: Japan
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest) 8
Realistic PRO-62 200 Channel Scanner, 1994
Just in case you still think that conversations on your digital mobile phone are private, they’re not! The wherewithal to eavesdrop on digital cellphones has been around for years; in fact smartphones make it even easier, but that’s another story. You can console yourself that the nosey parkers have to go to a bit of trouble to listen in to what you are saying, and it’s nowhere near easy as it used to be in the days of analogue mobile phones. Back in the 80s and 90s all you needed was a readily obtainable receiver, like this Realistic PRO-62 multi-channel scanner.
Realistic was one of the house-brands of the US chain Radio Shack, better known in the UK as Tandy, and from the early 1970s until the late 90s this was one of the go-to places to buy advanced and exotic radio equipment, along lots of other interesting and useful electronic gadgets, but more about that later. Obviously the PRO-62 wasn’t designed just for earwigging mobile phone calls; the really important features are that this compact pocket-size receiver can store, and rapidly scan up to 200 stored channels, on frequencies between 35MHz and 960MHz or roughly from the bottom end of the VHF band to the lower third of the UHF band. That represents around 68,000 possible channels, which are the bulk of the frequencies used by government and emergency services, armed forces, and aircraft, not to mention commercial organisations and those first generation mobile phones. Mostly these frequencies are used for short-range two-way communications, and where much of what you might hear is not intended for public consumption.
The breadth of the PRO-62’s coverage was, and still is an impressive feat on something so small but whilst it still picks up lots of private transmissions, nowadays you won’t hear much in the way of plain speech. Where security is a concern communications channels tend to be digitally encrypted but the one thing older scanners like this still do really well is let you listen in to air traffic control and aircraft. Commercial and private aviation continues to use a fairly ancient VHF technology, utilising simple AM modulation. It’s not so much a throwback to the past but an illustration of the system’s range, reliability, resilience and worldwide standardisation.
All those tiny buttons on the front of the PRO-62 make it look complicated, but it is actually quite straightforward. To listen to a particular band of frequencies the procedure is to put the receiver into Program mode, enter the lower and upper frequency limits, press the Scan Up or Down button and away it goes. Provided the Squelch control is set to just above the noise threshold only transmissions that are louder than the noise will be heard. When a strong enough signal is received scanning stops temporarily and there’s the option to halt scanning to continuously monitor the selected frequency, or store it, along with up to 20 others on the same selected band, on one of the 10 available memory Banks.
Essentially that is all there is to it, and once programmed the PRO-62 skims through stored channels at the rate of 25 a second, which is pretty fast. It automatically selects AM or FM modulation and if you want some privacy there’s a socket on the top for headphones or an earphone.
Back in the day, when there was plenty to listen to, it could be quite absorbing, especially if you included mobile telephones, though as I recall that could be quite frustrating as you tended to only hear one side of a conversation, unless both handsets were in range. Speaking of which, the scanner came supplied with the short ‘rubber duck’ antenna shown in the photos but this is really only useful for picking up fairly strong transmissions within a radius of a few kilometres. However, range can be greatly extended by connecting an external rooftop antenna to the rubber duck’s BNC socket. Power is supplied by six 1.5 volt AA cells that fit into a holder in the base of the unit (disposable or rechargeable types). The LCD display is backlit, though even with the light on it’s rather small and quite hard to read.
I can be fairly precise about when and where this PRO-62 came into my possession. It was in 1999, in Croydon South End, South London, where the local Tandy store was closing. This followed the decision of Radio Shack to shut down its UK operation. Tandy shops were quickly stripped by bargain hunters and after only a few days there was almost nothing left except the more expensive and specialised items. The PRO-62 originally sold for around £350 and when I visited the shop, on the last day of the closeout, it was one of the few things left on the almost bare shelves. It caught my eye, though I was disappointed to see that it was priced at £100, and well above my paygrade. As I stood looking at it a sales assistant came over and asked me how much I was prepared to pay for it? I made what I thought was a cheeky offer of £20, and to my great surprise, it was instantly accepted. This was the last one, the display model and it didn’t have a box though the assistant managed to find the instructions. It seemed to be in near mint condition and although it didn’t come with any sort of guarantee, it felt like real bargain.
I left the shop for the last time with a mixture of delight and sadness. In truth I wasn’t a regular customer of Tandy. The stuff they sold seemed to be reasonably good quality but the prices were well over the top and staff always appeared a bit pushy, Nevertheless they were one of the last shops selling interesting and unusual electronic gadgets and components and the UK's High Streets became a much poorer place without them.
This PRO-62 is very well made, still in excellent condition and in full working order, though the bands are a lot quieter nowadays. There are plenty of loud beeps and buzzes from digital devices and unless you connect it to a decent antenna the only intelligible transmissions you are likely to hear are the comings and goings of aircraft, and only then if you are relatively close to an airfield or airport or underneath a flight path.
What Happened To It?
The US chain store Radio Shack was founded way back, in 1921 and for the following 75 or so years it thrived and grew with thousands branches and franchises across the US and in a dozen or more countries. At its peak it was the world’s leading supplier of electronic technologies and personal computers. These included CB Radio, calculators, organisers, metal detectors, TVs, radios, telephones, Hi-Fi, VCRs and the list goes on and on, but by the early 90s it all started to go wrong. Growing competition from rival retailers and the economic depression ate in to its core home entertainment equipment and PC businesses. It found it hard to keep up with the rapid changes in personal computing and cellular phones and the downturn in the US market spread outwards to its international divisions. The last UK Tandy store closed in 2000 and the brand was taken over by Carphone Warehouse and Techno. In spite of a couple of attempts to revive the name it has all but disappeared.
Tandy’s demise resulted in some of their offerings becoming quite collectible. Ironically this includes their cheapest offering, the wonderful free Tandy catalogue. This colourful tome was released annually, showcasing the latest tech gadgets and becoming essential reading for techno-nerds of all ages. Every so often vintage Tandy catalogues from the 70s and 80s turn up on ebay and they can fetch upwards of £10. PRO-62’s also make the odd appearance but prices are difficult to pin down. Faulty units, suitable only for spares typically sell for between £20 and £30, but the only two working examples I have seen recently went for for £50 and £150. Make of that what you will. The only thing I can say with certainty is that I’m unlikely to ever see another one for only £20.
First seen: 1994
Original Price: £350.00
Value Today: £50.00 (0118)
Features: 200 channel memory in 10 banks, scan speed up to 50 chans/sec in Hyperscan mode, normal mode 25 chans/sec, frequency coverage: 35 – 54MHz, 118-136.97MHz, 137 – 174 MHz, 380 – 512MHz, 806 – 823.98MHz, 849.012 – 868.98MHz, 894.01 – 960MHz, auto/manual AM/FM selection, backlit LCD, keyboard lock, rotary squelch & on/off volume controls, external ‘rubber duck’ antenna, earphone socket, external DC supply/charge
Power req. 6 x 1.5 volt C cells, external 9V DC
Dimensions: 150 x 62 x 40mm
Made (assembled) in: China
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest) 6
BT CT6000B Moneybox Payphone, 1982
Strange as it might seem there was once a time before everyone had a mobile phone. In those dark, distant days phones had only one function and connected to the local exchange by long wires, nevertheless, most people had one in their home. If not, or when they were out and about they could still make phone calls using telephone boxes and kiosks.Those of you with really long memories may recall that they were once a familiar sight, in the street and public places, though it could get a bit tricky out in the sticks.
The only problem with having a landline phone back then was that calls were comparatively expensive, especially when it involved calling someone a long way away and unless a close eye was kept on the phone – they were often installed in hallways, so the ringing didn’t disturb the TV… – it could be tricky to stop others in the household from using it and running up massive bills.
Of course in most cases it wasn’t too difficult to work out who was responsible but in homes with teenagers, shared accommodation, shops and offices, for example, an unguarded phone could be a huge temptation. Never ones to miss an opportunity British Telecom (BT) recognised the problem and at some point in the late 70s or early 80s -- more on that in a moment – it came up with the innovative BT CT6000, aka the ‘Moneybox’. Apart from anything else it was notable for being '...the first payphone to operate independently of meter-pulses at the exchange'. Feel free to use that fascinating fact to break the ice at parties…
As the compact user-friendly styling suggests the CT6000 Moneybox was designed for consumer and domestic use. For incoming calls it works just like any ordinary phone, though it generates a ‘payphone identification tone’ that’s supposed to warn operators not to put through crafty reverse-charge calls. To make an outgoing call you need a good supply of 10 pence pieces. Incidentally, they have to the old type, the same size as the two Shilling piece. That’s because this phone was introduced barely a decade after decimalisation (1971) when pre-decimal coins were still in circulation. Back to the matter in hand. To make a call simply put a coin in the slot (two more can be on standby in the coin holders next to the slot) and dial the number. When the call is answered press the big orange Button A and the coin disappears into the slot. The LCD display shows how much longer you have left and 10 seconds before the time runs out there’s a bleeping sound in the earpiece so you have time to feed in more coins. Pressing either of the blank keypad buttons shows how much the call is costing. If an incorrect coin is inserted, the call doesn’t go through or there is any remaining credit, the last coin is returned to the coin cup on the front of the unit.
Normally the CT6000 was pre-programmed by BT with what it considered to be a fair charge rate but the ‘owner’ (in fact you could only rent the CT6000 from BT), was allowed to make adjustments. However, this was on the strict understanding that the charge rate was displayed and if it was too high and they received complaints, BT would probably send the boys round and take it away. Changing the charge rate is fiendishly complicated and you have to get to grips with things called Time and Charge Units. The cost of Time Units was fixed, but Charge Units varied according to the time of day and how far away the person you are calling is. Enough said…
Anyone determined to set their own tariff would find lengthy programming instructions in the manual. It makes old-school VCR timers look like a doddle and involves lots of jargon, entering codes into the keypad and pressing many buttons in the right order. To stop fiddlers changing settings, or getting at the coin box the unit is protected by a sturdy key-operated switch lock. There are four positions: Open, Payphone, Owner and Program. In Open mode the top half of the case lifts up to allow the owner empty the coin box and, once a year, change the 4 x AA batteries that keep the clock and microcontroller running and power the coin mechanism. The coin box holds up to 100 ten pence pieces, which the owner is supposed to use to pay the phone bill. The number of coins it holds and a running tally or cash record can be displayed on the LCD at any time by pressing Button A. It also shows a warning message when the coin container is close to full. Payphone is the normal operational setting; Owner mode disables Payphone mode for free calls and Program position is used to change call charge settings, adjust the clock and change or disable various secondary functions, like time bands, identification tones, lock out international calls, ring time limit and so on.
As a matter of interest it looks like BT intended the Moneybox to accept 20 pence coins. There’s a reversible plate behind the coin slot with a 20p sized hole – but it seems that this was never implemented, probably because the expensive coin mechanism would have to be replaced or modified.
The stallholder at the Essex antiques fair where I found this one claimed to be one of its original users. Apparently it was installed in his student digs and he liberated it when he graduated. It obviously didn’t have much sentimental value, as he only wanted £3.00 for it, in spite of it looking like it had hardly been used. Unfortunately it didn’t come with the key, but rather than break it open or spend hours mucking around with my tube lock picker, I dug out my USB Endoscope. This handy little gadget comprises a miniature video camera and LED illuminator on the end of long tube (an ebay bargain costing £6.00). It’s used to peer into dark and inaccessible places and it allowed me to view the locking mechanism through a slot in the base. From that I was able to figure out that by drilling a small and unobtrusive hole in the side of the case it could be opened by poking a lever with a thin metal rod. Once inside I was able to remove and disarm the keylock switch so it could be used with a blank key. The innards were as clean as a whistle and I was greatly relieved to find that a set of vintage AA batteries in the holder hadn’t leaked. A quick wipe-over with some household detergent restored it to a near showroom finish Telephonically everything was in good working order, though the first generation digital keypad doesn’t have Star or Hash symbols, and I’ll leave reprogramming the payphone functions for another day.
Whilst it is sturdily built it remains quite vulnerable, to simple theft – just unplug it and run, coins and all – to casual vandalism; the case can be prised open with nothing more sophisticated than a large screwdriver. Aside from the Owner’s key the only other security measure is a tilt switch, which disables the phone if any attempt is made to shake out coins inside or dislodge one stuck in the mechanism.
What Happened To It?
The Moneybox wasn’t BT’s first compact payphone; in the late seventies it developed a range of relatively small mobile and wall-mounted models for use in hospitals, offices and so on. However, the CT6000 was almost certainly one of the first that didn’t look too out of place in a domestic environment. It was followed by a handful of even smaller and sleeker designs but it looks like BT made the decision to return to chunkier and more vandal-proof payphones, possibly in response to growing problems with theft and abuse.
The usually informative vintage telephone websites have relatively little to say about this instrument so I have taken a stab at 1982 as the most likely date of manufacture or introduction. This is based on things like the Hitachi microcontroller it uses and the early digital tone keypad (as opposed to a rotary dial) but it could easily be 3 or 4 years either way. As always if anyone can nail it down to a more precise date, please let me know.
It is equally difficult to work out the value. My estimation is based entirely on the small handful that have appeared on ebay in the past year (2017), which sold for between £10 and £20, mostly to the first and only bidders. From that I conclude that compact domestic payphones have yet to achieve collectible status but as is so often the case, one day they could become highly sought after so don’t miss out on the opportunity if you ever see one going cheap. If nothing else, with a few simple modifications it can become a novelty combination home phone and moneybox, and probably a quite effective deterrent to anyone thinking of using it to make sneaky phone calls.
First seen: 1982
Original Price: £n/a (available for rent only)
Value Today: £15 (1117)
Features: Coil operated, user programmable call charges, LCD display: time/duration, low battery, cash record, cash box full (capacity 100 x old 10p/2 shilling coins), selective free calls, tilt warning, call barring & reception (nos. starting 10 & 010(, reverse charge warning, coin holders, coin return, security keylock, tone dialling
Power req. 4 x 1.5v AA cells & line power
Dimensions: 245 x 130 x 185 mm
Made (assembled) in: UK
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 8
Gfeller Eiger Phone, BT TSR-1009, 1982
Seeing a Gfeller Eiger Phone for the first time I had an irresistible urge to pick it up and proclaim that, ’I am not a number, I am free man’… And if you don’t get that reference I urge you to watch a Sixties cult TV series called The Prisoner, and all will be explained (have a look at the photo at the bottom of the page). See it any case, if only for the great cars, bouncy blobs and bizarre plot. This phone wasn’t a prop, but it looks a lot like the ones regularly featured in Number Two’s office. Who knows, maybe they were the inspiration for the Eiger phone? For the record the ones seen in the TV show were actually National Interphone intercoms, but that’s another story.
The Swiss made Eiger phone, or as BT liked to call it, Telephone Special range (TSR) 1009 was introduced in 1981. If you wanted one it would have set you back £27.00 for installation plus an extra £2.00 on your quarterly rental charge. It’s worth pointing out that back then you never actually got to own a BT Phone, it remained their property and in theory they took it back when you changed or upgraded your telephone. This one clearly fell through the net.As you can see it’s a one piece-design, not unlike another iconic model in BTs TSR range, the Ericofon Cobra phone (TSR 8007), which dates from around the same time. They both share the same upright layout, with the line switch on the base. But instead of having the dial or keypad on the underside on this one it’s on the front. It’s fairly rudimentary by current standards, the only notable features, over and above the basics needed to make and take calls, are microphone mute and last number redial (the S or Silent and M for memory buttons on the keypad).
There’s no need for any instructions; picking it up opens the line, dial the number and speak and listen as you would with any other phone. If you think the ringer volume (a thin-sounding high-pitched buzz) is too loud, and you would need seriously sensitive ears for that to happen, you simply flipped the little white switch set into the microphone or transmitter grille. This isn’t half as clever as it looks; it just slides a panel over the holes to muffle the sound a bit.
The Eiger phone was available in a range of colours, including red, stone, dark grey and this rather fetching two tone brown, with a suede-like textured finish. There were two minor variants, types A and C, with slight differences in the way the last number redial or Memory function worked. It’s also worth saying that whilst it has a numeric keypad, it simply mimics the action of a rotary dial, generating pulses, rather than the audible DTMF tones used by modern phones. This also means that it cannot be used on automated digital systems where it is necessary to press star or hash keys, because it doesn’t have them.
This one came from ebay. I thought it would go really quickly, they are not that common and collectors generally snap them up. However, it hung around for several weeks until I could bear it no longer, so I put it (and me) out of our misery and coughed up the £20.00 asking price.
It was as described and in very good condition. There are a few small scuff marks here and there, the fuzzy finish isn’t very resilient, but they hardly notice and overall it looks very good. It works too, though the lack of a proper digital keypad limits its usefulness. I suspect that it wouldn’t take much to upgrade. Someone handy with a screwdriver wouldn’t have much trouble transplanting the guts from a modern phone, but I’d rather keep this one as the Gods and BT intended, in its original condition.
What Happened To It?
The Eiger phone was made by a Swiss company called Gfeller. They’ve been around for a very long time, since 1896 to be exact, when Christian Gfeller set up a small factory making telephones and signal bells for the Swiss railway. Over the next 70 or so years Gfeller AG grew to become a leading light in the telecomms industry. In 1977 it developed one of the first one-piece phones, the Electron, which was the forerunner of the Atlanta, and following some light tweaking, in 1981 it became the Eiger. In 1984 Gfeller merged with Autofon, another major Swiss telecomms company, and the Gfeller name quietly disappeared from view.
By all accounts the Eiger phone was quite popular but on ebay UK, at least, they are few and far between, which suggests that BT probably was quite diligent about taking them back. This makes valuation difficult, and sadly, any vague similarities to the phones used in The Prisoner count for nothing. I recall one selling for over £50 a while back if you poke around the web you’ll find tales of owners who picked them up at car boot sales for a few pounds. I’m playing it safe with a mid-range estimate of £30 for one in average to good condition, with plenty of leeway for rough and mint examples. Either way it’s a striking and stylish instrument, not quite a design classic but not far off. Be seeing you!
First seen: 1981
Original Price: £27.00 plus additional £2.00 quarterly rental
Value Today: £30 (1017)
Features: One piece design, push-button keypad, last number redial, mute, ringer volume ‘switch’
Power req. n/a (line powered)
Dimensions: 225 x 73 x 110mm
Made (assembled) in: Switzerland
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 8
Amstrad e-m@iler Plus, 2001
Behold, one of the most fiendish contraptions devised by man, (clearly no women had any part in its design, otherwise it wouldn’t have been so terrible…). It was a source of mental cruelty and financial torture for unfortunate users, and a good lesson in how quickly a seemingly good idea can turn into multi-million pound lame duck. It is the Amstrad e-m@iler Plus, and I am ashamed to say that I was responsible for inflicting one of these devilish devices on my late mother. To be fair she got her own back, and then some, constantly calling me, asking how to make the damn thing work…
It helps to know that this dreadful gadget appeared at a turning point in the evolution of the Internet. It was originally launched in 2000, when emailing and the web were on the brink of becoming a house-trained consumer technology, but only for those who owned, and knew how to use a PC. This basic requirement sidelined a lot of people, particularly the elderly, many of whom found home computers challenging. Even those familiar with PCs could be frustrated by Windows, which was still a bit cranky back then. Home computers were also quite expensive and a half decent entry-level system could set you back the thick end of £500. However, even the most tech-averse senior citizens could see the value in email and the web, for keeping in touch with far-flung relatives and friends, entertainment and as a source of information. This potentially huge market had not escaped the keen eye of the one called ‘Siralan’, aka Sir Alan Sugar of Amstrad and latterly The Apprentice fame. Minions were directed to come up with an easy to use device that could send and receive emails and provide basic Internet access. This would be through its Amserve and Amsurf portals that would channel users to websites selling Amstrad-related goods and services and show a steady stream of advertisements. On the first part it failed dismally. It was a nightmare to use, but as a money-making tool it was outrageously clever, sucking money from the user’s bank account from day one, even if they never used it.
It could, and indeed should have worked, but the timing was unfortunate. Somewhere down the line the designers lost sight of their target market and Amstrad got greedy. The mix of features sounded enticing though and the launch price of £90.00 was a good deal less than a PC. The feature list gets off to a good start with a well specified home telephone. No arguments there. It has caller display, a built-in digital answer phone, hands-free operation and a 700-name address book (assuming you managed to figure out how they all worked). The pivoting two-colour backlit LCD screen is a good size and easy to read, and there’s a handy pull-out mini qwerty keyboard stowed under the top panel but that is about as far as the good bits go. Everything from that point onwards is either hard to use, expensive, or both.
Apart from being painfully awkward to use email and Internet access both used premium rate phone lines. Simply checking to see if you had any emails would cost you 20 pence, and in case you forgot it automatically dialled up once a day, adding a minimum of £70 a year to a typical phone bill. If you wanted to add a photo attachment to your email (it has a Smart Card slot on the side of the unit) it was an extra 25 pence. Internet access cost a flat 5 pence a minute, and on a slow dial-up connection that could prove expensive. You could easily rack up several pounds in charges with some light Google searches. Sending a text cost £1.00, MMS messages worked out at £1.50 a pop and if you were rash enough to download a new ringtone it would cost you a minimum of £1.50. Remember, this was over and above the basic costs of phone line rental, and didn’t take into account any of the many premium services on offer. For example you could send a ‘prank’ message to someone’s phone for £1.50; and then there was the whole minefield of Sinclair Spectrum games to buy and play, adult services, horoscopes and psychic readings, all helpfully listed on the on-screen menu. Unwary users could easily find their monthly or quarterly phone bills leapt by several hundred pounds for no apparent reason.
Amstrad might have got away with it for a little longer if it hadn’t been so difficult to use. The designers appear to have assumed that it would be bought by people who were comfortable learning how to use a complex multi-function device that relied on a poorly designed user interface and quirky menu-driven on-screen display. User also had to memorise sometimes lengthy control sequences, and know what do when it got into error mode – as frequently happened at the hands of a frustrated owner. And woe betides anyone who tried to use it as a bedroom phone; it had a very nasty habit of lighting up at night to display adverts.
This e-m@iler, the slightly later Plus version, is the one that caused my poor mother so much grief. I knew Amstrad of old, the sometimes questionable marketing guff and the build quality of some of their audio and video products but their PCs and satellite receivers had been doing quite well and the e-m@iler concept sounded plausible. I bought it without thinking, or putting myself in my mother’s place, stupidly hoping it would help re-boot my attempts to introduce her to the Internet. She was a smart woman but set in her ways and I had given up trying to teach her how to use a computer some years earlier. She lived some distance from me so this seemed like a good idea and would help me and my brother, who lived in South Africa, to keep in touch with her by email. It started badly. The instructions were impenetrable, for both of us, and my attempts to explain its workings fell on deaf (but perfectly functional ears). I didn’t give up though, and compiled a set of crib sheets, with what I thought were simple step-by-step instructions for sending and receiving emails, sending a text message, using the answer phone and so on. In short the only part of it she ever mastered was the phone, which she used frequently to complain or remind her how to pick up emails (I don’t think she ever sent one). The crunch came with the first phone bill after it was hooked up. I put the unexpected £20 increase down to initial teething problems and the random button pushing technique she’d devised when it (and most other gadgets) wouldn’t do her bidding. The next quarter’s bill settled its fate with more than £50 going into Amstrad’s coffers, and as far as I was aware she had spent no more than a few minutes online or picking up emails. We both decided it would be better to swap it for a normal phone and consign it to the attic where it would join all the other must-have technical marvels I’d plied her with over the years…
Its very brief career means that it has been preserved in almost as-new condition. I’m kicking myself for not asking my mother to hang on to the box and instructions but even after years of storage it still powers up and looks in vain for a dial-up telephone number to connect to. Build quality was pretty good, though fixing a broken one looks like it could be a nightmare; main processor board is well made but the rat’s nest of cables and connectors means there’s plenty of potential for hard to locate loose or intermittent connections.
What Happened To It?
The e-m@iler was launched in 2000 amid a lot of media hype and a fair amount of goodwill in the press, keen to see it succeed but once the initial excitement died down and its many flaws became apparent it started the slow decline that resulted in it becoming a complete flop. In spite of reported sales of 92,000 units it cost Amstrad a very pretty penny (conservatively estimated at between £10 and £20 million), not to mention the loss of a senior executive and the acquisition of a lot of unhappy customers. Amstrad tried repeatedly to revive interest in the device but it was up against vastly more sophisticated PCs, which by the early noughties were tumbling in price, helped by big improvements in Windows, and rapidly expanding broadband networks, which the e-m@iler was incapable of accessing. Massive discounts didn’t help and towards the end you could pick them up for the ridiculously low price of £9.00 from high street stores like Tesco. The end came in 2010 when the Amserve service was moved to BSKYB and a year later the plug was pulled. The glut of cheap e-m@ailers prompted a lot of hackers and tweakers to seek alternative uses for it. This included installing a cut down version of Linux on the machine’s surprisingly capable ARM-based processor, but there’s little evidence that it was ever a successful or practical re-cycling exercise. Amstrad’s withdrawal of support also meant that it couldn’t even be used as a basic telephone and so it joins the ranks of major tech failures, which bizarrely has resulted in a slow but steady increase in prices on ebay. From the all-time low closeout price of £9 they are now changing hands for upwards of £25, and very occasionally twice that amount for mint, boxed examples. I can’t see it every going much higher than that but scruffy ones can be found for as little as £5.00 online and at car boot sales. With a quick spruce up you could easily double your money and given time – a hundred years, say -- it might even become an iconic, or should that be ironic collectible.
First seen: 2000
Original Price: £79.99
Value Today: £30.00 (0817)
Features: Telephone with digital answer phone, hands-free operation, 700-name address book & caller display, send & receive email, limited web access via Amserve & Amsurf portals, send SMS text & MMS messages,
Smart Card slot, integral and corded qwerty keyboard, calculator, play Sinclair Spectrum games
Power req. 28 volts DC, via proprietary AV mains adaptor
Dimensions: 245 x 182 x 200mm
Made (assembled) in: China
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 4
The prestigious Danish home entertainment manufacturer took a lot of people by surprise in the late 1980s when they launched their first home phone. This was a real departure for the company, best known for its extravagantly priced range of audio and video equipment. B&O’s products have been regarded in almost equal measure for their distinctive styling and performance, though over the years hi-fi experts and pundits have regularly pointed out that looks sometimes takes precedence over performance. Anyway, here it is, the BeoCom 2000, and you would not be alone in thinking that it either looks like an elegant and distinctive work of art, or an overpriced child’s toy; B&O products can have that effect on people.
Either way there is no denying it was, and still is very different from your average home phone, and since it came from B&O the differences are more than skin-deep. It was an in-house design and unusually, they manufactured everything as well, including the microphone, earpiece and speaker (for the hands free facility). Apparently this was a real back to the drawing board exercise in an attempt to get the best possible sound quality from what is basically a very low quality medium.
Other innovations include the LCD display panel; this was still a rarity on home phones back then; this one displays the number called, and the duration of the call in progress. The BeoCom 2000 was also at the cutting edge when it came to the electronics. It was one of the first phones to use a microprocessor and solid state memory that stores up to 20 numbers, the last three numbers dialled and an ‘Emergency’ number (i.e. 999), which can be dialled instantly by pressing the red button on the keypad. There’s also a volume control for the speaker, a tone ringer with 8 level settings, switchable tone or pulse dialling, microphone mute and call hold, but it’s the extra touches that really set it apart from the crowd.
Normally the panel below the LCD would have a sliding cover (it’s missing on this one), and behind it there should be a small notepad, for taking notes. Beneath that – shown in the photo – is a tiny crib-sheet for the main user-functions and space to record the frequently used speed dial names and numbers. The two small red knobs in the bottom right hand corner are for selecting pulse/tone dial mode and setting the tone ringer. For the record the choices are: loud treble slow, loud treble quick, loud bass slow, loud bass quick, soft treble slow, soft treble quick, soft bass slow and soft bass quick. No fancy ringtones here; life was a lot simpler in the olden days…
Then there’s the handset. Somewhere down the line there seems to have been strict instructions on the design brief to avoid curves. A couple, like the rounded buttons on the keypad, seem to have slipped through. The only other one is on the inside edge of the handset. It’s out of sight most of the time and I suspect that it was only allowed under duress, as a completely flat handset would have been an ergonomic nightmare.
In spite of my best haggling efforts the stallholder at the Kent car boot sale where I found this one stuck rigidly to his £5.00 asking price. Whilst at first glance it seemed to be in a pretty dismal condition, in retrospect it was a reasonable price for such a rare and unusual model. Aside from the missing panel covering the notepad the only real problem was that a previous owner was arguably one of the world’s worst painters. The top was splattered with hundreds of spots of white paint. Luckily it was some sort of emulsion and most came away easily with a gentle poke from a wooden stirring stick, leaving no marks. The more stubborn ones responded well to light rubbing with isopropyl alcohol. Even so that was a couple of hours of my life I’ll never get back. Underneath the surfaces were in very good shape and with some more cleaning and half a can of plastic polish spray, it looks almost like new. It’s in good working order too, though I’ll just have to take it on trust that the B&O magic used on the audio components was worth all the effort and expense. Suffice it to say it sounds okay.
What Happened To It?
After graduating Danish engineering student Peter Bang teamed up with his friend Svend Olufsen to dabble and experiment with audio equipment in the attic of Olufsen’s home. That was in 1925; a year later they went into business together developing sound recording systems for the movie industry and PA speakers for the military and, bizarrely, circuses… Radios followed but B&O, as we know them today, didn’t start making their icon and expensive high-end audio equipment, radios and TVs until the late 1950s and this was largely thanks to the influence of designer Ib Fabiansen, who joined the company in 1957.
I am uncertain as to when this model was introduced. A couple of authoritative websites reckon it was 1989; others have it even later, in 1992. The odd thing is the manufacturer’s information label (model number, colour, country of origin etc) on the underside is dated 1986. Online sources agree that it continued until 1998. From the early 90’s B&O went on to develop a wide range of home phones and mobiles, including some truly wacky designs that make the BeoCom 2000 look almost normal (google BeoCom 2 and 4 for a scary sight…). In fact in 1993 this model was given a makeover. The most noticeable change was the switch to a single colour for the keyboard buttons that helped to play down the toy town appearance but in doing so lost some of its character and charm. B&O still makes or at least markets a few phones to this day but its core business continues to be high-end home entertainment equipment. Like many consumer electronic companies it has been through some rough patches, most recently in 2015 when it issued profit warnings but it appears to be in good health now and has entered into high profile partnerships to supply audio components to the likes of HP and Apple-owned Beats Electronics.
There has always been a steady demand for B&O products, especially vintage ones, and even a humble phone like this one can fetch £100 or more on ebay. However, condition is everything to a determined collector, which is why my BeoCom 2000, with its missing panel cover, probably wouldn’t sell for more than £30 to £40. It may not sound like much of an investment but should I ever decide to sell it I can be pretty sure I’ll get my fiver back.
First seen: 1986?
Original Price: £100.00
Value Today: £45.00 (0717)
Features LCD display (number called, call duration), 20-number memory, ‘emergency’ key single number memory, last 3-number redial, microphone mute, pause (call hold), tone ringer (8-levels), volume control, tone/pulse dialling, speakerphone/handsfree facility, integral notepad
Power req. Phone: line-powered, memory backup 1 x 3.6 volt lithium cell
Dimensions: 210 x 222 x 80mm
Made (assembled) in: Denmark
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 8
GE Help 3-5908 Emergency AM CB Radio, 1983
If your car breaks down in the UK it’s usually no more than an inconvenience and even in the days before mobile phones, the chances getting help, or someone coming to your assistance, were generally quite good. It’s a different matter in the US, where it is still possible to find yourself lost, alone, miles from anywhere and in real peril, from the weather, extreme heat or cold, lack of water and food. Of course cellphones improved safety there too, but before that anyone going on a long journey, especially if it involved travelling the back roads, journeying into wilderness areas, crossing deserts or going into the mountains, would have been well advised to have a Citizen’s Band or CB radio in their vehicle.
Citizens Band, which was briefly popular in the UK in the 1980s, is an easy to use, licence-free, two-way radio system, capable of operating over distances of 5 – 20 miles, depending on the terrain etc. It began in the US, in the late 50s. It used a set of frequencies on the Short Wave band, at 27 MHz, employing AM modulation. Initially it was split into 23 channels, this was later increased to 40, to meet the growing demand. At first truckers mostly used it as a way to exchange information on traffic conditions, warn of speed traps and just chat to one another. A lot of small local businesses also found them useful and during the 70s it became popular with ordinary motorists with the development of small and inexpensive in-car units or ‘rigs’. The fad didn’t last very long though; eventually things settled down and CB returned to its roots, with the truckers, but it still had a role to play in emergency communications. This new market also helped take the sting out of rapidly dwindling sales for manufacturers of CB equipment like General Electric or GE.
The GE Help we’re looking at here was one of several emergency CB transceivers that appeared in the early 1980s: others include the Cobra SOS, Kraco Mayday, Midland Ready Rescue and Uniden Traveller. The GE Help, and most of the others are almost entirely self-contained, fitted into compact plastic boxes, and stored in the car’s trunk -- or boot, as it is properly called -- until needed. The idea was there was no need to have a CB rig and antenna permanently installed in your vehicle. This outfit includes a telescopic roof-top antenna fitted with a magnetic base mount and a power lead that plugs into the vehicle’s cigar lighter socket. The most important features, however, are that it operates at the maximum permitted transmitter power output (4 watts RF) for the greatest range. It covers all 40 channels, with Emergency Channel 9 clearly marked on the dial, and it is very simple to use, with a built in microphone and loudspeaker and a minimum of controls and displays. All this means that it can be up and running in just a couple of minutes, and with the large, prominent red Push To Talk (PTT) in the middle of the front panel users hardly need to read the instructions to put out a call for help.
On the base of the unit there are just two sockets, one for the antenna cable (around 2.5 metres long), and the power lead. The controls are mostly self-explanatory. The rotary knob on the left is for selecting the operating channel and this is shown on a small 2-digit LED display in the top left hand corner of the front panel. The knob on the right is the on/off volume control and beneath that there’s a slider control marked Receiving Range, Local – Distant. This is a Squelch control, a common feature on many two-way radios. Basically it cuts out the background noise until a signal strong enough to be heard above the hiss is received. LED indicators show power on and transmit mode; the built-in microphone is mounted above the volume knob and the speaker occupies the lower third of the front panel. Everything fits neatly into the tough plastic case and there’s a handy pictorial guide inside the lid, just in case you can’t figure out how to use it.
Judging by the way the cables were still neatly coiled with their original tie-strips it appears that this one has never been used. It was clearly fortunate for the previous owner and lucky for me, as it has been preserved in near-mint condition. The only sign that it is more than 40 years old is the stage case, which has the sort of scratches and scuff marks that come from a life spent rattling around in a trunk or toolbox. I found it at a rural ‘Swap Meet’ – a cross between a car boot sale and market -- in a tiny desert town in Arizona. I decided it was best not to haggle with the burly stallholder (they carry guns in those parts…) and I paid the asking price of 10 dollars, which at the time of writing was around £8.00-ish. It was as you see it now, and apart from some dust inside the case and a quick wipe over it looks as good as the day it was made. It works too, though I should point out that since it operates on the US AM CB band, which is illegal to use in the UK, I couldn’t test it properly, though I have no doubts that if anyone else with a similar setup were nearby we could exchange a few ‘that’s a big 10-4 good buddys ’…
What Happened To It?
To be fair to the small bands of die-hard CBers on both sides of the big pond, it has never really gone away. However, the fact remains that it is an obsolete technology. Nowadays virtually everyone has a mobile phone, and they’re usually a much better bet if you need to summon help in an emergency, or simply chat with someone, but there are still a few things CB does better than anything else. It’s an open communication system, which means anyone within range can overhear or participate in a conversation. That works both ways and here in the UK at least idiots often plagued the bands with inane chatter, but on a good day it created a kind of community spirit, which really isn’t the same thing as web-based social media. It’s also free to use, once you’ve paid out for the equipment, and it excels at local short range, point to point communications. This can be handy for things like crowd control and event organisation, vehicle to vehicle comms and so on, though it has to be said that the modern versions of license-free ‘CB’, operating on VHF and UHF frequencies, work a lot better than the hissy old AM short wave system.
Even though they are illegal in the UK vintage AM CB transceivers in good working order will always find a buyer. There’s also a modest collector’s market for iconic or highly featured ‘rigs’ from manufacturers like Cobra, Midland, President and Uniden. The GE Help isn’t in that league, at least not yet. Emergency outfits like this one are a largely forgotten backwater of the CB story and there is very little information about them on the web. GE Helps turn up every so often on the US ebay site and typically sell for under $25.00 but one thing is for sure, only a small handful of them would have reached the UK. For that reason this one is a little bit special and on a good day, with the wind in the right direction, it might be worth between £20 and £50 to the right person.
DUSTY DATA (Manual)
First seen: 1983
Original Price: $50?
Value Today: £20 (0217)
Features: 40 channel AM CB Transceiver (26.965 – 27.405MHz), 4 watts RF output, LED channel indicator, rotary volume & channel selector controls, squelch (Local – Distant) slider control, external telescopic ground plane antenna with magnetic base, power lead with cigar lighter plug, carry case
Power req. 12-volts DC
Dimensions: 195 x 80 x 52mm
Made (assembled) in: Hong Kong
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest) 8
Homer KIT-505 Telephone Amplifier, 1968
The dates and original prices attributed to some of the items appearing in dustygizmos are occasionally little more than an educated guess. They’re based on sometimes shaky recollections and possibly dubious references in books, magazines and on the web but for once, here’s something that can be dated, priced and even localised with almost clinical precision.
The date is the day it was sold, and that was Monday the 11th of November 1968. It cost three pounds two shillings, and it was bought from West London Direct Supplies located at 169 Kensington High Street in London W8.
The item in question is a Homer Model KIT-505 Transistor Telephone Amplifier, and the reason there is so much detailed information is because it came in its original box, along with a sales receipt, instruction leaflet and a copy of West London Direct Supplies’ catalogue from September 1968. It all makes fascinating reading and you can see them in the Manuals Archive. Best of all, it looks like the box hasn’t been opened since the day it was sold.
A telephone amplifier, in case you haven’t come across one before, is pretty much what you would expect. It’s a small box, containing a battery powered amplifier and it connects to a telephone, so you can hear what the other person on the line is saying without having to clamp the handset to your ear. In other words it’s for hands-free operation, though back in the dim-distant, when these things were popular, landline telephone earpieces were a lot quieter than they are now. The emphasis then was on it being used for crackly long distance or ‘trunk’ calls and as an aid for the hard of hearing.
It is really easy to use, and there’s no need to mess around with wires and connectors, not that they were allowed in those days. The GPO, later to become BT, was fanatical about what could be connected to their network and as far as most residential subscribers were concerned it meant virtually nothing was allowed. Devices like this telephone amplifier got around that inconvenience using a clever device called an induction coil. This attaches to the side of the phone or the handset with a suction cup and it picks up electromagnetic emanations from coils inside the phone. The tiny signals are then fed into an amplifier and heard through the built-in speaker. This used to work well on the telephones of the day but as time went by phones used fewer coils and on many modern phones induction coil pickups hardly work at all. On this one it is still possible to get a faint response from some models, and there’s sometimes a sweet spot on the handset, close to the earpiece.
The amplifier used in the KIT-505 is a basic three-transistor circuit, so there is very little to go wrong and it is still in good working order even after all these years. Even components like electrolytic capacitors, which tend to deteriorate after a couple of decades, were still okay. In fact the only thing that didn’t work was the 9-volt battery, which wasn’t too surprising as it was the original, still in its cellophane wrapping, that came with it. Even more remarkable was the fact that it hadn’t leaked – in those days leakproof meant what it said!
This one was a fairly recent (late 2016) ebay find. I was the only bidder and it never got above the starting price of £2.50. It might have attracted more attention if the description had made more of the fact that it was virtually as-new, in near pristine condition and had probably never been used.
What Happened To It?
Don’t read too much into the Homer badge on the speaker panel. It was one of hundreds of western-sounding names used by small, obscure (and often unpronounceable) Japanese companies churning out gadgets like this. The vast majority of them have since vanished without trace. In fact this model was almost certainly sold under a dozens of different names, including ones chosen by importers and retailers like West London Direct Supplies. As you’ll see from the company’s catalogue in the Manuals Archive the plastic case really earns its keep and turns up in other guises, in intercoms and baby alarms, and probably a few other things besides.
Telephone amplifiers, on the other hand haven’t gone away, even though hands-free operation has become a common feature on home and office phones. However, most modern telephone amplifiers work differently to this one. Instead of a pickup coil they attach to the handset and use a small microphone to pick up the sounds coming from the earpiece.
There is no question that this one was an absolute bargain but that is mainly due to it’s immaculate condition and provenance, but even used examples of similar vintage and in a good state of repair fail to generate much excitement amongst phone collectors and fans of retro technology. Even though they don’t come up very often on ebay prices are still quite low and they generally sell for between £5 and £20. There are exceptions though, and devices made in the 40s and 50s are rarer and more ornate, with prices to match. If you wait long enough small sixties telephone amps like this will creep up in value so now is a good time to invest, and you can afford to be choosy and target the best examples.
First seen 1968
Original Price £3 2s (£2.10)
Value Today £10 (1216)
Features 3-transistor amplifier, 70mm speaker, induction coil pickup coil with suction cup, rotary volume, on/off switch, 2.5mm jack (for pickup coil).
Power req. 9-volt PP3
Dimensions: 103 x 73 x 43mm
Made (assembled) in: Japan
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 7
Betacom CP/6 Ferrari Phone, 1986
This Betacom CP/6 is about the closest most of us will ever get to owning a classic Italian sports car, but count yourself lucky! A real Ferrari Testarossa isn’t half as much fun as you might think. Take your weekly Tesco shop, for example. There’s barely enough room in the boot for a couple of carrier bags. You could buy a small house for what you’ll pay for insurance and don’t get me started on the fuel consumption -- 12mpg tops, and that’s on a good day.
Thanks to the miracle of eighties technology this scale model of the Testarossa is much more useable, and a whole lot cheaper than a gas guzzling supercar. Just stick your fingers through the windows, lift up the roof and hey presto; you have an elegant, retro-styled push-button phone. Okay, that’s not much consolation but if you believe the descriptions of some of the Betacom CP/6s on ebay, it’s a highly sought-after collectible, especially amongst Ferrari owners and enthusiasts, so who knows? One day a CP/6 could be worth as much as the real thing…
It might not be able to do 0 to 60 in 4.8 seconds but this tiny Testarossa does have one or two interesting features, like old-school pulse dialling. You have to remember that in the mid to late 80s only a handful of UK telephone exchanges had been upgraded to digital operation and tone dialling, so it needed to be compatible with the network as it stood back then. The designers were a bit lazy and left the Star and Hash buttons on the keypad on the UK version – tone dialling was the norm in the US and some other markets – but rather than remove or re-label them the keys were reassigned to Mute and Last number redial functions. A year or two later a tone-dialling version was introduced and they can be identified by a switch, to swap between the two modes.
To round off the highlights there’s a small switch below the keypad for turning the ‘ringer’ on and off. By rights the phone should make a throaty, macho engine noise when someone calls, or possibly a jaunty Italian hooter but alas, it was not to be. It makes what may be one of the saddest sounds ever heard from a novelty car-shaped telephone, just a feeble tinkle, the sort you get from a novelty Christmas card, and you would be lucky to hear it across a averagely noisy living room. There are more disappointments, the wheels do not turn, though this is probably to stop it rolling off the table or surface on which it stands, even so… A little more attention to detail wouldn’t have gone amiss either; the opaque red windscreen really spoils the effect and how much would it have cost to put a few dabs of silver paint on the lights?
On the plus side this one was really cheap, just 50 pence at a local car boot sale. All it needed to get it into showroom condition was a quick strip down to remove the dust and hairs that made it into the case and handset, followed by a wipe over with some plastic cleaner and polish. In common with most phones from that era -- compliant with BT regulations -- it was quite well made so it wasn’t too much of a surprise to find that it was still in good working order.
What Happened To It?
Betacom set up shop in the mid 60s and were a prolific importer of budget priced audio and video products, and novelty phones. In the early 90s Amstrad took a controlling interest in the company, giving it a slice of the UK's growing telecomms market. The association didn’t last very long though and by the late 90s Betacom had been sold off to the Alba Group, later to become Harvard International, at which point the Betacom brand seems to have sunk without trace.
Novelty telephones designed to look like sports cars, and just about anything else you can think of, are still with us but hard-wired landline phones are rapidly becoming an endangered species, now that just about everyone on the planet has at least one mobile phone. This is good and bad news for collectors of vintage technology. Phones like this one are cheap and plentiful and now would be a good time to start a collection, and do your bit to save this often overlooked branch of late twentieth century technology from extinction. The bad news is that most phones from the 70s onwards are unlikely to gain much in value, at least not in the short term. There are a few exceptions and the Betacom CP/6 could be a borderline case. The perceived cachet associated with the Ferrari name means that prices on ebay are often some way above what they are really worth. Mint and boxed examples will always sell for a bit more than a well used one, but in the end their actual value is no more, and no less that someone is prepared to pay, which can be anywhere between 50p and £50.
First seen 1986
Original Price £20
Value Today £5 (1116)
Features Numeric keypad (pulse dialling only), mute & last number redial functions, ringer on/off
Power req. n/a (line powered)
Dimensions: 230 x 115 x 60mm
Made (assembled) in: Hong Kong
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 6
BT Telephone 282A, Linesman’s Test Phone, 1984
There’s something of the forbidden fruit about linesman’s test phones. They’re from that parallel universe of technology, where only the chosen few get to see what’s inside those mysterious grey, black and green boxes containing the magic of modern tele-
comms. Once upon a time, way back, in 1984, this bright yellow BT 282A was part of that secret world and at the cutting edge of the wizardry. It was one of the first generation of test phones to have a fully featured numeric keypad and this made it suitable for use with digital exchanges, which at the time were being rolled out across the UK. It is possible that this model was developed quite rapidly as it is housed in what appears to be a near identical handset moulding to its immediate predecessor, the plain vanilla BT 282. This had a miniature rotary dial where the keypad on the 282A sits.
Apart from that the basic functions of the two models are very similar. It’s fitted with a standard BT plug and the controls, apart from the keypad, are limited to a rocker switch on the rear of the case labelled ‘Mon ,TX and M. C/O’. The first two positions (Monitor & Tx or Transmit) replicate the on and off the hook functions of a normal domestic phone; the M.C/O position is spring-loaded and it stands for microphone cut-out or mute, so the engineer can listen to what’s happening on the line under test, without being heard.
There is a large belt hook at the top and it is one of the possible explanations why instruments like this are known in the trade as ‘Butt’ (or ‘Buttinski’, mostly in the US) phones. One theory is that when not in use the phone can be hung from the linesman’s tool or ‘Butt Belt’. The alternative is that it allows engineers to ‘butt’ into conversations; take your pick…
Inside there’s a fair amount of electronics on the single PC board, including a couple of custom microchips and several components not normally see in conventional home phones. There’s also more than the usual assortment of unused connectors and jumpers, which may indicate that it can be configured for specialist applications. This one is set up for testing normal domestic phone lines but with the appropriate cable and connectors it can also be used to check large-scale business and commercial systems and exchange equipment. A later version, the 284 also had a row of buttons for testing various other functions and a facility to switch between tone and pulse dialling, so it could be used on older exchanges.
The quality of construction is up to BT’s usual very high standards. This is just as well as these phones tend to suffer from a good deal of abuse and rough handling and no doubt an occasional accidental tumble from the top of a telephone pole. This one, though, seems to have led a fairly sedate life with just a few light scratches here and there. Somehow the case also managed to escape being branded with ‘Property of BT’ or personalised, with the engineer’s name. This can be a fairly brutal process, accomplished with the aid of a hot soldering iron or sharp instrument. It’s a very old tradition, supposed to stop expensive test instruments going walkabout, and if they do, help to identify and reunite them with their original owners.
It was found at large Sunday car boot sale in Dorset, along with a few other exotic test instruments and tools, rarely seen in the wild. The seller revealed that she was an embittered ex wife of a BT engineer and having ‘a bit of a clearout’. It was a popular stall… This 282A set me back just £2.00, and I wasn’t about to argue, not least because it was a good deal for one in such good condition, and due to its age BT probably wouldn’t want it back. The stallholder’s other telecomms items were similarly priced but they were mostly in a poor state and far too specialised, even for me. Essentially all it needed was a quick wipe over and it was good to go. It’s fully functional and if it fits in with your décor it could, at a pinch, even be used as a normal house phone, though the ‘ringer’ is so quiet as to be next to useless but the two LEDs above the keypad flash brightly when there’s an incoming call.
What Happened To It?
It was made in the UK by A P Besson Ltd, a company formed in the late 50s, initially to make parts for hearing aids but it quickly diversified into other areas including handset manufacture, PCB assembly and injection moulding for the likes of the GPO and later BT. In 1990 it was taken over by the Japanese Hosiden Corporation and continues to this day supplying parts and components to the telecommunications industry.
The 282A appears to have been in production for around 5 years, before being replaced by the more sophisticated 284 models. Prior to the changeover to digital exchanges linesman’s phones could remain in use, virtually unchanged, sometimes for several decades but the demands of the new technology meant that older and simpler models could become obsolete in just a few years. Current models have many more functions and facilities suited to digital operation, nevertheless vintage instruments like the 282A can still be used to diagnose basic line faults, and provided it’s connected to a home network with at least one other phone with an audible ringer there’s no reason why it can’t continue to earn its keep. They’re not expensive either and good examples can often be found on ebay for between £10 and £20. Prices probably won’t increase by much in the short term, though. There is relatively little interest outside of the phone collecting community and this one is a little too recent to generate much excitement, but give it time…
First seen 1984
Original Price £n/a
Value Today £10.00 (1016)
Features Tone dial, numeric keypad (with star and hash keys), manual on/off hook switching, LED indicators (red: connected, green: off hook, together ringing), butt belt hook, BT connector
Power req. n/a (line powered)
Dimensions: 267 x 90 x 70mm
Made (assembled) in: Bristol, UK
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 6
R2D2 Phone Lazerbuilt Model 805, 1995
Few movie franchises have spawned so much merchandise as Star Wars. It regularly features high on the list of the most expensive action figures and collectibles and some of the rarest ones can sell for tens of thousands of pounds. Sadly this R2D2 novelty phone is not in that league but it’s almost certainly worth a fair bit more than I paid for it.
It’s an original 1995 vintage model – more about that later – and surprisingly big too, measuring 285mm (over 11 inches) from the base of its articulated locomotive units (legs) to the top of its rotating head dome. The handset is cleverly disguised as part of R2D2’s left leg, and when someone calls the dome lights up and starts moving back and forth whilst emitting a stream of those familiar beeps and chirps. This feature can be turned off if required. There’s also a button on the front, marked Demo, which makes it go through its routine; it is just as well there’s an off switch, as it can get quite annoying after a while. It probably reduces the battery life too, from a year or more to just a few weeks, especially when there are kid (of all ages…) in the house. For such an advanced robotic contrivance the phone part is disappointingly basic; no transwarp Wi-Fi or X-Wing Bluetooth connectivity, just an ancient touch-tone keypad with a last number redial button, but back in this Galaxy, a long, long time ago -- the late twentieth century -- that was all you needed..
It is an impressive piece of work though, very well made, and clearly built to please finickity Star Wars fans with lots of small and authentic-looking details. The only real problem with this one, which I found at a car boot sale in Surrey a couple of years ago, is the white plastic on the front part of the case, which has become slightly discoloured. It has taken on the characteristic yellow tinge, which usually means it has been standing in strong sunlight for several years. There’s a lot of advice on the web about how to remove the discolouration but since it mostly involves the use of noxious or messy chemicals and/or lots of elbow grease, it’s not a job I’m keen to tackle anytime soon.
The stallholder assured me that it was in good working order and had been in regular use until recently. It appeared to be in very good shape but I wasn’t able to give it more than a cursory inspection as the lid for the battery compartment was held in place by a tiny screw. He seemed like an honest chap and the asking price of £10 wasn’t too outrageous, though I couldn’t resist haggling him down to £8.00. He didn’t protest too much, and I found out why when I got it home. It seemed that he had been telling porkies and it was pretty obvious that it hadn’t been used for a long time, if the state of the two very ancient batteries in the compartment on the back of the unit were anything to go by. One of them had leaked but luckily it was just a dribble. The goop dried quite quickly so the damage was minimal. The worst affected part was one of the metal contacts; some of the plating had been eroded but after a session with my Dremel’s wire brush attachment the worst of it came off and the metal underneath was still clean and sound. The dried up gunge on the plastic came away with a mixture of household cleaners and some gentle scrubbing with a toothbrush and a nylon kitchen scourer. The damage, such as it is, is now virtually invisible. Thanks to the quality of the parts this one survived; all of R2D2’s systems powered up first time and worked perfectly, once some new power cells had been installed.
What Happened To It?
Collecting Star Wars paraphernalia can be a risky business. Detail and provenance is everything. It pays to do some homework before parting with serious money on allegedly ‘rare’ or expensive items in the hope of one day getting a return on your investment. Take this phone, for example. It was made in 1995 and marketed in the UK by a company called Lazerbuilt. It was a good quality item, aimed at collectors and closely based on the iconic robotic character from the first 1977 film. Back then it was a fairly pricey item, even for a novelty phone. It arrived more than 10 years after the last movie had been released (Return of the Jedi in 1983) so interest in the movies may have been at a low ebb. From the evidence of the serial numbers on this one and others I have seen it doesn’t look like many of them were made. However, in 2005, in the wake of the dreadful trilogy of prequels, released between 1999 and 2005, there was a big revival of interest in all things Star Wars and the company that originally made this R2D2 dug out their old moulds and dusted them off for another much larger production run.
That means that one way or another quite a few R2D2 phones have been produced over the years but a lot of those that are still around today are probably not that old, which must be a consideration when it comes to value. I have seen several listed on ebay and other websites, which could easily be the later version, with incredibly optimistic price tags of several hundred pounds. Even though this one is a genuine ‘first’ generation model there’s no way it is worth anything like that; more realistically priced examples can certainly be found and £30 to £50 for a clean, working, Mk 1 version isn’t out of the question.
Phones of all types and vintages continue to be popular collectables and more recent ones can be put to good use, providing they still work and have minimal touch-tone facilities. Throw in the Star Wars connection and the obvious quality of this model and you can’t go far wrong, but as always age, condition and price are everything. A good R2D2 phone will always tickle the fancy of Star Wars collectors and the good news is that there are bargains out there to be found, if you trust in the Force.
First seen 1995
Original Price £50
Value Today £45 (0916)
Features Feature phone with moving, illuminated head, R2D2 sound effects, switchable ringer, demo mode
Power req. 2 x 1.5 volt ‘D’ cells
Dimensions: 285 x 222 x 180mm
Made (assembled) in: China
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 8
BT Rhapsody SR 1012A/8012 Leather Phone, 1982
Some really weird things happened in the 70s and 80s, so the fact that BT started marketing telephones clad in tan leather shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. Even so you still can’t help wondering what was going through the minds of whoever came up with such a bizarre concept in the first place...
To be fair it wasn’t BT who dreamt it up, that honour goes to a Belgian company called Atea, though what was to become the BT Rhapsody SR 1012A (or TSR 0812) that you see here was based on a phone called the Unifoon, designed by Dutch Telecom and launched Holland in the late 70s, initially with a rotary dial. Incidentally, the SR and TSR prefix on a lot of interesting and oddball GPO and BT phones issued from the early sixties to the late nineties, stands for Special Range/Telephone Special Range and the differences in the model number denote whether or not it was fitted with the now standard BT plug. Just thought you’d like to know…
Anyway, back to the leathery Rhapsody phone and even without its cowhide cover it is still an interesting design, with several unusual features. Starting with the case it's a flexible design that can be used on a tabletop or wall mounted. Look closely and you might spot a rectangular opening in the recess where the microphone rests. This serves two purposes. Firstly it can be used as a handle, so you can walk around with the phone while making or taking a call, and second, it makes it easier to keep clean by avoiding the problem of dust and fag ash accumulations, which can clog up the microphone grille. Ironically this apparently sensible idea backfired and led indirectly to a fairly common fault on this model. If the area around the front of the phone were regularly cleaned with an aerosol polish the spray would be directed up through the hole into the microphone capsule, eventually causing it to fail…
As you can see from the photos it has push-button dialling and BT marketing couldn’t resist jazzing it up by calling it a ‘Pressure Point Keypad’. The keys are very low profile and this was supposed to make it easy to keep clean and suitable for use in messy environments, like a kitchen or workshop. It was another apparently good idea with a sting in the tail. The membrane type keypad used wasn’t very resilient and reportedly didn’t fare well when repeatedly exposed to strong detergents, or used heavily.
By the way, the keypad uses the old ‘pulse’ dialling system; in other words it simulates the action of a mechanical rotary dial. At the time UK exchanges were being converted to digital operation and DTMF or ‘tone’ dialling hadn’t been fully implemented. Consequently on this phone there are no Hash or Star keys but there are two extra buttons marked ‘S’, for secrecy (mutes the microphone) and ‘R’ or last number redial.
In spite of those shortcomings it was still quite advanced for an early 80s phone, but instead of a fancy electronic ringer or warbler there’s a pair of good old-fashioned mechanical bells. It’s not completely antiquated, though and a switch on the back is for nighttime use. This stops the striker from hitting the bells, so instead it produces a low level buzz.
Finally we come to that leather covering. On the plus side it’s a really neat job and the quality of the material and stitching are both excellent, but that still leaves open the question of who would want such a thing? Leather wasn’t especially trendy in the early eighties and the other colours in BT’s Rhapsody range (blue, grey & ivory) were much more in keeping with the styles of the time. Leather is a tough material but it has its drawbacks. It needs looking after, regular cleaning and can deteriorate if left in bright sunlight or kept in a dry atmosphere. It wasn’t a cheap option either. In the early eighties the vast majority of BT customers were still renting their phones; you couldn’t officially buy a Rhapsody phone so the only way to get one would be pay BT £25 for installation and shell out an extra £2.50 over and above the normal quarterly rental fee.
I struck lucky with this one, found at a large open-air antiques fair in Surrey. It was in amongst a lot of expensive Art Deco ceramics. I call this the fish out of water scenario and it can often help with the price. And so it was; the stallholder had no real interest in the phone and was happy to accept an offer of £5.00 for it.
It looked as though it had been in storage for quite a while – the novelty had probably worn off quite quickly -- and underneath a few light layers of dirt it appeared to have been little used and in really good condition. It worked too and apart from the limitations of the vintage keypad, it performs as well as any modern phone.
What Happened To It?
The early 1980s were a very busy time for BT. It is unclear when the Rhapsody model was withdrawn but it probably didn’t hang about much beyond 1985 as by then BT had been fully privatised and the changeover to a digital network was nearing completion. All of this resulted in a growing demand for more compact, sophisticated and novel phones. The choice and design of standard residential phones had also improved in leaps and bounds, and a growing number of BT consumers were opting to buy their own phones, rather than renting from BT. No doubt the Rhapsody’s innards could have been updated but the styling was starting to look dated, it’s time had passed and not even the fancy leather covering could save it.
I doubt that more than a few thousand leather Rhapsody phones were issued and the majority of those would have been returned to BT for disposal as and when they were replaced. Technically they were still BTs property, so any that escaped into the wild and have survived until now are few and far between. They do come up ebay every so often and prices are generally in the range £30 to £50, which isn’t a lot for such a rare and idiosyncratic design. If you can do without the leather trim then standard Rhapsody phones generally go for well under £20, but the lowish prices probably reflect the fact that the numeric keypad limits its functionality in today’s digital universe.
First seen 1982
Original Price £25.00 installation plus additional £2.50 quarterly line rental)
Value Today £30 (0816)
Features Push-button digital keypad, bell ringer with mute, ‘S’ secrecy (microphone mute) button, redial last number, table top or wall mounting, integral carry handle
Power req. n/a (line powered)
Dimensions: 237 x 162 x 85mm
Made (assembled) in: Belgium
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 6
Pye TMC 1705 Linesman’s Telephone, 1970
It’s such a mundane and everyday activity that few of us ever think about what happens when we make, or take, a phone call. By the way, we’re talking about proper telephones, the sort that are connect to a local exchange by wires, not those new fangled mobile jobbies… Anyway, the point is that most of the time phone calls simply happen; but what about when something goes wrong? To fix those problems, and try to stop them occurring in the first place there’s small army of engineers. They’re responsible for keeping the UK telephone networks up and running, and until comparatively recently a lot of them would have something very like this Linesman’s Telephone as part of their tool kit.
Now this is where it gets a bit complicated, and a tad pedantic because the instrument you see here is actually a Pye TMC 1705. This is the military version of the one used by GPO and BT engineers, which has the designation 704A, or Linesman’s Phone B. However, apart from the badge on the top of the case and one or two minor technical differences they are practically identical. This model, one of a very long line of portable test telephones, was first issued in 1968 and was apparently still in service 20 years later. At around that time telephone exchanges across the country were being converted to digital operation and most domestic phones were starting to appear with numeric keypads, rather than dials, so these old warhorses had to be replaced by more sophisticated test instruments.
Basically it is very simple, it’s a portable telephone designed for use in the field, up a pole or indeed anywhere there was a fault, or suspected fault. It has all of the features of a regular phone, namely a handset, rotary dial and an internal ringer or buzzer, but there the similarity ends. The most obvious difference is the size, and that’s due in part to the rugged carry case, which clearly suited its role in military service. Unlike a normal phone, though, it has a pair of terminals, for a temporary connection to a phone line, and there are extra sockets for a headset, and a ‘Tone Amplifier’. This is an add-on that helps an engineer to identify pairs of cables, and if you’ve ever seen the rat’s nest of wires inside one of those kerbside junction boxes you’ll understand how useful this can be. There’s another novel feature on the handset earpiece, and it is one of the few differences between the 1705 and 704 models; it’s a small white button connected to the microphone or transmitter. On the civilian 704 the button can be latched in the cut-off position, on the 1705 it operates as a PTT (push-to-talk) switch. The requirements for such a switch are many and various, from carrying out certain types of test, to being able to silently monitor calls.
The most significant difference between a 704/1705 and a regular phone, though, is the internal battery, comprising three 1.5-volt D cells, and that’s where the three position switch on the top panel, marked CB, LB and Ringer comes in. CB and LB are short for central battery and local battery, which has to do with the way phone networks are, or rather were powered. In the very early days – around the turn of the twentieth century – each telephone had to have its own set of batteries. Early batteries were messy and expensive, and a major maintenance headache, but within a few years those local batteries were replaced by large banks of batteries at the nearest telephone exchange. The need for a local battery feature on a modernish test phone might seem a bit archaic, but a lack of power is one of the myriad faults that can occur on a telephone network, so it can be quite handy for engineers to have a phone that can operate independently. In case you’re wondering the Ringer position on that 3-position switch mentioned a moment ago does exactly what it says. It’s spring loaded and when the 704/1705 is in LB mode or used for testing, pressing the Ringer switch makes the phone to which it is connected ring, buzz, beep or do whatever it does.
Here’s a quick one for trivia fans. In the olden days of local battery operation phones were without dials so you had to signal the exchange to let them know that you wanted to make a call. To do that you had to crank a small generator or magneto, fitted to the side of your phone or installed in a nearby bell box. When the call was over you were supposed to notify the exchange with quick crank of your magneto, and that is where the expression ‘ringing off’ came from. See, gadget collecting can be educational, as well as fun…
And so we come to this particular 1705, which came into my possession many, many years ago. Exactly how many, I can’t remember, but I know it didn’t cost me a bean as I swapped it for parts and spares with another vintage phone collector. It had been quite well used with a fair few scratches and marks on the case and there were signs of a leaky battery but luckily the there was only light corrosion on the contacts and it cleaned up well. It was minus the case lid latch, but this is an easily obtainable part and I probably will get around to replacing it one day. The dial was a bit sluggish too but a few spots of light oil on the mechanism had it purring again. It still works, there’s not a lot to go wrong, but its days of being a useful test instrument are over and as a house phone it leaves a lot to be desired. In any case mine hardly ever rings these days, and every other call I make seems to involve pressing the hash or star key at some point…
Pye and TMC go way back, to 1896 in the case of the company formed by one William George Pye. TMC or The Telephone Manufacturing Company of Britain was formed in 1920, and until the 1960s they were separate, but often overlapping suppliers of telecommunications equipment to the GPO then BT and The Ministry of Defence. Pye eventually bought out TMC and in 1976 they were swallowed up by the (then) mighty Dutch Philips Group, where eventually the two once distinctive brands quietly faded away. As a matter of interest this 1705 has the code TMA stamped on the inside of the lid; the interweb suggests that this indicates it was made in TMC’s Airdrie factory, which was sold off by Philips in the mid 1990s.
What Happened To It?
I suspect that Linesman’s test phones have been around since a day or two after the telephone was invented, which was probably when the first fault was reported. Most of the 704/1705’s predecessors are immediately recognisable as test instruments, though not all of them are so bulky. Some like the famous Telephone 280 or ‘Buttinski’ are almost pocket size. The big difference in the 704/1705’s immediate successors, which started to appear in the mid to late seventies following the changeover to digital exchanges, was the addition of a digital keypad and extra features designed to speed up fault finding.
For purists the disappearance of the rotary dial has meant that linesman’s phone have lost a lot of their appeal so by rights the 704/1705 should be a sought after collectable, except that they were made in vast numbers. There are usually plenty of clean and keenly priced ones on ebay, with prices starting at well under £20. They’re also no stranger to car boot sales and if anyone tries to sell you one for more than £10, tell them what they can do with it. Don’t be put off though; no collection of vintage phones is complete without at least one of them. They make an interesting addition to any occasional table or hallstand and a guaranteed conversation starter at parties. What’s more, if you’re handy with a screwdriver, you could cobble together a simple intercom with another old phone, so you can call the wife or kids from the garage or shed where you have been sent, to indulge in your strange hobby…
First seen 1970
Original Price £? (a lot…)
Value Today £10 (0716)
Features 2-wire connection, two transistor internal buzzer/ringer. LB/CB (local/central battery) operation, rotary dial, transmitter cut-off switch (on handset), external headset socket, tone amplifier sockets
Power req. 3 x 1.5v D cells
Dimensions: 300 x 145 x 155mm
Made (assembled) in: Airdrie Scotland
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 5
Direct Line Phones -- Geemarc & Matchbox , 1993-5
It’s two for the price of one with this pair of novelty telephones from the early nineties. One is a real working phone, the other is a noisy toy and they were given away, and sold, as promotional items for Direct Line Insurance.
The iconic bright red wheelie phone first appeared in Direct Line’s 1990 TV ad campaign for car insurance and the clever design and annoyingly memorable ‘Cavalry Charge’ jingle were an instant success and have been a fixture ever since. It’s hard to say exactly how, when or why the phone made the transition from an animated film prop to an actual working product but it probably happened at around 1992/3, due to public demand, or through the efforts of an astute marketing wallah. Although both items went on sale it looks like a lot of them were given away, to Direct Line employees and customers. They were made in China by serial novelty phone manufacturer Geemarc and almost certainly based on an existing copy of the classic Type 746 phone, which the company was also making. The actual phone was supplied to GPO/BT subscribers from the late sixties onwards, though to be precise, push-button variants like the Direct Line phone didn’t appear until the early 1980s. The only significant difference to the real thing is the addition of the four wheels; incidentally, they don’t turn, presumably to stop the phone rolling off tables and stands.
Dates and details regarding the tiny phone are also a bit sketchy but the three things we can say for certain are that it is a surprisingly detailed and accurate one quarter scale replica; it was made by the Matchbox toy company in the UK, probably starting around 1995 – give or take a year or two -- and when you press the keypad it plays a tinny rendition of the Direct Line jingle through a piezo sounder mounted in the base. Oh yes, the handset is removable and the wheels go around.
Apart from the fake wheels the big phone is a reasonably convincing copy of later Type 746 models, right down to the internal twin bell ringer, though the sound it makes isn’t up to much. It’s actually a rather poor imitation of a proper BT phone ring, and not very loud either. And to make absolutely sure it won’t be heard more than a few metres away it’s fitted with a crude mechanical volume control, consisting of a sliding plastic muffler that presses against one of the bells. Other noteworthy features include a pair of buttons next to the cradle for last number redial and recall, and the ringer can be turned off, presumably to silence the phone at night, or for the benefit of clairvoyants. The case and handset are fairly well made, though, but there’s no getting away from the fact that it’s not a patch on the original, which was clearly built to survive earthquakes and nuclear war. The circuit board inside the Direct Line phone looks like something out of a cheap 1970s transistor radio and strips of sticky tape and great gobs of hot melt glue hold the wiring in place. The shoddy construction and flimsy build quality would bring tears to the eyes of veteran GPO engineers…
Matchbox has also done a great job copying the design, and -- nerdy-geek trivia alert -- they’ve gone one step further in the cause of authenticity by omitting the hash and star keys from the keyboard. These were not fitted to the phones featured in the early adverts – you can see them on YouTube, should you be so inclined. There’s a couple of surprises too; it’s is unexpectedly heavy and that is due to the circuit board and piezo sounder both being attached to a 30 x 35mm slab of mild steel. There doesn’t seem to be any particularly good reason for this, after all stability isn’t a great concern on a small plastic toy, but clearly someone somewhere thought it necessary. The other oddity is how horrible it sounds. It takes several goes before you make out the jingle. Initially I though it was due to a duff, or cheap and nasty sounder, but swapping it for a newer, higher quality item made no difference to the harsh, grating noise it makes. It seems to be simply a case of crappy design; cheap tune-playing birthday cards sound a hundred times better than this and as an advert for Direct Line it does them no favours whatsoever.
The first of my two Direct Line phones came from a car boot sale many years ago, it cost £1.00, which seemed like a real bargain at the time as I was looking for a fun phone for my then pre-teen son's bedroom. It turned out to be just an empty shell, at some point someone had ripped out the circuit board and it was next to useless for anything, even as a toy since the wheels didn't work. I really should have spotted it by the weight and missing switches. The second one is a more recent off the cuff acquisition. I came across it by chance on ebay and this time I made sure it was listed as complete and working. I was the only bidder and I snagged it for the opening bid of £5.99. The toy Direct Line phone also came from a boot sale; it wasn’t something I was consciously looking for but having spotted it, curiosity got the better of me and I had to ask the price. Since the stallholder was only asking 10 pence, it seemed rude not to buy it. The two working phones were both in great condition and only needed a clean up to be looking almost as good as new; after installing a set of button cells the toy phone was making its terrible noises once again, probably for the first time in many years.
What Happened To Them?
Production of the full size Direct Line phone appears to have stopped about 10 years ago. A goodly number of them must have been made and there’s usually half dozen or more on ebay at any one time. Prices vary enormously, from the occasional sub-£10 bargains and fixer-uppers to £50 plus for pristine boxed examples. It’s late twentieth century retro tech kitch at its best (or worst…) with the added interest of the advertising and marketing links, plus it’s fully useable. It is well on the way to becoming a collectable too and there’s a noticeable upward trend in prices so grab one while you can. As for the smaller version, they are no longer being made and it too is the sort of thing can appeal to collectors of promotional ephemera, and possibly to fans of Matchbox products as well. Prices for boxed ones are currently between £5 and £10 and there’s every reason to suppose they will increase so if you spot one for substantially less than that do not hesitate to give it a good home.
First seen 1993 (phone), 1995 (toy)
Original Price £25.00 (phone) £5.00 (toy)
Value Today £10.00 (phone) & £5.00 (toy) (0516)
Features Phone: numeric keypad, redial and last number recall, mechanical bell ringer (variable volume), ringer mute, fixed wheels.
Toy: Direct Line ‘Cavalry Charge’ jingle, detachable handset, rotating wheels
Power req. Phone: line powered;
Toy: 3 x LR41 button cells
Dimensions: Phone: 220 x 210 x 140mm
Toy: 65 x 60 x 35mm
Weight: 1kg & 294g
Made (assembled) in: China (phone) & UK (toy)
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 6 & 6
Penguin Phone PG-600, 1983?
On the dustygizmos scale of quirkiness, with 10 being weird to the point of certifiable insanity, the PG-600 Penguin Phone doesn’t score more than a 4 or 5, but it does have one thing going for it. It appears to be unexpectedly rare and intermittent checks on ebay and a trawl around the phone collector websites drew a complete blank. That’s not to say that telephones and penguins are entirely unconnected. Quite the contrary and there’s more than 27,000 penguin-themed mobile phone cases on ebay, not to mention a dozen or so penguin-shaped phones, but none of them are exactly like this one. No doubt the Taiwanese factory that churned it out made many more of them but for some reason they either didn’t sell very well, or when the owners eventually tired of them, they ended up in the bin.
The lack of a makers name, documentation and online references makes it difficult to be precise about when it was made or the original price, but it is possible to take a semi educated guess at its likely age. The internal circuitry suggests early to mid 80s, and to back that up it doesn’t have convenience features, like a multiple number memory, LCD display, selectable ringtones or any of the other fripperies that adorn most novelty phones made in the last 25 years. In fact the only things that could be even vaguely described as extras, over and above what is required to make and take phone calls, is a pair of red LEDs. These are mounted behind the penguin’s eyes and are supposed to light up when the phone rings. They’re actually quite useful as it has a switch to turn off the ringer (and mute the microphone when a call is in progress). Still on the subject of the ringer, when it is switched on it definitely won’t be ignored, especially by dogs and bats. It emits a very loud, high-pitched tweeting noise that someone somewhere probably thought sounded a bit like a penguin…
Otherwise, apart from the shape, the rest of the phone is fairly ordinary. The line switch is mounted on the underside, so when you pick it up the call is answered. The penguin’s back flips open to reveal the alphanumeric keypad, ringer/mute switch, microphone and earpiece, Shutting the lid and putting it down ends the call. It has a long curly lead and a BT type plug, and it still works, and that is really all that needs to be said about it, from an operational perspective.
I found this one at one of my favourite haunts, one of the regular open-air antique fairs held at the South of England showground in Ardingly. It was in a box of household clearance items, priced at £1. This was the only thing worth having – trust me… -- and as you can see it is in very good condition and only needed a quick spring clean to have it looking like new.
What Happened To It?
Novelty telephones have been with us, almost since the day after Graham Bell/Elisha Gray/Thomas Edison (depending which expert you believe) hung up on that first historic phone call in the mid 1870s. However, in the UK at least, the market for, shall we say ‘distinct’ phones began unofficially in the late 1970s and really took off in the early 80s following the privatisation of British Telecom. Up until then private subscribers were generally compelled to rent telephones from the GPO but there were plenty of unauthorised and sometimes quite dodgy phones being sold that could be connected to a phone line using the then, newly introduced, BT 6312 socket (the one we still use).
In the early days of privatisation it was possible to buy a few selected phones, tested and approved by BT, though it is extremely unlikely that this was one of them. It does have US FCC conformity marks, but that was never a guarantee (on cheap Far Eastern phones) that it actually met any technical standards. It is possible that it was never sold in the UK, and may even have been a souvenir from a US holiday, either way, it seems clear that there isn't very many of them around. In the normal course of events that should make it quite collectable but in this case scarcity doesn’t help the value. I suspect that even on a good day it might only fetch between £5 and £10 on ebay so it’s going back into the loft for future generations to admire, and hopefully a time when late twentieth century novelty telephonic apparatus receives the appreciation it so richly deserves…
First seen 1983?
Original Price £10?
Value Today £5 (0416)
Features Folding cover, alphanumeric keyboard, ringer/mute, last number redial, silent LED call alert, base-mounted line switch
Power req. n/a (line powered)
Dimensions: 150 x 80 x 75mm
Made (assembled) in: Taiwan
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 7
Compact Marine SX-25 VHF Transceiver, 1996
Although I am not particularly nautically minded, marine and aviation technology does interest me so I was pleased to spot this Compact Marine SX-25 VHF transceiver at a local car boot sale. I’ve been fascinated by all forms of two-way communications since my first juvenile experiments with two tin cans and a length of string, which, for me, was a good enough reason for wanting this one. It also occurred to me that if it worked I might be doing the boating community a big favour by stopping it falling into the wrong hands.
Marine radios like this one, widely installed on smaller vessels and leisure craft, are mainly used for navigational purposes but more importantly they can summon help or respond to distress calls. At the very least, by taking it out of circulation it will prevent idiots from using it to annoy boaty types around marinas and moorings; at worst some tosspot could trigger a false alarm, scramble the emergency services and potentially put lives at risk.
As a matter of interest marine radio is one of the oldest branches of the technology and some of Marconi’s earliest demonstrations, in the late 1890s, involved sending and receiving wireless signals over water and to and from ships at sea. Radio also played a vital role in the rescue of survivors of the ill-fated Titanic in 1912, and has saved countless lives since then, so it’s a pretty serious business.
The Compact Marine SX-25 is a fairly typical example of a late twentieth century radio. It operates on the internationally agreed VHF Marine Band, which occupies a set of frequencies between 156 and 163 megahertz. The band is split into 88 channels, around a quarter of which are assigned to specific applications, for use by harbour masters, port authorities, pilots and so on. However, the single most important VHF channel is 16 and this is supposed to be used exclusively for safety, distress and emergency calls. In fact all mariners are required to maintain a listening watch on channel 16, whenever their radio is not being used for other approved communications. To that end the SX-25 automatically defaults to Ch16 whenever it is switched on, and it’s instantly accessible by pressing the single red coloured button on the front panel keypad. Channel 16 is also preset for another one of the SX-25’s functions, called Dual Watch (DW), and when selected this constantly flips between Ch16 and one other user-assigned channel.
Accessing the other 87 channels is equally straightforward and the SX-25 makes it really easy with a Scan facility. This steps through the channels one at a time and by carefully adjusting the Squelch control it stops scanning as soon as it picks up a transmission. Otherwise channels can be selected by tapping in the number on the keypad, or by manually stepping up or down the frequency band using two buttons. The channel in use and operating mode are shown on a small backlit LCD. A press-to-talk (PTT) switch on the side of the microphone puts the radio into transmit mode and there’s the option of high or low RF power output (1 or 25 watts), depending on how close, or distant, the other station happens to be.
Around the back there are three sockets, one for a 12-volt DC supply, an SO239 socket for the antenna, and a minijack for an extension speaker. In short it’s really easy to use and in that respect little more than a posh CB radio. Well, maybe that’s a bit unfair; in terms of build quality it is in a very different league, with particular attention paid to waterproofing, ruggedness and protection against harsh treatment, from both users and the elements. This also means they’re not cheap and in the mid-ish 1990s, when this model first appeared, it sold for the thick end of £500.
From the outside it appeared to be in very good condition though it was hard to tell if it was working as it’s difficult to test this sort of thing in the middle of a field, miles from the sea, not to mention the fact that it would be illegal without a Marine Radio Licence (they are actually relatively easy to obtain and involve filling out a form and sending the authorities £20…). I was expecting the seller to be asking somewhere north of £50 for it so I only asked the price out of mild curiosity. I was surprised when he said £5.00, which suggested that it was probably a complete wreck, but I offered him £4.00, which I reckoned the microphone and any salvageable parts might be worth, and he accepted without any hesitation.
I fully expected a nasty mess inside the case but it looked as though it had never been opened with no signs of corrosion or popped components. It was hooked up to a bench power supply, initially without an antenna -- in case it decided to boot up in transmit mode – and it came on without a hitch or worrying smells and a reassuring hiss from the speaker. This probably meant that the receiver section, at least was working so after checking out the various channel selection and function buttons I coupled it up to a marine mag-mount antenna and a quick scan through the channels bought up some faint and probably distant signs of life. I didn’t try the transmit functions but I have little doubt that it also work; this will have to wait until the next time I buy a boat, and win the Lottery, to pay for it…
What Happened To It?
The basics of marine radio have changed little since the Second World War, when the use of the VHF frequency band was first introduced. On the other hand the equipment has changed out of all recognition, mirroring developments in valve, transistor and microchip technology over the years, which have all resulted in smaller, more sophisticated and increasingly reliable hardware.
The majority of ship-to-ship and ship-to-shore communications are still by voice but many marine radios made within the last decade or so now have an additional feature called DSC or Digital Selective Calling. This is a single-button distress call function that sends a signal detailing the vessel and radio operator’s unique identity code or call sign known as the MMSI or Maritime Mobile Service Identity number. If the radio is coupled to a GPS receiver, it can also send positional data. This instantly provides rescue services with detailed information about the boat – where it is, the name, size, passenger capacity and so on – which might otherwise be hard to convey in a force 10 gale over a noisy audio channel.
Very little appears to have been written about Compact Marine or the SX-25 and the few references I found concerned a couple of units for sale on ebay, several appeals for an instruction manual and a one-line mention in 1997 boating magazine in a price list of VHF marine radios. In other words the only things I know for certain is that it was made in the mid to late 1990s in Japan (there is a stamp on the case). No other models have come to light, so it is likely that the manufacturer or distributor, Compact Marine or possibly Shore-Line (the name on the microphone) is no longer with us. Any additional information is, as usual, very welcome.
As for value, the pair I saw on ebay sold for £10 (non working) and £45 (working). The market for marine radios is quite small, and I presume that most boat owners prefer to trust their safety to a new and modern radio, rather than take chances with a second hand unit. It’s not old enough to be collectible, nor, as far as I can see, is it especially unusual, but in my opinion it is the sort of thing that’s worth hanging on to, just in case. With sea levels rising and the ever-present threats of zombie and alien attack, taking to the water might be the only way to survive. The point is you are going to need a way to know when it’s safe to go ashore – assuming there’s anyone left alive to take your call…
First seen 1996
Original Price £500.00
Value Today £25.00 (0416)
Features 88 channel VHF marine band transceiver 156.6 – 162.925MHz), Hi/Lo power output (1 or 25 watts RF), channel scan, Channel 16 priority key, rotary volume & squelch controls, channel selection & secondary function keypad, LCD channel & mode display, dual watch (Ch 16 & user-set), speaker mute, display dim, PTT microphone, SO239 antenna out, built-in speaker, external speaker minijack
Power req. external 12 volts DC
Dimensions: 170 x 153 x 52mm
Made (assembled) in: Japan
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 7
Eagle TI.206 2 Station Intercom, 1968
At the risk of appearing a tad weird and nerdy I admit to having a mild obsession with vintage intercoms. I'm not especially interested in fancy office jobbies with lots of buttons - I'll have one if I see one at the right price - but the ones that float my boat are the cheap little 2-station models made in the 1960s. Fortunately there's no real need for me to undergo psychotherapy, not just yet, anyway... It all started back in the early 60s when several outfits, just like this one passed through my hands. To a budding young electronic enthusiast they were fascinating and just about the only legal and affordable way to dabble with short-range two-way communications. At first they were used, more or less, for their intended purpose but when eventually they stopped working - as they always did -- I pulled them apart, to try and fix them. Mostly I didn't, but I learned a lot about how they worked (or rather didn't work) and the salvaged parts came in handy for other electronic projects.
The Eagle T1.206 appears to be a slightly later version of the TI-206 which also appears on this site, but apart from the obvious cosmetic differences, shorter cable and substitustion of a full stop for a hyphen in the model number, they are virtually identical. It wasn’t a model that I owned but it followed the same basic pattern of two small plastic boxes, connected together by a long length of 2-core cable. One of the boxes, the ‘Master’ contains a simple audio amplifier and the battery; the other one, called the ‘Sub’ just has a call button, capacitor and a speaker, which doubles up as a microphone. The mode of operation is elegantly simple. With the Master switched off either station can call the other by pressing the button, which generates a loud tone heard through the speaker. When the Master is switched on the line from the Sub is constantly open, so you can listen to whatever is going on in the vicinity of the unit, which makes it useful as a baby alarm, or eavesdropping device. The Master talks to the Sub by pressing the Call button.
In the case of this model the amplifier uses just two fairly ordinary germanium transistors, yet it still manages to push out 200mW of audio. This may not sound very much but it’s actually impressively loud. The amp is a simple 2-stage design, and as you can see from the photograph, a lot of the heavy lifting, and the reason there are so few other components, is down to the three small transformers. The amplifier works in two ways, as a normal amplifier, when the two stations are used for voice calls, and as an oscillator, to generate the call tone. That is achieved by connecting a low value electrolytic capacitor across the input. The really clever bit though, is that this works when the Master is switched off, and this is achieved by some rather ingenious wiring on the two call switches
The TI.206 outfit includes a 20 metre (66 feet) long length of 2-core cable, fitted with standard 3.5mm mono minijacks. It would also have had a bag of staples, for dressing the cable, to keep it out of harm's way, though they were either used or lost on this otherwise very complete example (there’s a copy of the instruction leaflet in the Manuals section).
This one was a boot sale find, and rather good one at that, costing just 50 pence. It was all the more remarkable considering how good the condition is, and that it came with the original box, cable and instructions. There were a couple of very minor problems; at some point the cable had been severed, which was very common. An attempt had been made to repair it by twisting the ends together, and covering them with sticky tape. It may even have worked, for a short while, but eventually it had gone open circuit, and that may have been the reason it was put back in its box and forgotten. A proper soldered repair took just a few minutes and the insulation was restored using a couple of short lengths of shrink-wrap tubing. The other issue was the two electrolytic capacitors, used for the Call function. As usual these old caps had degraded. Modern replacements were fitted and it was instantly firing on all cylinders, sounding as good as new. Otherwise everything else was in excellent shape with few, if any, signs of prolonged use.
What Happened To It?
Two-station intercoms of this type were comparatively cheap -- this one generally sold for under £3.00 – and they were clearly never intended for serious office use. They were typically sold as toys, or baby monitors and so would have had relatively short lives. Normally this means that 50 years down the line they should be quite rare, but if ebay is anything to go by there’s still a few of them around. To be honest a lot of the ones that I have seen are beyond help and either unlikely to ever work again, in a poor state or missing vital components. Even so, decent ones are around, though you would be very lucky to find another one like this for 50 pence. However, the lack of interest means that prices are far from scary; in fact you would be hard pressed to spend more than £20 to £30 on a clean, boxed specimen. Collecting vintage intercoms is not, as yet a popular pastime but trust me, their time will come so if you know what’s good for you, the next time you see one that’s in good shape and sensibly priced, grab it quick, or tell me!
First seen 1968 (Manual)
Original Price 59/6 (£2.97)
Value Today £10 (0316)
Features 2-station intercom, tone calling, 2-transistor amplifier (200mW), 58mm speaker/microphones, 20 metre (66 foot) connecting cable terminated with 3.5mm mono minijacks, on/off volume
Power req. 1 x PP3 9 volt battery
Dimensions: 105 x 75 x 45mm
Weight: 100g (Master) 75g (sub)
Made (assembled) in: Japan
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 5
Nokia 9210 Communicator, 2000
It is widely believed that the smartphone revolution began with the first Apple iPhone in 2007. In fact there had been mobiles with smartphone like capabilities at least ten years before Apple got in on the act. It’s difficult to pin down the exact date and model number of the first one, but we can say with some certainty that the words smart and phone appeared together for the first time in 1995, relating to an early contender developed by AT&T, called the Phonewriter Communicator.
By the late 90s there were a dozen or so models with PDA (personal digital assistant) type functions that could create and share documents and spreadsheets, organise contacts, calendars and alarms as well as send and receive messages and even faxes. However, credit for pulling all of the threads together and getting a practical product onto the shelves arguably belongs to Nokia with the 9000 Communicator, first seen in 1996. The clever bit was the ‘clamshell’ design; when closed it looked just like any other mobile phone of the period – albeit a fairly chunky one -- but open it up and you had a pocket-size PDA with decent-sized screen and QWERTY keyboard. It was horribly expensive, but business users took to it in a big way.
Fast forward three years, Nokia’s development teams had been hard at work and the result is what you see here, the 9210 Communicator. In so many ways this was the inspiration for many of today’s smartphones. Although it had the same clamshell design as its predecessor – touch screen technology still had a way to go -- the main screen was now in colour. It had a built-in web browser, email, and almost unique fax facilities plus a well-specified suite of office applications for creating, viewing, sending and receiving documents, spreadsheets etc. Extra programs, or 'apps' as we call them now, could be installed and it had expandable user storage, courtesy of the (then) new, fangled SD memory card – the first Nokia phone with this feature. There was also PC connectivity, though the latter was via notoriously fiddly RS232 and infrared protocols. Back then USB was still fairly new and only just starting to show up on mass-market home computers and laptops.
To a generation that has grown up with the comparatively low cost and flexibility of modern smartphones, Touchscreens and vast libraries of apps, the 9210 must seem quaintly old-fashioned. However this was a really big deal in 2000, and the idea of being able to access the Internet on a pocket-sized device was impresive, even if the cost of sending data over the still expanding GSM network meant that it would remain a rich-man’s toy for some time. The 9210 would have been even better if it could be relied upon, but more on that in a moment.
When it behaves itself it is easy to use, though you need to forget everything you’ve ever learned about using touch screens. It relies on good old-fashioned button-prodding and wading through menus to get to where you want to go and make things happen. Even so, after a few minutes it becomes quite intuitive and the word processor could teach modern smartphone WP apps a thing or two when it comes to ease of typing and editing. The ‘proper’ keyboard is a pleasure to use and although the narrow LCD screen is a bit cramped it’s fine for editing text and composing messages, managing contacts and your diary but it has to be said that web browsing and viewing images is hard going.
This one has been gathering dust in my loft for at least 10 years. I can’t recall exactly when it came into my possession but it’s almost certainly a leftover from my days reviewing mobile phones for various magazines. It ended its days as a test bed for accessories, chargers, batteries and so on. It’s had quite a bit of use but apart from a few light scuffs it is still in reasonably good shape, and it works, though the battery no longer holds much of a charge and gives up the ghost after only an hour or two. Like most borderline ‘vintage’ mobiles from that era it is digital and still useable on the current GSM networks. It’s a real scene-stealer down the pub, when someone pulls out the latest must-have smartphone whip out this old lump and see which one gets the most attention… However for day-to-day use the novelty quickly wears off. It’s fine for making and taking phone calls and texts but it is no substitute for a modern smartphone. The narrow screen is next to useless on the modern web and that clanky old processor is painfully slow.
What Happened To It?
The 9210 did well, though the high costs of the buying and using it meant that most of them were bought or rented by corporate and executive users and it pretty much ruled the roost until BlackBerry got into their stride in 2002/3. The 9210 was flawed, though, and part of the problem was the Symbian operating system. It had been around a while but by the time the 9210 appeared it still had some annoying bugs that Nokia were slow to acknowledge, and even slower to fix. The other big drawback on this model was the lack of user memory and processor speed. It slowed the whole thing down and restricted the number of programs that could be running at the same time. For example, if you were doing something important on the web and a text message came in, or the phone rang, the chances are something would crash if you tried to switch between applications.
Most of those problems were addressed by its successor, the 9021i, released in 2002, but by then other manufacturers, most notably BackBerry, were rapidly gaining ground with cheaper and more refined models. Nokia’s brief lead quickly fizzled away. They failed to see which way the market was going and by the mid noughties the Finnish giant, once a world leader in mobile telephone and smartphone technology, didn’t react quickly enough to the changing market. The rise of Apple and Google seemed to catch them by surprise and when they eventually caught on to what was happening, they backed the wrong horse by teaming up with Microsoft and its Windows Phone operating system.
Original 9000 Communicators are now collector’s items and attract some fancy prices but second generation models like the 9210 are still quite plentiful on ebay though prices have been steadily rising. Until fairly recently you could pick up a presentable 9210 with plenty of life left in it for a few pounds. Now you would be lucky to find a working fixer-upper for less than £40. Clean ones start at £60 or so and mint boxed models regularly sell for £100 or more. The message is clear. If you want one don’t hang about, and if you want it for everyday use it will be a short-lived diversion so don’t give up your smartphone!
First seen 2000
Original Price £1000
Value Today £50.00 (0116)
Features Phone: GSM 900/1800, SMS, email, fax, ringtones (WAV, RNG, WVE, AU), speaker/speakerphone, Symbian operating system, 52MHz 32-bit ARM processor 16Mb onboard memory (14Mb applications, 2Mb user), front screen: mono LCD 29 x 22mm 80 x 48 pixels. PDA: main screen: TFT colour LCD (4096 colours) 110 x 35mm, 640 x 200 pixels. PDA functions: Word, Excel, PowerPoint PDF viewer, web browser (WAP, HTML, Java, video player), IR port, built in speaker, RS232 port, fold out antenna
Power req. Rechargeable Li-ion battery type BLL3 3.7v, 1300mA
Dimensions: 160 x 55 x 28 mm
Made (assembled) in: Finland
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 6
Quali-Craft Slimline Intercom Telephone Set, 1965
There is absolutely no doubt where the inspiration for the Quali-Craft two-station Intercom Telephone came from. It’s on the box and ‘From the original Swedish design’, clearly indicates that it was inspired by the classic Ericsson Ecricofon or ‘Cobra’, which was the first one-piece phone (see the last photo for a side by side comparison). It dates from the early sixties, possibly the golden age of the intercom, though simple two-station models like this one tended to be marketed either as baby alarms or toys. They are generally quite bland designs, mostly dull grey or cream coloured plastic boxes so it looks as though someone has put a little thought into this one. The photo on the front of the box plays heavily on the toy theme but elsewhere classic sixties graphics cheerfully show it being used in the ‘home office, workshop, den and nursery’; the first of those applications are feasible but we’ll come to the practicalities of it being used as a baby alarm in just a moment.
Unlike most other intercoms of this period this one is based on traditional telephone technology going back to the nineteenth century, in other words there’s no electronics or any sort of amplifier. Instead it uses carbon microphones or ‘transmitters’ and magnetic earpieces or ‘receivers’, and it’s fully duplex, so there’s no need for a press to talk button and both users can hold a normal conversation, listening and talking at the same time, should they so desire. There are other similarities with regular telephones and instead of an electronic ‘call’ signal or bleeper, it has an actual bell, albeit a rather unusual one. Instead of a straightforward mechanical striker, operated by an electromagnet it’s rung by a small motor fitted with two spinning weights on the end of a short arm. While we’re on the subject, the 45-foot/13-metre twin core connecting wire uses proper telephone style cable and it has phone-type plugs, instead of the usual mini jack plugs that most other intercoms of this type and era generally use.
In case you are wondering how it works without an amplifier, it’s elegantly simple and goes back to the basics of telephone technology. Inside the transmitter capsules there are tiny granules of carbon, sandwiched between two metal surfaces. One of them is very thin and this vibrates the particles in sympathy with the users voice. A voltage is applied across the plates and since the carbon particles are conductive, they act like a variable resistance, making the voltage on the second plate go up and down according to the vibrations. The microphone is connected by cable to the to the other phone and the receiver module, which uses a small electromagnet to turn the varying voltage into sound by acting upon a thin metal diaphragm. Back to the earlier point about potential uses and like all basic telephones it’s not very loud and you can only hear the other user’s voice with the receiver firmly pressed to your ear. That, and the relative insensitivity of the microphone makes it use as a baby monitor somewhat suspect.
On the plus side it is exceptionally easy to use. To call the other handset all you have to do is press the white button on the front. The other person picks up the handset and this releases a small spring-loaded switch on the underside, which puts both units into phone mode. A circuit diagram is helpfully moulded into the battery compartment covers, which you may just be able to make out in the picture above.
Ebay was the source for this one; I was the only bidder and snagged it for the opening price of £4.00, plus postage. It had been used but the previous owners had treated it well; there were no marks or scratches and both handsets polished up really well. It even came with the original box and foam packaging, though the former was quite tatty. One of the plugs had become detached – possibly an argument with a vacuum cleaner – but this was easily fixed. With a set of four fresh C cells installed (two in the base of each phone) it remained annoyingly silent. I started by checking the cable, which turned out to be okay, but the brass contacts in the two plugs were heavily tarnished. Rather than spend ages trying to track down the fault I decided to clean all of the plug and switch contacts, which were all pretty grim, and that did the trick. Everything worked, though one of the transmitters was a little under par with slightly lower volume. This can be caused by damp, and removing it and placing it in a warm, dry place for a few days can sometimes fix it and that’s now on my to-do list.
What Happened To It?
It was made in Japan by Kanto Gosei Kogyo for a US company called Quali-Craft Corporation of Flushing, New York. I have been unable to find out much about eiher of them but it appears that Quali-Craft was wound up in the early 1990s. I have given it a speculative date of 1965, which may be out by a couple of years either way, there’s nothing on the phones or packaging to say for certain, but everything about it screams mid 60s, especially the box design. It was available in a range of typically vivid colours, and the shape ties in neatly with Ericofon Cobra phone, which was introduced in the States in the mid 1960s
This one turned out to be something of a bargain as I have subsequently seen them changing hands for between £20 and £50, though sellers normally claim that the higher priced examples are in as-new condition with intact boxes and instructions. There are not many of them around but enough for serious collectors who can afford to be choosy. However, there’s a lot to be said for cheap fixer-uppers like this one and it doesn’t take much to get them back into showroom condition; even tatty cardboard boxes can be tarted up without compromising their originality too much. Sixties tech is a rapidly growing area of interest for collectors and toys have always been popular so prices for off-beat gadgets like this, which have been largely ignored up until now, can only increase in the long term.
First seen 1965?
Original Price £10?
Value Today £10 (1215)
Features Two-station phone-style intercom, carbon microphones, magnetic earphones, mechanical (motor-driven) call bell, 45 foot (13.6 metres) connecting cable
Power req. 4 x 1.5volt C cells
Dimensions: 248 x 80 x 100mm
Made (assembled) in: Japan
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 6
Shira WT-605CB Walkie Talkies, 1979
Here in the UK the decade between 1975 and 1985 was a very strange time indeed, for so many reasons. One of the many weird things that happened was the brief fad for Citizen’s Band radio. Many relatively sane and apparently sensible blokes (and it was overwhelmingly a male thing…) drove around in their cars at night, talking to strangers in a faux American accents. They called each other ‘good buddy’, Volkswagen Beetles were known as ‘pregnant roller skates’ and wives and girfriends unflatteringly referred to as ‘seat covers’ and ‘beavers’.
Those of us who were around at the time and involved in the CB madness are probably cringing by now, having done our best to forget that embarrassing period, but it all came back to haunt me when my gadget hunting brother presented me with this pair of Shira WT-605CB Walkie talkies. Included with the outfit was the original instruction sheet, almost a third of which is devoted to CB Slang – and if you fancy a wince you can see it in all its glory in the Manuals section of dustygizmos.
What makes the WT-605CB slightly unusual is the walkie-talkie function, which does not operate on the 27MHz short wave bands used by CB radio (at that time). Instead they work at VHF frequencies, 49.86MHz to be precise, and over the years radio amateurs and TV stations have variously occupied this part of the radio spectrum.
The justification for the CB slang dictionary is WT-605’s built-in 27MHz receiver, which tunes over the 40 AM channels used by the US system. This was never legal in the UK but it was very widely used, before the UK government gave into pressure and legalised a wimpish FM system (also on 27MHz) in 1981. The popularity of illicit AM CB was mainly due to a thriving black market in contraband American ‘rigs’ mostly imported from European countries where it was allowed, or at least tolerated. This is all academic though, and it is highly doubtful that the CB receiver feature on the WT-605CB ever worked. The tuning function is manual, rather than crystal controlled, making it impossible to discriminate between adjacent channels and the telescopic antenna would have a tough time picking up transmissions more than a few hundred metres away.
Just when you though it couldn’t get any odder, one of the WT-605CB’s other headline features is Space Alert. Almost all toy walkie talkie sets of this era had a ‘Morse Code’ or signalling button, which generates a tone that can be sent to the companion handset. The WT-605CB is no exception but the button has two settings; a light touch generates the Morse tone, and pressing the button all the way creates a wacky warbling sound. A small person with a lively imagination could pretend it was the sound of a laser disintegrator or interstellar communicator; holding down the press to talk (PTT) switch on the side of the handset at the same time sends the Morse tone or Space Alert to the other handset.
Brother Pete found this set at his local Sunday car boot sales, in deepest Dorset. He paid just £5.00 for them, which was something of a bargain as it came in its original box, complete with the poly packing, and the all-important instructions. Both units are in extremely good condition and look as though they have hardly been used. One of them worked straight away, the other one was as dead as a doornail; it must have happened quite early on and it was probably the reason there was minimal wear and tear. Luckily it was the easiest (and one of the commonest) faults to fix. One of the wires to the battery clip had broken, almost certainly as a result of its original owner pulling too hard to detach the 9 volt PP3 battery. All of the functions worked, though as per usual, the performance was awful. The range is around 50 metres and sound quality is dreadful, but it’s worth remembering that the 70s and 80s were simpler times. In the years before mobile phones any form of wireless communication would have been something of a novelty, especially for a youngster. The CB receiver appeared to be working but it was difficult to be certain. Apparently there are still a few AM CBers out there, but none of them were within range at the time of testing.
What Happened To It?
Cheap toy walkie talkies are still with us, as are their more effective grown up cousins but the world has moved on and these days most pre-teens are more interested in communicating over the Internet. Vintage models like the WT-605CB are becoming quite scarce, though on the face of it this is not an especially unusual model. It was one of several thousand designs around at that time, though the CB receiver feature does set it apart from the crowd and gives it a modest rarity value, possibly as much as £20 to £30 on ebay if a couple of excitable bidders got carried away. Other types have become seriously collectible, though, and are now fetching some very impressive prices. The one’s to look out for are early examples from the 60s and 70s, and their appeal increases dramatically if they’re a novelty design with a tie-in to a popular TV series, movie or well-known cartoon character from the period. Needless to say if they are in pristine condition and boxed you can start talking serious money and it’s not unusual for mint examples to change hands for £100 or more.
DUSTY DATA (Manual)
First seen 1979
Original Price £15
Value Today £25 (1015)
Features Dual mode walkie talkies (49.8MHz)& 27MHz CB receiver, Morse Code & Space Alert signalling, 8-transistor circuit, PTT switch, pressure-sensitive Morse Code/Space Alert button, variable CB tuner (40 channels…), rotary volume, mode select (Walkie talkie/CD receiver), 50mm speaker/microphone, 7-section telescopic antenna, belt/sun visor clip,
Power req. 1 x 9v PP3 battery
Dimensions: 165 x 78 x 48mm (each unit)
Weight: 250g (each unit)
Made (assembled) in: Hong Kong
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 8
Hero HP-101 All Transistor Handy Phone, 1966
In my ongoing quest to re-acquire the long lost electronic gadgets of my youth this has been one of the most elusive but now, thanks to ebay, the search is over. The Hero Handy Phone is a 2-station intercom and it played a key role in my understanding of electronics, communications technology, and remote surveillance, but more about that in a moment. I cannot recall if the one I had was badged ‘Hero’; it probably wasn’t, early 60s Japanese electronic products like this often appeared under a dozen or more different band names but that doesn’t matter, in all other respects it is identical to the one that I once owned.
Although devices like these were sold in Exchange And Mart and wonderful shops, like Headquarters and General, as intercoms, they were more realistically baby alarms, and little more than toys. To qualify as a properly serious Intercom it really needs at least two ‘sub’ stations in addition to the ‘master’ unit, but that really didn’t matter to pre-teenage kids; in the early 1960s being able to hold a private two-way conversation with a sibling or friend over distances of up to 60 feet -- the length of the connecting cable -- was nothing short of a miracle.
Nevertheless it is a fully functional Intercom and with the master unit switched off both units can ‘call’ each other by pressing the button on the top; this generates a tone or rather a buzz on the other unit’s speaker. When the sub calls the master the procedure is to use the volume thumbwheel to switch it on and the sub’s speaker becomes a microphone allowing whoever is using the master to hear the caller. To reply they press the button on the top and the master unit’s speaker now becomes a microphone. Leaving the master unit switched on puts the Handy Phone into monitor mode, allowing the master user to hear whatever is going on in the vicinity of the sub unit. This feature was one of the Handy Phone’s, and similar models, biggest attractions. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how it can be used for spot of discrete eavesdropping. Probably fortunately for my juvenile ears, my parents were sufficiently tech-savvy to know about this feature and my attempts to covertly listen in to what they were saying after I had gone to bed were thwarted, either by the cable being unplugged, or it being ‘accidentally’ sucked up in the vacuum cleaner.
The circuit is a brilliant piece of minimalist design with very clever use of (then) expensive components. Using the speakers as microphones is one example and the call function tone, which is derived by forcing the simple two-transistor push-pull amplifier to oscillate, shows considerable ingenuity. It also helped keep the cost down, which, for the record was typically forty-seven shillings and sixpence (£2.37), plus another four and sixpence (22 pence) for postage, if bought by mail order.
I have been on the lookout for one of these for a while and although they do occasionally pop up on ebay but they are either long past help or stupidly expensive. This one ticked all the right boxes, though; it was clearly in pretty good shape cosmetically and the description made it clear that it was complete, but a non-runner. There were no other bidders and was all mine for just 99p (19 shillings and 10 pence), though postage prices have risen somewhat in the past 50 or so years (£3.50…). It came in its original box, with a full reel of cable, which made it even more of a bargain. It had two relatively simple faults; the first one was the cable, which was open circuit. This turned out to be a broken joint on one of the jack plugs, and took about two minutes to fix. The other fault was a dicky electrolytic capacitor. This is very common on 60’s electronic devices and rather than mess around trying to find which one(s) are responsible I replaced them all with modern components for the simple reason that if they haven’t gone yet, they will eventually. Since there were only three of them to contend with this was another quick and easy job. Apart from that all the two units needed was a quick clean up and it was working, and looking almost as good as new.
What Happened To It?
Looking back through my collection of old electronics mags (Practical Wireless & Practical Electronics etc.), basic 2-station intercoms like this made regular appearances in the small ads from the mid 1960s, for the best part of ten years. They didn’t suddenly disappear, though, and they continue to this day in the shape of baby monitors and door entry systems, though nowadays often without the connecting cables. However, for simple two-way communications they were somewhat overshadowed by cheap walkie-talkies, which by that time were coming out of the woodwork. On paper at least, to a budding young electronic enthusiast walkie-talkies seemed a lot more exciting though the vast majority of them had a range of around 20 metres, or around as far as you could shout…
You probably won’t be surprised to learn that collecting old intercoms is a fairly specialised hobby. There is a clear overlap into the much more lively telephone collecting market, though, where elegant vintage brass and bakelite models, and wacky looking designs, can command quite respectable prices on ebay. On the other hand cheap little mass-produced plastic jobbies like the Hero Handy Phone are never going to excite much interest or investment potential but like all 60’s electronic gadgets, good examples, especially if they come with their original box, will have some value to collectors of late 20th century ephemera and if he price is right, a really clean one might even make you a few bob one day.
First seen 1966
Original Price 47/6 (£2.37)
Value Today £10 (0715)
Features 2-transistor (2SB221), push-pull audio amplifier, ‘call’ master/sub function, push-to-talk button, volume on/off thumbwheel, 2 x 55mm speakers, folding stand, 2.5mm mono jack sockets, 18 metres (approx 60 feet) connecting cable
Power req. 9V PP3 battery
Dimensions: 111 x 33 x 68mm (both units)
Weight: 133g (Master) 110g (Sub)
Made (assembled) in: Japan
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 7
Panasonic EB-2601 Mobile Phone, 1990
Looking back at the early history of the mobile phone it is surprising to see how few Japanese brands were featured in the best seller lists. The market was dominated by American and European companies throughout the 80s and 90s though they, and the Japanese, have since succumbed to the relentless rise of Chinese and Korean manufacturers.
Japan’s lack of success wasn’t for the want of trying, though. Every so often Sony, Sanyo, Panasonic, Mitsubishi and NEC would produce something a bit special that would be briefly popular, but the general consensus was that many of those early designs were a step or three behind their Western counterparts. The Panasonic EB-2601 illustrates the point well. It’s a 1990 vintage cellphone and state of the art as far as the features are concerned, but as you can see it’s quite a lump. This type of phone was known in the trade as a transportable; it’s was a hangover from the first generation of mobile phones that appeared in the early 80s and the technology of the day meant that by necessity they were large, cumbersome and by weight, mostly battery. However, progress had been rapid and by the end of the eighties the Americans and Europeans were churning out pocket-sized handsets, and the Japanese were struggling to keep up.
The EB-2601 was one of the last of a dying breed but it still packed quite a punch and in spite of its shape and size, it is still very easy on the eye. The slim handset fits snugly into a cradle at the top of the unit and is held in place by a strong magnet; incidentally, this was one of the first mobile phones, of any type, to have a large LCD display; back then most phones were still using a single row of numeric LEDs showing the number dialled. Below the display there’s an illuminated keyboard with the usual bank of number buttons, each with a secondary function, plus three rows of dedicated function buttons for things like power on, number store, last number redial, Send and End call and so on. The handset connects to the two-part main unit by a thick curly lead and the only other items of interest are the mounting socket for the rubber ducky antenna (sadly missing), and a six-pin connector for the battery charger and car power adaptor/speaker. Alongside the handset is the NiCad battery pack, which is released by a button on the underside. The combined handset cradle and battery holder is attached to the electronics module by a single screw; presumably this allowed Panasonic to easily tailor the phone for different markets and at the time there were at least four competing technical standards for analogue cellphones in use throughout the world.
I found this one at a Sunday morning car boot sale in deepest darkest Kent and it cost me just £5.00, haggled down from £10. For the record this model would have cost the thick end of £1000 when new, and that was when a thousand pounds was worth something…
The ridiculously low price reflected the fact that it was in a pretty parlous state and only barely recognisable as a phone under the thick layer of crud. Closer examination suggested that it was in fairly good shape, with no obvious corrosion or serious marks on the case. The only visible problems were the lack of an antenna and the rubber carry handle, which had snapped cleanly in the middle. I have since learned that this is very common and I have only seen one or two others where the handle is still intact.
It cleaned up really well and the battery even managed to hold a charge for a few minutes, long enough to light up the LCD and handset buttons. It probably still works but nowadays its operational status is irrelevant. The analogue cellphone networks have long since disappeared, and it’s only possible function now is as a decorative, and increasingly collectible curio.
What Happened To It?
Transportables phones lingered on for a short while after hand portables first appeared. These old beasts typically had more powerful transmitters, more efficient antennas and the large batteries meant that they had running times of a day or more. This would have appealed to those who lived or worked in rural areas, where reception was often patchy, and users like vets, doctors, builders, field engineers and so on would probably be on the road for much of the time, so size and weight wasn’t necessarily a problem.
However, even before the EB-2601 appeared the demand for transportables was in steep decline, and it wasn’t long before the rapid improvements in network coverage, handset power management and battery technology meant that by the early 90s’ these technological dinosaurs were effectively extinct.
The fiver I paid for this one wasn’t unrealistic, considering the condition it was in and if the stall holder had spent just a few minutes cleaning it up it could have easily fetched four or five times as much, maybe more. Vintage cellphones have become very collectible though, and are now commanding some quite staggering prices though the big bucks tend to be concentrated on very early models, especially the rare and iconic ones. Later transportables like this will never be as popular but there’s no reason to suppose that they won’t gradually increase in value so now is as good a time as any to grab one while there are still a few about and prices are relatively low.
First seen 1990
Original Price £1000.00 plus
Value Today £10 - £50 (0615)
Features Analogue ETACS network connectivity, alphanumeric LCD screen, 8-number memory, last number redial, call timer, eco mode
Power req. 10.8 V rechargeable nicad battery pack, 12 VDC car adaptor
Dimensions: 220 x 165 x 60mm
Weight: - 2.2kg
Made (assembled) in: UK & Japan
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 7
Acoustic Coupler, 1975
These days most hotels have Wi-Fi on offer. True, you might have to pay through the nose for it, or if it is free, only accessible in the lobby, or by hanging your smartphone or tablet PC out of a tenth story window but the point is, it’s a damn site easier to get online when travelling than it used to be. Back in the dark ages, somewhere between the mid 1970s to late 80s, not only did you have to heft a so-called portable computer that probably weighed more than the rest of your luggage, there was the problem of connecting it to a phone line. Even if you managed to do that there was the difficulty of actually establishing a data link with a remote computer, not to mention explaining the eye-watering bills when you got back, assuming that you actually managed to get through..
The first hurdle, though, was always the computer/phone line interface. Very few hotel rooms had phone sockets, and those that did it, were bound to be a weird type, that you didn’t have an adaptor for. Seasoned travellers took to carrying an assortment of adaptors plus a screwdriver and some basic tools so if all else failed they could cobble together a hard-wire connection with the room phone’s junction box. There was another way, though, and that was to use something like this. It’s a portable acoustic coupler and it doesn’t get much simpler. All you had to do was slip the rubber cups over the room phone’s mouthpiece and earpiece and plug it into the modem’s audio port, or if you were lucky and your computer had suitable modem built in, pop it into the PC’s audio input jack.
It probably seems a bit strange now that we have become accustomed to digital phone lines, fast broadband, wireless connectivity, 3G and 4G mobile data, and all the rest of it, but you have remember that before that, data was sent down phone lines as a stream – or rather a gentle trickle -- of audible tones. That meant there was no need for a direct electrical connection between the phone and the modem. It was stone-age technology, but it worked, albeit at speeds that seem derisory now. Theoretically, on a crystal clear line it was possible to get up to 1,200 bits per second; in practice you would be lucky to achieve a quarter of that. On the upside life online was simpler back then and communications tended to involve sending and receiving relatively small amounts of text. An acoustic coupler also solved at a stroke the problem of the multitude of incompatible phone plug and socket types, differences in phone standards and hotels switchboard operators who delighted in blocking or interrupting data calls, all of which conspired to make international travel even more of a misery than it already was, and still is!
This particular acoustic coupler seems to be quite rare, it's purpose-designed for portable operation and was probably at the budget end of the market; the majority of models were intended for desktop use and built into a single unit or cradle into which you inserted the phone. This design has the advantage of being able to fit a much wider range of handsets shapes and sizes. It looks simple, and it is. Aside from the two pliable silicon-rubber cups and connecting cable, terminated with a standard 3.5mm stereo jack, the only other components of note are the two earpieces. They’re unmarked but they look a lot like STC 4T earpieces. These were something of a standard in phones made from the mid 60s onwards. It would have made sense to use them, technically and economically, and earpieces with similar characteristics to the one in the majority of phones would be least likely to run into compatibility problems. Using an earpiece as a microphone is also simplifies the design and helped keep the price down.
My elder brother gave this one to me; he was a hard-core business traveller of many years standing, and used it with an Osborne 1 ‘luggable’ PC, which he still has, (and one day I hope to get my hands on). This coupler probably wasn’t a supplied accessory and there is no indication of the maker’s name or country of origin but it is quite similar to one sold by Radio Shack/Tandy at about the same time, which cost around $40. I have no doubt that it still works, there’s virtually nothing to go wrong. The only problem is that life is way too short to find out for sure as it would involve finding a suitable modem and setting up dial-up modem connection, and that’s not something I ever want to do again…
What Happened To It?
Direct connection modems started appearing in the early 80s and rapidly became standard fitments in early laptops and widely available as stand-alone or plug-in adaptor cards for desktop machines. Advances in modem technology, a tightening up of data comms standards and protocols and big improvements in phone line quality resulted in steady increases in data speeds, from 1200 to 2400 bps, at which point acoustic couplers became unreliable and ineffective and they went in to a steep decline. In short they’re pretty much useless for anything other than curios and novelties so if you have one, I can confidently tell you it is not going to make you rich. They do have some historic value, though, and it is easy to forget the many trials and tribulations early PC users went through, to connect to and communicate with fellow users, and occasionally, the sheer joy when it actually worked!
First seen 1970?
Original Price £40.00?
Value Today £5.00? (0515)
Features 2 x STC 4T earpiece/receiver. silicon rubber cups, 600mm cable, terminated in standard 3.5mm stereo jack plug
Power req. n/a
Dimensions: 74 x 60mm (each cup)
Made (assembled) in: UK/USA?
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 8
BT Genie Phone TSR8023, 1983
According to adverts at the time the BT Genie is a ‘little piece of telephone magic’, and it wasn’t just the shape, loosely inspired by the classic Aladdin magic lantern; it had a push button dial as well, which the ad also claimed worked ‘like magic’; it seems that we were easily impressed back then… To be fair this was the 1980’s, a decade notorious for countless aberrations in style and taste and the Genie was a product of its time. No doubt it is due for a revival, given the ongoing trend for kitsch and retro gadgetry and the good news is that it is a useable phone, providing you’re not looking for fancy (and to a 1980’s adman, ‘magical’) features, like hash and star buttons.
It’s all about the shape; under the skin the main components are all fairly conventional and there’s nothing really new. This didn’t stop promotional blurb and several write-ups claiming it was the first phone to have an electronic ringer, but that’s clearly wrong, the GPO Trimphone had one twenty years previously. The design was new, to the UK at least, though it originated in the USA in the late 1970s, developed by the American Telephone Corporation (ATC or Deco-Tel). The Genie phone first introduced by BT in 1983 was made under licence in the UK by two companies, AP Besson Ltd, and Autophon Ltd and part of its Telephones Special Range (hence the TSR model number), which also included the Ericofon Cobra.
As usual the standard of construction is very high and it’s made of a near indestructible plastic, available in a range of colours including the Blue/White model here, plus White, Peach, Red and Brown. Inside there’s a single printed circuit board on which the dial and all of the electronic components, apart from the ringer module, are mounted. The handset connects to the base unit via a pluggable curly cord and the line cord is terminated in the standard BT jack. The design of the handset came in for a fair amount of stick and because of its curvy shape it was almost impossible to use it hands-free (i.e. clamped between the user's ear and shoulder), and when it did fly free and land on a hard surface the two parts – held in place by four screws -- would sometimes come apart. The only controls, apart from the push-button dial, are a three-way slide switch for setting the ringer volume (Off/Hi/Lo). Annoyingly two of the dial buttons on this particular model are unmarked; on some later versions one of them is used for a last number redial feature.
This two-tone model was found at open-air antiques market, it was clearly a veteran of such events and looked rather bedraggled. It was optimistically priced at £8.00 but the it didn’t take much persuading for the stallholder to drop the price to a fiver, which seemed fair in view of the fact that he couldn’t give any assurances as to its working state. I needn’t have worried, it takes a lot to damage vintage GPO/BT phones and all it needed was a strip-down, a wipe over for the case and handset with some white spirit, to remove the drippings of decades of lazy painters, and some plastic polish, to get it looking like new. Judging by the condition of the innards it was unlikely that it had been opened since the day it rolled off the production line and as expected it was in good working order.
What Happened To It?
The records are a little vague but it looks like the Genie was available until the late 80s and possibly into the early 90s and it appears that it was very popular, if the numbers of them appearing on ebay is anything to go by. It’s not a valuable classic, at least not yet, and you can find plenty of clean examples selling between £15.00 and £25.00. There doesn’t seem to be any special editions or rare variants, but it’s worth keeping an eye out for experimental and trial versions, one was clad in leather, and models sold in other countries with different colour schemes, which might be worth something to collectors in the future.
First seen 1983
Original Price £70 plus additional £5.00 monthly rental & installation charge
Value Today £15 (0415)
Features Electronic ‘ringer’, push-button dial, 3-position volume switch
Power req. n/a (line powered)
Dimensions: 220 x 95 x 110mm
Made (assembled) in: UK
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 4
GPO/RAF Desk Microphone No. 3, 1945?
It’s a microphone, that much is obvious, but the model number or designation for this item, and the date of manufacture, are all conjecture. That’s because it is a bit of a mongrel and to explain that we need to indulge in some industrial-strength geeky-nerdism so if you feel a yawn coming on please skip the next paragraph.
As you can see it looks a lot like the classic GPO candlestick telephone, a Type 150 to be precise, fitted with the later Bakelite Transmitter No.16 (or possibly No. 22) microphone assembly (I did warn you if you’re still here…). Normally candlestick phones have a hinged arm, connected to a switch, sticking out through a slot in the side of the pillar, where you hang the hand-held earpiece or ‘receiver’, but not on this one. Now, if you cast your eyes down to the base, where you generally see a rotary dial, there is a small toggle switch, for turning the mike on and off. The Bakelite housing at the top usually contains a No. 10 or No. 15 transmitter ‘inset’; basically this a carbon type microphone module, and used almost exclusively in telephone systems. However, this has been replaced with a magnetic microphone insert, of unknown make and type, but it is clearly intended to match the electrical characteristics of amplifiers and communications equipment. Inside there are more signs of its telephonic origins, including the metal chassis on which the previously mentioned switch was mounted, as well as a couple of rows of brass terminals for the wiring.
How this hotch-potch of parts came into being is still a bit of mystery but the most likely explanation seems to be that it was put together by the GPO for the RAF during the Second World War, for use by military aircraft controllers and radio ground stations. It may also have seen service later on in civilian applications such as PA systems but it is unlikely that it was ever used for anything more demanding, such as broadcasting or recording, as the microphone isn’t a quality item though it works perfectly well for speech.
It is as tough as old boots and apart from the transmitter module at the top, it’s all-metal construction, steel for the pillar and skirt, there’s a heavy cast iron base on the underside and the hinged neck parts or ‘swizzle’ are all made of brass. There are very few visible marks anywhere, but the transmitter has TE 12, No 16 moulded into the cap and MPL on the rear section. The switch is printed with a crown and the letters AR, which I suspect stands for Air Ministry, with part number 10F-10338 and neatly painted on the base there’s what might be a military stock or stores number, 10A/12052.
I found it in a box of junk at a car boot sale a few years ago and as far as I recall it cost around £1.50. It was in a fairly tatty state and until recently stored, as found, at the bottom of a box of ‘to-do’ items in my garage. It didn’t take long to lick it back into shape, though. The old stove enamel finish was quite rough but this cleaned off easily, back to bare metal and it was treated to a few layers of car spay undercoat and gloss black topcoat. The brass parts were heavily tarnished but scrubbed up nicely with some Brasso and a lot of elbow grease. The Bakelite transmitter module also responded well to the Brasso treatment and now shines like new. Rubber insulation on the internal wiring was in an advanced state of decay and the microphone cable, which once upon a time was protected by a heavy woven metal sheath had been cut off, so the remaining portion was removed. There’s really not a lot more to add and, as ever, if anyone has more detailed information about its history please feel free to drop me a line and put me right..
What Happened To It?
It is hard to say exactly when it was made, but the parts and construction, plus the markings on the switch all point to it being WW II era and it was probably cobbled together quite quickly, to meet the urgent need for communications equipment. When the war ended some undoubtedly continued to be used for a while but most of them would have gone into storage. Others were eventually replaced by better specified or purpose designed mikes. Later, probably during the 50s and 60s some found their way onto the military surplus market. What happened to this one prior to ending up at a boot sale is anyone’s guess. I do not think these microphones are especially rare and when they turn up on ebay prices tend to vary between from £5 and £25, sometimes more if a couple of collectors, enthusiasts or interior decorators get into a tussle. It’s probably not going to become a valuable or sought after collectible, nor is it especially useful for anything, other than an ornament. However, I urge anyone who finds one, or a genuine candlestick phone, not to commit the ultimate sacrilege and convert it into a table lamp – save that for the cheap modern repros...
First seen 1945 – 55?
Original Price £?
Value Today £10 (0315)
Features Magnetic microphone module, on/off toggle switch, heavy cast iron base
Power req. n/a
Dimensions: 290 x 135mm
Weight: 1.8 kg
Made (assembled) in: England
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 6
AN/PRC-6 (RT-196, TR-PP-8) Walkie Talkie,1963?
In almost every film and TV show made about the Korean or Vietnam wars you’ll see these iconic walkie-talkies, usually in the thick of the action. It goes under several different names; the official US Military designations are AN/PRC-6 and RT-196 but to those who used it, it was often known, sometimes even affectionately, as the Green Banana or Prick 6. (For the record and in case you were wondering, AN/PRC is US Military jargon for Army Navy/Personal Radio Communications).
Development work on the PCR-6, led by US electronic manufacturer Raytheon, began in the late 1940s and it was intended to replace the even more famous BC-611/SCR-536 ‘handy-talkie’, used throughout World War II by US and allied troops. The key design requirements were that the new field radio would be smaller, lighter and more efficient than its predecessor. This was achieved through the use of newly developed sub-miniature valves or vacuum tubes, It has 12 of them (plus one normal-sized valve), in a frequency modulated (FM) transmitter-receiver circuit operating on the 47 – 55MHz band, with a choice of up to 44 crystal-controlled channels. Together this provided better range and sound quality plus longer battery life than the SRC-536. To say it was a success would be an understatement and not only was it manufactured in vast numbers in the US throughout the 1950s and early 60s, it was also produced under license in France, Germany, Greece, Israel and Italy, to name just a few and it continued in service with the US military until 1972; solid state variants were still being made, and used several years after that
This one is a actually TR-PP-8, which is the French made variant and it is essentially the same as the US original, though there are differences in the tuning mechanism, which we will come to in a moment. It was designed from the outset to be idiot proof and virtually indestructible, and in those regards it does brilliantly! The microphone and earpiece are built-in and conveniently located for one-handed operation, even if the user is wearing a helmet. There are just four simple controls; the press to talk button is on the left side, a rotary volume knob is on the other side, below the earphone is the main on/off switch, which doubles up as the selector switch for the internal microphone/earphone or an optional external telephone handset, and on the top is the channel selector knob. On the French model the channel selector knob operates a rotary carousel containing the crystals and their associated tuning components. In the original US version the crystals and tuners are fixed for single channel operation..
The case is a two-part aluminium casting, held together by four clasps and there are rubber gaskets and seals throughout, to keep out moisture and dirt. Extra protection in the form of waterproof covers for the mike and earphone were also produced and there is a screw cap cover for the handset connector. The case is airtight too, and there is an air valve on the underside of the case that the user is supposed to close when the unit is not being used. The reason for this is unclear but it may be that it’s a way of protecting the valves if the unit is transported by air in unpressurised aircraft. On the back of the case there’s an elaborate adjustable webbing strap, designed to make it easier to hold, with or without gloves, and slung over the shoulder when it is being carried.
The PRC-6 was supplied with a whip antenna of ingenious design. It’s a 60cm length of laminated steel strip, not unlike the spring steel used in retractable tape measures (but a bit thicker), which makes it very durable. When not in used it can be safely bent and wrapped around the case, held in place by the case clasps and a small clip. A folding direction-finding antenna was also produced for the PRC-6 and this could be used to help locate other users in difficult terrain.
The transmitter has an output of around a quarter to a third of a watt (250 – 300mW) and the claimed range on open ground was around 1.6km or a mile or so but this dropped off significantly in heavily forested areas or jungle terrain, down to just a couple of hundred metres or so. It’s primary use was to provide short range communication between ground forces and mobile units; the manuals also suggest that it can be used to communicate with aircraft but this seems a tad optimistic given its relatively low power output.
Service and maintenance were given a very high priority and the electronics are contained in a single and easily replaceable module. The valves and crystals could also be replaced or changed in the field by untrained personnel if necessary. The only real operational problem is the battery, or rather batteries. Since it uses valves it requires several different voltage supplies, which for the record are +1.5, -4.5, +45 and +90 volts DC. Needless to say the disposable battery pack these things used are long gone, (they weighed over 1kg and apparently lasted around 10 hours with normal use), so anyone wanting to get one of these old beasties up and running faces a challenge. It can be done, though and several websites have plans for power packs using modern batteries (the + 45 and +90 volts can be produced by stringing 10 x 9 volt PP3 type radio batteries together), and there is plenty of room inside the case so it is certainly do-able. Valves and spare parts are still available on the web, though they are becoming increasingly expensive and difficult to find as the years go by.
I found this one at a regular Surrey antiques fair and almost didn’t spot is as was in such a filthy state. The stallholder said he picked it up in France but didn’t know what it was, suggesting that it might be an early cellphone. He obviously wasn’t attached to it and readily accepted my offer of £5.00. Before parting with the cash I had a peek inside and it was relieved to see that the seals had done their job well, apart from a few spider’s webs it appeared to be in excellent condition.
The biggest problem was corrosion on the outside of the case where the metal had been exposed but rather than leave it or try and patch it up I removed all of the innards and stripped the case, and all the metal fittings, back to bare metal. As it turned out the corrosion damage wasn’t too bad and most of it could be cleaned up with Dremel tools. There were one or two more serious patches but these were filled in with resin and sanded back to a smooth, and now virtually invisible finish. Several coats of filler-primer and two of olive drab later and it looks like it has just come out of the factory.
The webbing straps were a bit weather-beaten but they responded well to detergents and fabric conditioner and apart for the loss of colour, should be good for a few years yet. The exterior labels and data plate were in poor condition. Replacements are available but I decided to make my own using a PC image-editing program and a combination of scans of my originals and photos from the Internet. These were laser printed onto clear OHP film and the back sprayed with silver paint. I defy anyone but an expert with a magnifying glass to tell them apart from the real thing.
I haven’t yet got around to testing it but a close inspection of the electronic module suggests that there is no reason, barring failure of one or more valves, why it should not work. It is going to have to wait, though until I have mustered the energy and inclination to build a power supply
What Happened To It?
The PRC-6 was manufactured by several different companies, in various countries around the world so it is difficult to say when production finally ended. Valve-based versions made in the US probably didn’t continue much beyond the early 1960s as by that time transistors had become sufficiently reliable and could do a better job, though for several years it appears that old PRC-6s were kept in service by replacing the valve unit with a solid-state curcuit module.
Until a few years ago quite large numbers of decommissioned PRC-6s were coming on to the military surplus market and selling for the equivalent of just a few pounds, though a lot of them were beyond repair and it wasn’t unusual for collectors to buy several at a time and with luck have enough usable parts to make one complete unit. In fact it is a wonder that any of them have survived -- see below:
From The AN/PRC-6 Field Maintenance Manual:
Section II DEMOLITION TO PREVENT ENEMY USE
75. Methods of Destruction
In stock condition the PRC-6 operates on or close to one of the amateur (Ham) radio bands but the circuitry simply isn’t good enough to make it useable so there are quite a few examples PCR-6’s where the original guts have been removed and replaced with modern communications equipment.
At the time of writing there’s usually a dozen or more PRC-6s and European variants on sale on ebay. Typically around half of them have very badly corroded and battered cases, and are probably unsalvageable, nevertheless the prices remain high and even what look like complete basket cases can fetch £50 or more. However, be warned that many of them are in the US so shipping can be expensive. There are always a few from European countries, often in slightly better condition but although the shipping is cheaper they tend to be quite expensive. I was definitely very lucky with mine but it isn’t unique and they can still be found at bargain basement prices, at boot sales and antique sales, but be prepared to do at least some restoration work.
DUSTY DATA (Manual)
First seen 1950
Original Price £?
Value Today £75 (0315)
Features 6-Channel FM transceiver, 6 channel operation 47 – 55.4MHz (44 channels possible with 200kHz separation), 300mw RF output (range up to 1.6km/1 mile in open), 13 sub-miniature miniature valves (5678 2G21 5672 5676 3B4), water resistant casing with pressure equalisation valve, 51cm flat flexible steel antenna, optional telephone handset, optional directional antenna, webbing handgrip & sling
Power req. Proprietary battery pack (+1.5, -4.5, +45 & +90 VDC)
Dimensions: 370 x 110 x 125mm
Weight: 2.2 kg (3.2kg inc. battery pack)
Made (assembled) in: USA/France/Germany etc
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 6
GPO Headset No.1, 1969
There is an interesting document on the Britishtelephones website, probably dating from the early 1960s. It covers the development history of GPO Headset No.1, from 1948 to 1959. It’s a fascinating insight into the bureaucracy of a state-owned organisation, and the legendary inertia of the GPO’s engineering division. But this was a very different time, and truth be told it wasn’t that unusual for it to take 10 years or more for what now seems to be a relatively unsophisticated product, to get from the drawing board to the production line. However, the big question is that how, after more than a decade of work, they still managed to come up with such an inelegant and uncomfortable design…
It was definitely an improvement on its predecessor, though, which was a cumbersome and heavy ‘chest’ microphone, suspended around the operator’s neck. High on the list of Headset No 1’s design objectives was that it should be lightweight, and it is, just 120 grams or a little over 4 ounces and this was largely due to what was then newly-developed compact microphone or ‘transmitter’ and headphone or ‘receiver’ modules. These are mounted together into a weirdly shaped, scalloped enclosure moulded from nylon, which also helped keep the weight down. The really distinctive feature though, is the ‘acoustic horn’, which makes it look like something from the 1930s, rather than the space age sixties. To be fair it does the job, and it is cleverly articulated, on a ball-joint type arrangement, which gives it a good range of movement, to put it close to the user’s mouth. It can also be turned through 180 degrees, so it can be used for right or left side operation.
The olde-tyme horn is actually a consequence of the microphone module, known as Transmitter Inset No.15 to its friends. It is a carbon granule type and essentially a miniature version of the ones that had been used in phones since the year dot, which was a little after the carbon mike was invented, in the late nineteenth century. Carbon mikes were still in widespread use until very recently and Telephone Inset No.15 also popped up again in the GPO Trimphone, this time used as the sounder for the distinctive ‘warbler’ ringer. The horn helps to make up for the carbon granule mike's lack of sensitivity; they also have a very narrow frequency range, though this isn’t a problem for speech. Most importantly, the way that they work means there is no need for amplification, which is a major plus point for telephone systems. If you are interested there’s more about them in this earlier GPO Dustygizmo.
Incidentally, the Acoustic Horn on my example appears to have a slightly narrower mouth, compared with others that I have seen (the original is Part No. 1/DMO/66, this one is marked 1/402), so it may be an alternative type or a later replacement.
The headphone module uses rather exotic sounding ‘rocking armature’ technology. Basically a thin diaphragm, attached to a small magnet, moves up and down in response to voltages passing though a coil around the magnet. In other words it’s a lot like modern headphones and loudspeakers. Apparently it worked a little too well and after a while operators in public telephone exchanges could find it a bit too loud. The solution was to wire a 150-ohm resistor across the terminals to wind down the volume a little
User comfort seems to have been given a fairly low priority, fortunately it doesn’t weigh very much but the wire headband is quite springy and gives the hard and uncushioned headset module and round rubber ‘headpad’ on the other end a fair old squeeze; the little sliding pad on the top doesn’t do much at all. It was probably configured for a notional standard GPO head and took little account of different head or ear shapes and sizes, hair styles and so on. You start to notice it after a few minutes, so heaven knows what it was like to wear for hours on end. By the way, there’s also a Headset No. 2. This has a second earphone on the other side (Part 1/DCA/99) plus a more substantial headband (Headband No.13). Both Headset 1 and 2 were made in black and grey plastic.
This one has been tucked away in a box of old phone parts in my garage for more than 20 years so I cannot remember how I came by it, or how much it cost, but if I did pay for it, it would have been pennies, rather than pounds. The only thing missing is the connecting cable and plug. I suspect that it was in poor condition when I first got it, so I cut it off, meaning to replace it at some point. Maybe I will, one day, and I am pretty sure that it still works, as there is almost nothing to go wrong. The overall condition is very good indeed and apart from some signs of light use, it could almost be fresh out of the box.
What Happened To It?
Tens of thousands of Headset No.1 were made, probably at great expense to the British taxpayer, and they would have been in regular use at least until the early 1990s. Many of them found their way into the consumer marked as they were replaced, sold off and thrown away as telephone exchanges and switchboards were updated from the1980s onwards. Modern operator headsets are a world away from this old dinosaur, which even managed to look old fashioned when it first came out. The basic design principles haven’t changed much though, and it is still important for an operator to be able to hear both the phone line, and the outside world; nowadays there’s a much greater emphasis on comfort and even hygiene, plus a raft of special features, like noise cancellation that improves sound quality at both ends of the phone call.
Unfortunately, apart from a museum piece Headset No 1 isn’t much use for anything anymore. You could replace the microphone and headphone with modern inserts and use it for video gaming, or even as a funky mobile phone headset, but it’s hardly worth the effort, and you wouldn’t want to wear it for any length of time. They are not especially rare either, though prices are creeping up and you can expect to pay £20 to £25 for a really clean one. They’re a little too recent, and not weird enough to be a fully qualified collectible, but give it time. If you spot one at a low enough price it’s probably worth stashing away for your children’s, or more likely your grandchildren’s retirement fund.
First seen 1960
Original Price £? (probably lots...)
Value Today £25 (0115)
Features Carbon granule microphone (Transmitter Inset No.15), rocking armature earphone (Receiver Inset No. 3T, 150 ohm impedance), right or left ear operation, sliding headpads, elbow/ball-jointed acoustic horn
Power req. n/a (powered by exchange equipment, 40mA optimum feed current)
Dimensions: 160 x 140 x 190mm (unexpanded)
Made (assembled) in: England
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 6
Ericsson Ericofon 600 Cobra Telephone, 1983
It is really easy to get drawn into the weird and wonderful world of collecting old telephones. Once hooked you quickly become an armchair expert and doomed to bore those around you every time a historically inaccurate or inappropriate phone appears in a period TV drama or movie. Fortunately most normal people rightly regard old phones as rather dull, utilitarian objects, which is good news for us collectors as it means that interesting and historic models turn up regularly at car boot sales and flea markets, often for a fraction of their real worth – to collectors, at any rate.
Here is one that any budding phone collector (there doesn’t seem to be a collective noun, so how about blowerphile…) should definitely have on their watch list. It’s a genuine design classic – there’s one in New York’s Museum of Modern Arts. It’s officially known as the L.M Ericsson Ericofon and it was conceived in the early 1950s, by a team of designers and engineers led by Ralph Lysell, with Gösta Thames, Hans Kraepelien and Hugo Blomberg; it finally went into production in 1956.
The most noticeable feature is the all-in-one design, with the earpiece (receiver), microphone (transmitter) and rotary dial -- the latter set into the base – together in one hand held unit; a large red button in the middle of the dial acts as the line switch, so all the user has to do is pick it up to make or take a call. This wasn’t an entirely new idea; prototype one-piece phones had been around since the 1930s, but the Ericofon was the first one to actually go into production, and it was also one of the first phones to be made entirely from a lightweight thermoplastic, and available in a range of colours. Until then almost all phones were made using heavy, any-colour-you-like-as-long-as-it is-black, Bakelite. As you can see it is an elegantly simple and practical design and it became popular with hospitals, as bedside phones, as patients could use it one handed. Its snake-like appearance quickly earned it the nickname ‘Kobra’ or Cobra, as it spread to English speaking markets.
America and Australia became early adopters in the early sixties; in the US it started out as an office phone; initially there was stiff resistance from Bell Telephones, who were not keen on having foreign objects connected to their apparatus. Eventually they gave in and were made available to the public and such was the demand that an assembly plant was set up in the US by North Electric, a company part-owned by Ericsson.
This particular Ericofon is the British version, made in Sweden and imported by BT during the late 1970s as part of its ‘Special Range’. It was designated model number 600, though internally it was known as the TSR8007B (TSR stands for Telephone Special Range). It was basically the same as the Swedish original but it doesn’t have a built in buzzer (Ericsson were one of the first to use an all-electronic ringer), as apparently BT felt that it would mostly be used as an extension phone. At the time you could only rent phones from BT and it remained their property; to get one you had to pay a one-off charge of £20, plus an additional rental fee of £2.50 a month, and that was a fair whack back then.
I found this one at a large antiques market in Surrey. The stallholder was asking £10 for it, but being a wet and windy day I managed to haggle it down to £8.00. There was no way of knowing whether it worked or not, but that’s not really a deal-breaker on old dial phones. Without star and hash functions they are of limited use on digital phone networks, but condition is still important. I was lucky and all it needed was a good clean up and as it turned out, it was in full working order. Even though it is more than 30 years old it still sounds as good as most modern phones. The only slight flaw was the cracked and partially missing plastic skirt or gasket that goes around the base; this part is notoriously fragile, fortunately modern replacements are readily available for a few pounds.
There are a few points for would-be collectors to watch out for. Original Swedish made models are more desirable than the more numerous US versions, and the older they are the better. First generation models are fairly easy to spot as they are slightly taller (around 230mm) and it’s worth looking inside, as there should be a date of manufacture stamp on the inside. There are a fair few modern repros and copies doing the rounds. Normally a modern push-button ‘dial’ or keypad on a vintage phone is a bit of a giveaway, but this was a feature on models made in the US and Sweden in the late 60s. A more angular push-button only model was also introduced in the 1980s, called the Ericofon 700. It wasn’t very popular so they are quite rare but they lack the kudos of the curvy 600. Weight and feel is another indicator of age and the genuine article feels solid and well made; the real thing should also have an Ericsson or North Electric maker’s label on the base. Early models were available in a choice of 18 colour variations, later reduced to 8. For the record green, dark grey, pale blue and burgundy are the ones serious collectors are most interested in.
What Happened To It?
The US market for the Ericofon went in a fairly rapid decline following the introduction of a rival one-piece phone from Bell Telecom. It was eventually discontinued in 1976, though parts were sold off and a third party company continued making them for a couple of years. However, by the early1980s phone markets across the world were awash with cheap, often eye-catching and usually more technically advanced phones. Although large-scale production had ended by the mid 80s, the basic one-piece design lives on through countless modern variants and more recently, faithful reproductions, like the Wild and Wolf Scandiphone.
For collectors, though, only the original will do, and for the moment at least, they are not too difficult to find. The most abundant source is ebay; the majority of them are in the US, so watch out for shipping costs, but there are usually two or three UK models up for grabs. Prices are all over the place, from £20 - £30 for good clean examples, to wildly optimistic three-figure sums, but as ever it pays to be patient and keep your eyes peeled for those bargains.
First seen 1956
Original Price £n/a (BT option £20 plus £2.50 monthly charge)
Value Today £30 (1114)
Features One piece design, rotary dial, line switch on base
Power req. n/a (powered by phone line)
Dimensions: 225 x 111 x 95mm
Made (assembled) in: Sweden
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 7
Motorola Micro TAC Classic Mobile Phone, 1991
If ever you need reminding how far and how fast technology has changed then look no further than the phone in your pocket. The very fact that you have one is nothing short of remarkable given that in less than three decades mobile phones went from being something only the rich and powerful could afford to own and use, to an everyday commodity item. And here’s something else to think about. According to an ITU (International Telecomm - unications Union) report, in 2014 there were more mobile phones than people on the planet. That’s not the number of phones made to date but ‘active and in-use’ devices, which suggests that quite a lot of people have more than one phone…
Back in the late 80s and early 90s mobile phones were still a bit of a novelty. Although they were steadily moving into the mainstream, having one usually marked you out as a high flyer, or a builder, and if you had any say in the matter, the phone that you wanted would probably have been a Motorola MicroTAC (TAC stands for Total Area Coverage, by the way…). It was the very first ‘flip’ phone, and it all began with the Motorola MicroTAC 9800X, in 1989. This one is the slightly later Classic model, launched in 1991, but apart from a few cosmetic tweaks, and an uprated display, it shares most of the important features of the iconic original.
Aside from the small size and light weight, the key selling point was the flip cover and its primary job was to protect the keypad. As phones got smaller and eventually pocket-size, a very common complaint was how easy it was to accidentally brush the keys and make unwanted (and very expensive) phone calls. Most manufacturers incorporated some sort of keyboard lock function, which was usually inconvenient to use, especially if you were in a hurry, but Motorola’s ingenious flip cover solved the problem at a stroke. As an added bonus it also made users look cool – or so many of them thought -- when they ostentatiously flipped it open to make or take calls.
The original 9800X had the microphone built into the flip cover; it was a feature that Motorola exploited in a series of memorable TV adverts, showing users with their mouths on the sides of their faces; you need to watch the ad to understand… It took off almost immediately and the flip cover became a standard feature on all subsequent MicroTAC models and slavishly copied by other manufacturers.
What few of those later MicroTAC owners realised was that even though the flip cover had what looked like a little hole for the microphone, it was actually built into the body of the phone, and the real mike hole was tucked away in a gap in the hinge assembly. This wasn’t the only piece of fakery and the pull-out antenna, which many owners delighted in extending at every opportunity, even if they weren’t in a poor signal area, was in fact just a piece of plastic covered wire. The actual active antenna is housed in the short stub at the top of the case and the pull-out jobby is just a cosmetic con. Research at the time showed that users expected mobile phones to have antennas, and no doubt most of them thought that this one really worked.
When it came to features and functions those early MicroTACs were nothing special but these were simpler times and the scope for fancy bells and whistles was limited by the fact that this was a first generation analogue ETACs model, and all it could really do was make phone calls. At or close to the top of the list is the LCD display; it’s a dot matrix type, which means it can display up to 10 alphanumeric characters, as well as a limited range of icons showing status, signal strength, battery level, menu options and so on. This was actually quite a leap forward from the first MicroTACs, which had basic 8-digit LED displays and indicator lights. There’s a few simple memory functions (last number redial, 8 number memory and fast dial), and there’s a call timer, which was essential, with some networks charging between £3.00 and £5.00 a minute for their services.
Motorola were one of the first to use Nickel Metal-Hydride (NiMH) rechargeable batteries to power their phones. They were not quite as powerful as nicads but didn’t suffer from the dreaded ‘memory’ effect that quickly reduced the capacity of nicads. The battery clips onto the back of the phone, in effect becoming part of the case and this proved useful to accessory manufacturers who were able produce slightly thicker, high-capacity types, you could also get them with belt clips and so on.
MicroTACs, like many phones of the day were mostly available in any colour that you wanted, as long as it was black, grey or grey-blue, but the cases were made from an incredibly durable plastic that could take a tremendous amount of punishment. This one I have had from new and was probably a review sample back when I was reviewing phones and accessories for a number of cellphone magazines. It is in near mint condition but sadly, without its original box, charger or a working battery, all of which I suspect I gave away.
What Happened To It?
I have no doubt that this phone still works, the only problem is there is no one to talk to as the last analogue mobile network in the UK was switched off in 2001, which makes it pretty well useless for anything, other than a paperweight. Nevertheless, over the last few years a growing collectors market has developed, and demand for vintage models, and prices, have shot up. Not so long ago you could pick up old mobile phones like this for a pound or two at car boot sales, there is still the odd one to be found, but they tend to be the less interesting types, but more memorable or influential models, like the MicroTAC routinely sell on ebay for £30 to £50, sometimes more if they are boxed and come with accessories, but you need to be careful. Collectors have become really choosy and although outwardly many MicroTACs look the same, they are looking for the handful of rare models. You can easily sort the wheat from the chaff and a good indication of age and therefore scarcity is an LED screen. The thickness of the flip cover is another sign of age as it got progressively thinner over the years and analogue is much more desirable, and valuable, than digital. Again it’s simple to check, just remove the battery, and if you see a slot or contacts for a SIM card it’s digital. It’s still worth having if it is cheap enough, though. It may still be useable, and you can cause quite a stir, if you get someone to give you a call when you’re in the office or down the pub.
First seen 1991
Original Price £1200
Value Today £30 (1114)
Features ETACs system (analogue), 10 digit dot matrix LCD, on screen menu, memory recall, 8 number store, flip cover, battery life 30 hours standby, 1.5 hours talk time
Power req. 6 volt NiMH rechargeable
Dimensions: 160 x 60 x 30
Made (assembled) in: USA
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 6
Astatic D-104 G Desktop Microphone1968
If the words ‘good buddy’ and ‘breaker-breaker’ ring any bells then there’s a fair chance that you were caught up in the short-lived craze for Citizen’s Band Radio, in the late 1970s and early 80s, and you may recognise this as the mighty Astatic D-104, one of the all-time classic desktop microphones. Even if you were a Ham radio operator – and they mostly hated CBers -- then you might have owned, or at the very least, wanted one
Desktop microphones like this were typically used with high-power, static ‘base station’ type Ham and CB transceivers or ‘rigs’, which is an application where light weight and portability are not big concerns. In fact the opposite is true and a heavy, stable, base is an advantage, however, the feature that sets this one apart from lesser desk mikes is that large and very grabbable PTT (press-to-talk) switch, or bar, running up the side of the microphone’s neck; there’s also the distinctive round microphone module perched on the top and thick, industrial-strength chrome plating. Other points of interest include a knurled nut at the top of the neck, which, when undone, allows the microphone module to be easily detached -- they're connected by a plug and socket -- and if you look closely at the base of the neck you can see a chrome plated collar. This slides up the stem and acts as a sort of hands-free switch, keeping the PTT bar pressed in for continuous transmission.
All of this gives the D-104 a real presence; you could almost believe it adds weight and importance to your words, even if mikes like these were mostly used for mindless prattle, and CBers were no better… (and I can say that both as an ex-CBer, and retired and disillusioned licensed radio amateur).
The D-104 had another life as a PA (public address) microphone and it also pops up now and again in old movies and TV shows. It’s usually in the hands of a breathless reporter commentating on some momentous event; it has even been seen in the hands of singers, but it was never designed for that kind of work, though it definitely looks the part. The microphone is not studio quality but deliberately configured to emphasise a relatively narrow band of frequencies, to give speech the best chance of remaining intelligible over noisy, weak, intermittent and often crowded radio communications channels.
Many two-way radio users, including me, wanted a D-104 but they were often hard to come by – here in the UK at least – always expensive, and difficult to justify if you were only interested in mobile operation. This one, almost certainly dating from the mid 60s, came my way a few years ago when I stumbled across it on ebay. The UK seller clearly didn’t know what it was for and listed it under tape recorders, as a vintage microphone, which explained the zero interest from bidders. It looked a bit rough in the photos but it appeared to be complete and as it turned out, it was. All it needed was a good rub down with Brasso and a thorough internal clean up, to remove some decayed foam rubber padding and a long-dead family of spiders. It worked too, though this wasn’t a huge surprise as they were really well made, and there’s not much to go wrong.
What Happened To It?
For once classic is not too strong a word; this mike was originally designed by a pair of American Ham radio enthusiasts back in the 1930s, and from the outside at least, it has changed little over the years. To be honest not much changed on the inside and it wasn’t until the mid 1970s that that a simple amplifier circuit was fitted into the base, essentially make it more compatible with transistorised communications equipment, like CB radios, which were starting to sell in very large numbers; up until then most Ham radio transceivers and PA amps had been valve-based.
At about the same time Astatic started to get a bit more adventurous with the cosmetics and in 1976 they launched Silver and Gold ‘Eagle’ versions, to commemorate the American Bicentennial. Again they were based on the standard design, but sported heavily embossed shield and eagle motifs on the microphone module’s rear cover plate. Further special editions appeared and a secondary PTT switch fitted to the base or later models but essentially this one design continued until the end, which came in 2001 when the last D-104s rolled off the production line. Astatic is still going strong but the amateur radio and CB brands were sold to DAS Companies Inc. in 2012, who now use the name in their Road Pro family of products
I do not recall exactly how much I paid for this one – it has a pre mid 70’s un-amplified ‘G’ type base -- but it probably wasn’t more than £10 or so. Even a few years ago that would have been a pretty good price. D-104s have remained consistently popular and have rarely sold for less than £20 to £30 second hand. I suspect that hundreds of thousands of them were made but owners tend to use them, and do not part with them willingly, which limits the number that come up for sale. Prices have crept up steadily; a good clean example will set you back at least £50, and determined collectors have been known to pay two or three times as much for a well cared for Silver or Gold Eagle editions.
First seen 1938
Original Price £40
Value Today £50 - £80 0914
Features Crystal microphone element, detachable connector, heavy G-Stand with Grip-To-Talk PTT switch, sliding PPT lock
Power req. n/a
Dimensions: 305 x 140mm (microphone module 75 x 28mm)
Made (assembled) in: USA
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 5
Betacom PF1 Pianotel, 1984
Establishing the exact age of this cheesy Betacom BF1 novelty telephone proved to be surprisingly difficult and the 1984 date I've put on it is just a guesstimate so as always, if anyone out there knows better, or how much it originally cost, please let me know, but more about its beginnings and back story in a few moments.
As you can see it’s in the shape of a stylised miniature grand piano with the keyboard acting as the dial. The handset forms part of the top of the piano and there are connecting leads for the handset and phone line on the side and rear respectively. So far so good, but there’s an interesting extra, over and above fairly routine phone features like last number re-dial, mute and ringer on/off (it makes a high-pitched warble), and that is the keyboard, which actually works. You really can play tunes on it, albeit only one note at a time, but it's a proper musical scale, covering one and a bit octaves. You may be wondering why the keys don’t generate the standard DTMF (dual tone multi frequency, aka MF4 in the UK) tone dialling notes, which you can also use to play simple tunes. Instead of DTMF the BF1 uses the now virtually obsolete pulse dialling system, normally associated with mechanical rotary dials, and this provides some clues to its age.
British Telecom rolled out tone dialling in the UK in 1976 and to this day modern digital exchanges are backwards compatible with pulse dial phones. However, the Betacom BF1 couldn’t be that old as it was fitted with the now standard 431A BT phone plug, introduced in 1981, and it wasn’t until 1982 that companies other than BT were allowed to supply telephones, provided they were approved by BABT (British Approvals Board for Telecommunications). This one has the official stickers to prove it is BABT approved so it has to have been made after 1982. The newly established market for non-BT phones took a while to get going so I’ve added a couple of years, which takes us to my estimated manufacture date of 1984. That also tallies with the electronic components, the style of wiring and PCB construction. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that it dates from a year or three later, though by then tone dialling phones had become much more widespread and from the mid-eighties to the early nineties phones that had tone dialling, usually had a switch for pulse dialling, to accommodate the parts of the UK (and other countries) where exchanges hadn’t been upgraded.
I came across this Pianotel looking a bit sorry for itself at a Surrey boot sale; I probably would have passed it by, but it came complete with its original box and polystyrene packaging. The asking price was £3.00 and despite some serious haggling the price was non negotiable, but it looked as though it was worth a punt so I coughed up. As it turned out it wasn’t in as bad a state as I feared and most of the encrusted grime came away fairly easily and with a bit of polishing the case came up like new. Unfortunately a couple of AA batteries in the holder had begun to leak. Luckily it looked as though it was fairly recent; corrosion hadn’t set in and the contacts and compartment cleaned up well. No damage had been done and with a fresh set of batteries installed it was playing tunes and making calls.
What Happened To It?
Hong Kong-based Betacom dates back to 1966. From the start it produced a wide range of electronic gadgets and phones, both serious and novelty, until the early 90s. That was when Amstrad bought a controlling stake in the company as part of its move into telecommunications. After the Amstrad takeover the brand became less prominent and following a number of changes in the company’s structure, the brand was eventually sold to Alba in 1999, and the name now only appears on a small range of Powerline network adaptors.
It seems that Piano-themed phones never went away and in addition to countless keyboard patterned mobile phone cases there are modern Chinese-made piano-shaped phones on ebay that do all sorts of clever things with lights and sounds. There’s even the occasional Pianotel but they do not seem to attract much attention, or more than £10 - £15 in bids, even when they are in good condition and working order so clearly it hasn’t become a collectible just yet. Maybe not for much longer though, and there’s plenty of raw material out there with hundreds of weird, wacky and tacky novelty phones from the 80s and 90s going cheap on ebay and at car boot sales that will become increasingly rare and quite possibly worth a few bob as time goes by.
First seen 1984?
Original Price £?
Value Today £10 (0814)
Features Piano keyboard dial with melody keys, last number redial, mute button, ringer switch, high-pitched warble ring tone
Power req. 2 x 1.5v AA cells
Dimensions: 200 x 80 x 160mm
Made (assembled) in: Hong Kong
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 5
W.E. Co. Ltd Folding Phone Handset. 1918?
This may well be the oldest object in dustygizmos, or the numbers 1917, stamped into the metal handle, is a part or model number. The only things I can be reasonably certain about is that it is a telephone handset, almost certainly intended for military applications and probably once connected to a field telephone or two-way radio of some sort. Portability is a key feature; it has a telescopic handgrip that, when collapsed, reduces the overall length from 220 to 150mm. There is also a hinged flap or cover on the microphone mouthpiece, possibly to protect it from dust and dirt or maybe to improve performance, when it is being used in a noisy environment, such as a moving vehicle, or in the midst of a battle. Set into the handle there’s a press bar or PTT (Push To Talk) switch. The only markings are what appears to be a maker’s name ‘WO Co Ltd’, a serial number (334495), the letters ‘DV’, and the aforementioned ‘1918’. On the opposite side of the handle there is a badly stamped War Department arrow. Behind the mouthpiece there’s a carbon granule microphone (you can hear them rattling if you shake it), it has no markings but it looks a lot like a GPO type 2 or 3 transmitter insert.
It’s all metal construction, apart from a Bakelite moulding on the earphone, and it is clearly designed to withstand an indirect direct hit from a small bomb. We are talking super-tough heavy-duty construction; at a pinch it could be used as a hammer, or even a weapon!
Unfortunately I cannot remember where it came from. It has been in my possession for a very long time and it may have been in one of the many boxes of electrical bits and pieces I have been given, or paid a few pounds for, over the years. All I can say for sure is that it has never been connected to anything, so if anyone can flesh out these meagre details I would be very grateful.
If, as seems likely, it was part of a military communication system then it would probably have been in service for a fairly long time. How it ended up in Civvy Street is a mystery but there are several well-trodden routes. A lot of stuff gets left behind following conflicts. The military is notoriously leaky and vast amounts of equipment and kit is lost or stolen, and it regularly disposes of surplus or obsolete equipment and spares through specialist sales and auctions, so take your pick. This one is in remarkably good condition though the paintwork is a bit battered. This suggests that it may have been in service at some point, rather than stored away as a spare part, but it is no more than normal wear and tear, so it probably wasn’t dug out of a wet trench or bomb site.
What Happened To It?
Up until comparatively recently military field communications hardware tended to remain in service for long periods, sometimes for decades, but this doesn’t look to me like anything from the post WW2 era, which leads me to suppose that 1918 could well be a date. In short I haven’t the foggiest idea about its history and a web search of the manufacturer’s name drew a complete blank, so again, any additional details are most welcome.
As to its value, again we are into an unknown area. I suspect it could be worth a fair bit, or rather whatever piece of equipment it once belonged to would be, if this handset was still attached. On its own, who knows? My guess is anywhere from £20 to £50, especially if the purchaser has the original device and is looking for a missing handset…
First seen 1918?
Original Price £?
Value Today £20?(0514)
Features: Telescopic extending handgrip, with PTT switch, GPO No 2 carbon microphone, magnetic earpiece
Power req. N/A
Dimensions: 220/150 x 63 x 63mm
Made (assembled) in: England
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 8
Rabbit Telepoint Phone, 1992
I suspect that relatively few people will have heard of, let alone remember, the Hutchison Rabbit phone system, but for a short while it was being hailed as the next big thing in mobile communications. Rabbit was a compact cordless phone that you could use around the home, and take with you, when you were out and about, to make phone calls when you were within a couple of hundred metres of a Rabbit base station or Telepoint, installed in banks, railway stations, restaurants and shops. In retrospect it sounds like a daft idea but you have to remember this was the early 90s; cellphones had been around for a few years but apart from being fairly bulky, they were horribly expensive to buy, and use, and still some way from becoming an affordable mass-market product.
The main attractions of Rabbit were that you got a technically advanced cordless phone and a weird kind of telephonic mobility for fraction of the price and running costs of a proper cell phone. Hutchison pitched it at the home user and a basic setup comprising a handset and base station cost just under £200, not much more than a top of the range cordless phone. Calls made at home were at normal BT rates. Calls from Rabbit Telepoints required a £6.00 a month subscription and were charged at 10 pence a minute off peak, and 20p a minute at peak times, which was only a little more than calls made from public phone boxes. The obvious disadvantage was that you couldn’t take incoming calls; in any case most of the time you would be out of range of a Telepoint, but there was a workaround. For an additional £5.50 a month Rabbit’s operators offered a service that would warn you that a message was waiting when the handset was in range the home base station
As you can see from the photos the handset is a striking design with slanty, dual-coloured buttons, and a decent sized LCD display. It had battery running times of a day or more, rather than the few hours you might get -- if you were lucky -- on an early 90s cellphone. It was a lot smaller than the cellphones of the day and your mates would have been most impressed if you pulled one of these out of your pocket down the pub and proceeded to make a phone call. It might have happened too, if things had gone to plan, but more on that in a moment.
Rabbit uses the digitally based CT2 system (Cordless Telephone generation 2) and CAI (Common Air Interface) standards. This was meant to ensure compatibility and allow roaming with other public and private cordless and Telepoint services and it operates over 10 channels, to reduce the chance of interference from adjacent handsets and base stations. The handset has a fair assortment of features; it stores up to 10 phone numbers, it can be PIN protected to prevent unauthorised use, calls can be transferred between Rabbit handsets and there are redial, hold and paging functions, plus a keypad lock. The keypad and display can also be used as a sort of scratch memory, to jot down a phone number. It doesn’t take long to figure out how to use it; the home or private base station simply plugs into a mains adaptor and a standard BT phone socket, all it takes are a few button presses to pair the handset with the unit and it is ready to make and take calls. When you are on the move you simply have to be within spitting distance of a Telepoint; the handset logs on automatically and you can make phone calls as normal.
Apart from a brief encounter with a review sample, at or around the time of the launch in the Summer of 1992, I had very little to do with the Rabbit system during its short life. It must have been a fairly low-key affair as I can’t remember much about it, and looking back it seemed to have come and gone with comparatively little ceremony. I stumbled across this Rabbit handset, base station, charge cradle, mains adaptors and instruction booklets on ebay some time ago; I was the only bidder and it was mine for just £5.00, plus postage. They were pretty grubby and had obviously been stored for some time in a loft or garage. It cleaned up well, though, and with a pair of batteries installed the handset powered up, paired with the base station and during a short test, functioned perfectly well as a simple cordless phone.
What Happened to It?
The rise and swift fall of the Rabbit system was, to an extent, predictable and it was pretty much doomed from the outset. Originally four operating licenses for Telepoint systems were granted in 1988 by the UK Government but after relatively short trial periods three of the four companies decided not to get involved, leaving the market to Hutchison. It would appear that they didn’t spend too much time wondering why their rivals pulled out but it was almost certainly down to the numbers simply not adding up, and the clear signs that cellular phones would become a mainstream technology, and probably sooner rather than later. Hutchinson had already invested heavily in the system and pressed ahead with bold plans to attract between 10,000 and 20,000 subscribers and set up around 12,000 base stations in the first year. The reality was rather different, though, and by end of the 20 months the system was up and running only around 2,000 subscribers were left. All that remains now are a few rusty Rabbit signs. The remaining subscribers were not left high and dry, though. They received a fairly generous severance package. They could continue to use their handsets and base station as cordless phones at home and there was the tempting offer of a mobile phone on the Orange network, which, by some strange coincidence, had been set up by Hutchison...
Complete and working Rabbit phones and base stations don’t turn up very often and the tiny handful that I have spotted on ebay over the past year or so typically sold for between £30 and £50, and they were all in excellent condition with all of the original documentation. Unlike many old gadgets they are still partially functional in that they can be used as a cordless phone, albeit a fairly basic and bulky one, but its comparative rarity and the unusual story that lies behind it could make it worth collecting and one day, possibly worth a few bob.
First seen 1992
Original Price £200
Value Today £30 (0114)
Features CT2/CAI compliant, 11 digit LCD display, 10 number memory, redial, call hold & transfer. PIN & keyboard lock
Power req. Handset : 2 x 1.5volt rechargeable AA cells. Base station: 230VAC mains adaptor adaptor/charger
Dimensions: Handset: 178 x 60 x 35mm; Base Station: 200 x 125 x 40mm
Weight: Handset: 257g; Base Station: 400g
Made (assembled) in: UK?
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 8
Fep Russian Microphone & Earpiece, 1974
I like a good mystery as much as the next person, but this has me baffled. My best guess is that it is some sort of children’s toy or possibly a teaching aid, but rather than speculate, let’s look at what I do know for certain.
Firstly it was made in Russia, or rather the USSR, as was, and according to what I suspect is a packing slip, it dates from 1974. The two items are in near perfect condition, as is the box they came in and I doubt that they have ever been used. The device on the stand is a carbon microphone. It is one of the earliest types and similar to the sort that was widely used in telephone mouthpieces up until the nineteen seventies. The other item is a moving coil type earphone; again, this is old technology but it works and it remains a commonly used component in telephones to this day. Both items have screw terminals and if you connect two of the terminals together, and a battery between the other two and speak into the microphone, the sound can be clearly heard in the earphone. I have only tried it with a 9 volt battery, so it’s not very loud, but it really does work, and because the backs of the cases are open, you can see what is inside, which is what makes me think it is an educational toy.
The cases for both devices are made from a fairly heavy duty plastic, making them fairly robust and able to withstand the rigours of the classroom. I managed to translate most of the words on the box, which, as best I can make out are ‘Microphone Capsule Phone Tube’ (as always corrections and more authoritative information is very welcome). What may be the maker’s name ‘фЭП’ is moulded in the microphone base, and the back of the earphone. That roughly translates as ‘Fep’, though it might be an acronym for a photo electric cell or a dozen other things, but at that point I admitted defeat, due to my largely non-existent Russian language skills and the maze of websites the translated and original Cyrillic characters led me down.
I can’t tell you much about this item’s history. I happened upon it on ebay some time ago, it looked interesting but no one else seemed to want it and my opening, and as it turned out, the only bid of £6.00 sealed the deal.
What Happened To It?
If indeed it was some sort of teaching aid or educational toy it would have had a fairly limited lifespan. By the late seventies phone systems around the world, and that includes the former USSR, were moving towards more modern types of microphone, even so, it would still be of interest to students.
I can only say what it cost me, which was £9.00, with postage, whether or not there is anyone else would be prepared to pay as much is unknown. I suspect it is unusual enough to interest fellow gadget collectors and was genuinely surprised to be the only bidder, though to be fair I only stumbled across it by accident, and if and when I ever get around to selling it, describing it is going to be a bit of a problem…
First seen 1974
Original Price £??
Value Today £10 (0813)
Features Carbon microphone and moving coil earphone demonstration set
Power req. 9 – 12VDC
Dimensions: microphone with stand 75 x 40 x 155mm; earphone with handle80 x 35 x 125mm
Weight: microphone 170g, earphone 110g
Made in: USSR
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 8
Mystery Microphone, 1970?
All I can say for certain about this rather snazzy-looking desktop microphone is that it is a dynamic type, and it was made in Japan. The only reason I know that is because it is stamped into the chrome plated cable clamp on the back and printed on the heavy cast iron base. Everything else is complete guesswork. Marks on the front suggest that there once was a maker’s name badge but that is long gone. At some point in its history someone has written ‘BBC’ on the top and on the stand, but I don’t believe that for a moment, it is simply not in that league, though I can’t rule it out as having had some minor role in the broadcasting industry. There are no clues inside. The encapsulated microphone element and transformer look as though they belong there, but without another reference I can’t say if they are original or not.
The date of 1970 is based mostly on the style and the fact that mid-range and high-end tape recorders of the 60s and 70s often came with half decent mikes; the microphones supplied with cheapie tape recorders tended to be nasty plasticky affairs. The lack of a push-to-talk (PTT) button on the base or body almost certainly rules out an association with Ham, CB, communications or public address equipment.
It has been well made, from good quality materials with heavy chrome plating on the stand components and case. It has the look and feel of a something that was designed for semi-pro use, able to withstand the kind of rough treatment that would quickly destroy a consumer product. The chap who sold it to me, and for the record it cost £1.00 at a Kent car boot sale, had no idea where it came from, probably a house clearance, he thought. He wasn’t even sure that it was a microphone, though to be fair he might have been confused by the fact that at some point someone had crudely fitted a coaxial aerial plug to the cable…
What Happened To It?
Clearly microphones, of all types and styles, are still with us, but as far as this one and its manufacturer are concerned, I have drawn a complete blank. In spite of extensive web searches and frequent scans of the many thousands of mikes selling on ebay I haven’t even come close to finding another one, or even one that looks similar. I would be delighted to hear from anyone who can enlighten me, even if it’s just to tell me that I have got it completely wrong. I can’t even say what it is worth, it cost me a pound, and now it is all cleaned up it has to be worth a tenner; the scrap value alone must be close to that, but who is to say? For all I know it’s a rare one-off prototype, a custom built jobbie or it once belonged to someone famous. Somehow I doubt that, but it would be great to know at least something about its origins…
First seen 1970?
Original Price £?
Value Today £10 (0713)
Features Dynamic microphone element, adjustable desktop stand, heavy cast iron base
Power req. n/a
Dimensions: 200 x 100 x 125mm
Made in: Japan
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 7
Sony CM-R111 Miniature Cellphone. 1993
Back in the early 1990s mobile phone design was going through some fairly radical changes. The majority of handsets were still fairly hefty lumps, barely pocket size, hampered by short running times and the functional limitations imposed by the analogue networks, but things were happening. Digital GSM technology was just getting off the ground and the likes of Mitsubishi, Motorola, Nokia and NEC were producing a steady stream of smaller, lighter and better-specified models, and then Sony got in on the act. In 1992 it created something of a storm with the revolutionary CM-H333 ‘Mars Bar’ phone, then a year later it dropped another bombshell, with the CM-R111.
It was around half the size and weight of what was then the smallest model, small enough to slip into a shirt pocket in fact. It had a nifty flip out microphone but the real surprise was the way it broke all of the rules by not having any form of display, other than three tiny LED status indicators.
If it had been made by anyone else it probably would have sunk without trace. Back then the mobile phone market was still a pretty conservative place and the established manufacturers tended not to take too many chances. But as was so often the case, Sony went their own way, and because it still had a reputation for innovation, quality and the sort of kudos that Apple products enjoy today, it got a lot of attention.
Sony actually got away with murder with the CM-R111 because it was a truly horrible little phone to use, and the lack of a proper display was a massive disadvantage. Without meaningful battery level and signal strength meters it was all too easy to get caught short, and no numerical display meant wrong numbers were a constant problem, especially if you had fat fingers. An optional remote control solved some of the problems and Sony rapidly bought out a step-up model with a display, but that’s another story for another day. The small buttons also made answering calls a fumbling nightmare, and it was virtually unusable wearing gloves. The flip down mike looked very swish, but again it was a hindrance when it came to answering a call, but there was no denying it looked great, and for a short while, quite a crowd puller.
What Happened To It?
The CM-R111 was briefly popular but it wasn’t to last. The lack of a display was always going to be a problem and even the later model with a display wasn’t enough to keep phone users happy. In any case it was pretty much obsolete, even before it started appearing in the shops. The roll out of the digital GSM networks had begun and a new generation of phones was on the way, smaller, lighter, longer lasting and packed with shed-loads of features. It remained on sale for a couple of years but the phasing out of the analogue networks and arrival of fancy little mini flip phones, like the Motorola Star Tac range, meant that what was once the world’s smallest phone (possibly…) suddenly looked rather large and untidy.
I wrote several reviews of the phone when it was first launched and remember being largely underwhelmed by it; any samples I had must have been returned or given away and I forgot all about it until, for some reason or another, I came across several listings on ebay. What caught my eye was the ridiculous prices being asked, in some cases as much as a £200, which is a lot to ask, even for a pristine, boxed example. There didn’t seem to be much interest at that level but I kept an eye out for cheapie, and this one turned up a couple of weeks later. It was in reasonable shape, came with the optional long ‘rubber duck’ antenna and mains charger. It showed some signs of use but nothing serious and with no other bidders (it was late on a Wednesday night) my solo bid of a fiver sealed the deal. That’s about what it is worth. Apart from its curiosity value, and for surprising under 25s, that there were small phones back in the mobile stone age, it’s mostly ornamental, and the value, if it increases, will probably do so only very slowly. Nevertheless, the years have softened my impressions of it and it reminds me that once up on a time Sony used to be quite audacious.
First seen 1993
Original Price £450
Value Today £5 - £50
Features Analogue ETACs system, flip-down microphone, In use, Roam, Service Level, indicators, 14 hours standby/60 minutes talk time, optional extendable ‘rubber duck’ antenna, optional earphone and remote control
Power req. 4.8volt rechargeable battery pack
Dimensions: 64 x 85 x 24 mm
Made in: Japan
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 5
GPO Ring Microphone No. 2, I’24/235, 1935?
This is a ‘ring mount’ suspension microphone and it is a good deal older than most of the gadgets featured in Dustygizmos, but I’ve decided to include it for a couple of reasons. Firstly, to my eyes it’s a object of great beauty and if I ever feel inclined to take up crooning, this will be my microphone of choice, Second, I’ve never seen one like it before, know little or nothing about it, and hope someone out there will recognise it and fill in the gaps.
I came across it in a box of rusty junk under a stall at one of the large antique fairs held at the South of England Showground. It was in a right old mess, basically a tangle of cotton-covered cable, bits of greasy chrome and brass, but something about it caught my eye. It had distinct 1930’s look to it and after a couple of minutes haggling ten pounds changed hands and it was all mine.
It really was in a state, the ring was crushed out of shape, the chrome base corroded, the microphone part tarnished and dangling, and most of the screws and fittings were covered in a film of rust. Fortunately none of the damage or neglect was permanent and liberal applications of my Dremel tool with a rotary wire brush, Brasso and a hammer bought it back to life. The conical Bakelite mouthpiece may or may not be original. It was held in place with a crudely fitted brass wire and some insulation tape. It was clearly a later repair job or customisation but without a reference it’s impossible to say if it belongs there or not. I made up a simple threaded fixing and will leave it in place for the time being. For the record I tried mouthpieces from GPO candlestick telephones but they did not fit.
The microphone is a carbon granule type; this was one of the first microphone technologies and widely used in telephones up until the 1950s. In this example it’s in the form of a sealed capsule, mounted inside the brass and chrome housing. It’s an elegantly simple design, attributed variously to Thomas Edison and Emile Berliner, who both filed patents between 1877 and 1899. Basically sound waves cause the thin diaphragm to vibrate, which in turn agitates carbon granules sealed in a container behind the diaphragm and between a pair of electrodes. As they vibrate, in sympathy with the sound waves, the resistance between the electrodes varies proportionately so by passing a current through the mike you have the makings of a very simple amplifier. Carbon mikes are not especially sensitive and the frequency response is limited but they are fine for speech, widely used by early broadcasters and for applications like public address etc. Suspending the microphone inside the ring minimises vibration. This one uses a tightly stretched rubber ring. This appears to be fairly unusual, probably because of rubber’s unfortunate habit of perishing so most ring microphones use springs. The original rubber ring had obviously long gone but I found that a modern 55mm silicon rubber O-ring fitted almost perfectly.
The microphone module connects to a large choke coil in the round base by a pair of cotton-covered wires, and this in turn connects to two pairs of screw terminals. I’m not exactly sure of the wiring configuration as the wires in the base were detached but I suspect that two terminals are used for a DC supply, and the other two for the audio output.
The only other clues to its history are some markings stamped into the front of the mike module. They are ‘G.P.O., I’24, 235, No 2’. The two sets of terminals on the base are stamped ‘O’ and ‘B’, which I’m guessing stand for output and battery, but that’s it, there’s nothing else inside or out, I haven’t been able to find anything from the usual GPO sources on the web though I did manage to find a picture of one used as a stage prop, modified with a modern microphone insert. If I had to guess I would say it might have been used for public address, and the GPO marking suggest that it was made for or used by the Post Office, maybe in mail sorting depots or offices,