Gizmos by Category
Gizmos A - Z
Decimo Vatman 120D Calc
Evershed & Vignoles Series 3 ‘Wee’ Megger, 1960?
Testing the insulation of wires and cables isn’t as common as it used to be in days gone by, for the simple reason that it isn’t as much of a problem as it used to be. That’s mainly due to vast improvements in insulating materials, stricter standards and more consistent manufacturing techniques, but when electrical insulation fails -- as it does -- sparks fly and very bad things can happen…
Testing electrical insulation is not as straightforward as you might think. The low voltages that most common or garden multimeters use to measure electrical resistance simply don’t cut the mustard when checking the integrity of cables that may be called upon to carry several hundred volts. You need something with a bit of muscle, and that’s where test instruments, generically known as ‘Meggers’ come in. They’ve been around for almost as long as cables have carried electricity, since the late nineteenth century, and Evershed & Vignoles Ltd, of Acton Lane in Chiswick, London, who made this Series 3 Megger, have been in the insulation testing business since the very beginning. We’ll come back to their story a little later on.
One of the two key components in any Megger is a high voltage generator that can expose otherwise invisible weaknesses and flaws in a cable’s insulation layer, that a low voltage test would miss. In the Evershed and Vignoles Series 3 it comes from a hand-cranked dynamo that puts out a steady 500 volts. Legend has it they’ve been used for less benign applications, such as instruments of torture, but we needn’t dwell on that… The other important element in a Megger is the meter, which gives an indication about the effectiveness of a cable’s insulation layer, measured in thousands and millions of ohms. As a matter of interest this Series 3 Megger is a high-resistance model, with the meter scaled from zero to infinity ohms; other Series 3 models were also produced, configured for lower or narrow resistance ranges.
There are no controls as such and to use it for simple insulation testing a pair of probes is connected to spring loaded terminals on the sides of the case. The positive (red) probe goes to the cable’s inner conductor and the black probe connects to Earth, or the metal chassis of the equipment being tested. The idea is to crank the handle at around 160 turns a minute, for one minute, whilst noting down the reading on the meter. In general very high to infinity is often a good result; anything less might suggest a problem, though the engineer carrying out the test should know beforehand what sort of reading to expect. Cranking speed and hence the output voltage is kept reasonably steady by a centrifugal clutch on the dynamo, that helps the user to maintain a steady rhythm.
The Series 3 model is a real old timer and affectionately known by generations electrical engineers as the ‘Wee’ Megger. Production began in 1932 and lasted until the mid 1960s. Over the years the only significant changes to the design, in the late 1940s, was to switch to an AC generator. Along with a rectifier circuit and capacitors it provided a more stable test voltage. This one I found at a car boot sale around 10 years ago; I am fairly sure it only cost £2 or £3, thanks to the stallholder having little or no knowledge of what it was. The generator handle turned easily and the general condition was very good, which suggests it had seen little use and was one of the later models, probably dating from the early to mid 1960s. It is housed in a crack-free Bakelite case. This is a tough thermo-setting plastic that can survive all but heaviest drops and blows. It only required some light cleaning to get it into near showroom condition. Fortunately there’s very little to go wrong and after a little light lubrication it proved convincingly that it was still working by giving me a lively jolt, whilst poking around inside the case and unwisely giving the handle a few experimental turns…
What Happened To It?
The story begins in 1888 when Sidney Evershed and Ernest Vignoles were both working for Goolden and Trotter, a UK company making test equipment and dynamos for the telegraph and mining industries. Evershed was a talented engineer and responsible for many technical refinements. In 1895 Evershed teamed up with Ernest Vignoles, a director of Goolden and Trotter. Together they purchased the company’s instrument division to set up their own business, using their expertise and marketing savvy to make test instruments. Production of insulation testers started in 1903 and in the same year they registered the Megger name and trademark. Evershed and Vignoles made Meggers with hand generators until well into the 1980s. However, they kept up with developments in technology and in the early 1960s were one of the first to market a battery powered Megger, using a transistorised high voltage generator.
Over the years ownership of the company changed several times, most recently in 1986 when it was acquired by AVO. They were then, and still are, a leading maker of test instruments and shortly after the buy-out they re-branded themselves as Megger Instruments Ltd. High performance insulation test instruments still feature prominently in the company’s extensive product range.
Aside from a small number of specialist collectors, workaday test instruments – in their original state – tend to attract little interest, but there are exceptions. Vintage test instruments, especially if they are in wooden cases and have lots of shiny brass fittings and trim, are popular. Sadly a lot of them are ‘up-cycled’ into daft looking table lamps, or worse still, stripped of parts for Steam Punk contraptions. Series 3 Meggers are somewhat dull looking and until now have largely escaped this terrible fate. They were made in quite large numbers and at the time of writing (mid 2021) there is usually half a dozen or more of them on ebay at any one time, typically selling for between £10 and £30, depending on the condition. I have, however seen several half hearted table lamp conversions using a series 3, but it’s not a pretty sight. Nevertheless makers and sellers seem pleased with their efforts and clearly feel they are worthy works of art. One example I spotted at a large Midlands antique fair recently, had a £120 price tag…
First Seen: 1932
Original Price: £?
Value Today: £20 (0621)
Features: Hand-cranked DC generator with centrifugal clutch speed governor, 500 volts test supply, twin coil, moving coil meter, zero to infinity logarithmic scale, spring terminals for test leads
Power req. Integral DC generator
Dimensions: 137 x 100 x 64mm
Made (assembled) in: England
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest) 6
DP-75 Cold War Geiger Counter, 1980
Anyone interested in vintage Geiger counters will probably be aware of the hugely popular and very capable DP-66, manufactured in Poland and issued to Polish military during the 1970s. Like the iconic US Civil Defense CDV-700 series, British PDRM-82 and Contamination Meter No 1 it was a product of the Cold War and made in large numbers. In the early noughties the DP-66 was decommissioned and good many of them found their way onto ebay. Thanks to their sensitivity, versatility and very attractive price they sold in their thousands. Nowadays they're getting harder to come by and prices have soared. Clearly that's not the end of the story, though, and since 2018 stocks of the DP-75, the DP-66's replacement, have been coming onto the market, and by all accounts, selling well.
Outwardly the DP-66 and DP-75 appear similar; even the probes look alike but these are two very different animals. The more obvious parallels include heavy-duty brown thermo-setting plastic cases - the DP-75's is slightly larger -- with top-mounted controls and backlit, luminous analogue meters. They both have on-board chargers for DKP-50 pen dosimeters, and the multi-purpose probes have opening metal shields - to discriminate between beta and gamma radiation -- plus the option to attach it to a long telescopic handle. That's for getting the probe close to the ground -- like a metal detector -- and to help keep users a little further away from dangerously 'lively' sources of radioactivity.
The 75 has the same 6-step sensitivity control but the maximum reading is two and a half times higher that of the 66; we'll come back to that shortly. Both models are powered by three ordinary 1.5-volt D cells that can last for months, even with regular use. Thankfully the DP-75 does not come with the 66's near lethal mains adaptor, instead there's a pair of sockets for an external DC supply. As this unit operates over a range of 10 to 27 volts, it could be a handy post-apocalypse bonus ensuring that it can be powered, from a wide variety of sources, when eventually the supply of D cells runs out.
However, under the bonnet there are considerable differences between the two and the 75 is effectively a new design. The circuit boards retain a few elements of the older model but it uses hardy silicon transistors, instead of the more delicate germanium types found in the 66. Other components have also been upgraded with newer and more reliable types, not that the DP-66 had a poor record in this respect. The 75's probe has two instead of three Geiger Müller (GM) detection tubes and an alarm feature. This sounds an audible warning in the supplied earpiece and illuminates the meter face if the radiation level rises above one of the 5 pre-set levels. Most of the changes sound like improvements, and they might well have been, in the aftermath of a nuclear war, but it has meant that several features, which made the DP-66 so attractive to enthusiasts and urban prospectors, have been sacrificed.
The smaller of the two GM tubes (DO-180) used in the 75's probe is designed for significantly high levels of radiation (0.5 to 500 Roentgen/hr), up to and well past lethal levels. This compares with the 66, which had an upper limit of 200R/h. What makes the DP-66 so useful in Civvy Street is that one of its three GM tubes is a Russian SBM-20, which does all of the hard work on the highest sensitivity setting. In the 75 just one tube, a DO-130, covers the low level ranges. It is around half the size of the SBM-20, and they are both beta and gamma sensitive. The DO-130 even looks a bit like a miniature SBM-20, which it actually is. However, in the business of detecting radioactivity size can be very important - the bigger the surface of a detector the more radioactive particles it will interact with. So it follows that the 75's 'low range' tube is not as sensitive as its predecessor. Put simply the DP-66 and DP-75's abilities have been reversed. The DP-75 is measurably better at detecting moderate to deadly fry-your-bits levels of Gamma radiation. On the downside it is only around a third to a half as sensitive to low levels of both naturally occurring and man-made Beta and Gamma radiation. This also happens to be the main area of interest to antique collectors, rock hounds, experimenters, environmentalists, nuclear enthusiasts and urban prospectors.
It gets worse. The audio port on the DP-66 produced a healthy 'click', which could be heard through a supplied earphone or, using a simple adaptor, connected to conventional headphones, a 'sounder' module or a PC running logging or counter software. The DP-75 has the same 2-pin audio port but it has been repurposed. It's primarily there for the new alarm feature, which sounds a loud tone in the earphone whenever the radioactivity level exceeds one of the six pre-set thresholds. Faint clicks are just about audible in the background, but only on the very highest sensitivity settings, and only if there's little or no ambient noise. My theory is the designers took a decision to simplify operation for troops, not well versed in the subtleties of radioactivity detection and measurement, and to avoid potentially deadly misunderstandings. They're almost inevitable with personnel taking readings on a difficult to interpret meter. This would be in a high pressure and potentially extremely dangerous situation, dressed in full combat gear or a restrictive NBC (nuclear, biological chemical) protection suit. Giving the instrument a simple and unambiguous alarm function that leaves nothing to chance now makes a lot of sense. Audible clicks may have been considered distracting as well, so the big reduction in volume probably wasn't a concern.
Together, the changes to the probe and the alarm function make the DP-75 a less attractive proposition for some users. To be fair it is still tough and reliable, and very easy to use, with just a small handful of controls. That's just as well as they're labelled in Polish, but it doesn't take long to figure out that the two control knobs on the left are for selecting the meter/sensitivity range, and setting the alarm level (and battery check). There are two buttons, for zeroing the meter and operating the meter's backlight. The small knob on the right is for zeroing the reading on a pen dosimeter.
The DP-75 you see here came from ebay's leading seller of Polish radiation meters (and lots of other interesting ex-military stuff besides). After a good clean up it proved to be in tip-top condition and everything works, as it should. Apart from filling a gap in my collection of vintage Cold War Geiger Counters it also served as a test bed for a plug-in sounder module that I have been developing. I hoped it would overcome the earphone volume problem; it was originally developed for the speakerless CDV-700 Geiger counters and successfully adapted for the DP-66 (shameless plug, they're both available for sale on our sister site, anythingradioactive.com). Sadly it couldn't be persuaded to work on the 75, at least not economically or without modifying the Geiger Counter's internal circuitry. This would have required the user to take their DP-75 apart and solder components and connections in some very confined spaces.
What Happened To It?
The Cold War never really ended, nor has the real or perceived threat from thermo-nuclear weapons and 'dirty' bombs disappeared so there will always be a steady supply of decommissioned and ex-military radioactivity measuring and monitoring instruments. The problem with that is as they become more sophisticated, and targeted at detecting the very high levels they become less useful to amateurs, enthusiasts and experimenters. Many of them are actually completely useless without the highly specialised data readers, cables and software needed to use them. Between the late 60s and the mid 80s was a golden age for genuinely useful old-school Geiger Counters that could be bought cheaply and easily maintained and repaired, without specialist knowledge or (probably classified) test equipment. The DP-75 was one of the last of that generation of instruments and although it wasn't a classic, and a step backwards from its predecessor - in a civilian role - it is still a lot of Geiger Counter for your money. I wouldn't discount the possibility of significantly increasing its sensitivity with a simple GM tube swap, though this is on the rainy day to-do list. Even in its unmodified state it might also make a modestly successful investment -- if the current price of DP-66's is anything to go by. Worst case, it's still a handy survival took, at least for as long as nuclear warfare and terrorism remain a potential threat, which looks like being a very long time...
First Seen: 1980
Original Price: £?
Value Today: £150.00 (1120)
Features: 2-tube Geiger counter (D01-30 & D01-80), Beta & Gamma sensitivity 0.5 mR/h - 500R/hr (6 ranges) rotating Beta shield, audible alarm function (5-preset levels), built-in charger for DKP-50 type pen dosimeter, luminous & backlit meter scale, meter/reading zero, magnetic earphone output, external DC supply sockets (10 - 27 volts)
Power req. 3 x 1.5 volt D cells
Dimensions: 205 x 110 x 100mm
Made (assembled) in: Poland
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest) 4
Metrohm 981 Intrinsically Safe Test Meter, 1970?
Labelling a product as ‘Intrinsically Safe’ sounds quite reassuring. It suggests that the item in question probably doesn’t have any sharp edges, is
unlikely to give you a shock or be a choking hazard for infants. In the highly dangerous business of mining, and allied trades (petrochemical refining, processing, and so on), it has a very different and much more precise meaning. Basically it’s a guarantee that a piece of equipment is incapable of producing enough heat or electrical energy to ignite volatile chemicals, vapours and gasses. In other words, the last thing you need when servicing or fault-finding electrical stuff in a coal mine filled with explosive gasses, is a test instrument that produces sparks…
That’s one of the key features of the Edgcumb Metrohm 981. Although it looks a lot like a regular multimeter, it is not, and in the trade it is more widely referred to as a ‘megger’*. This one has been around for a while, since the mid to late sixties, and was designed to do just one thing and that’s measure electrical resistance. (It measures voltages as well but that’s very much a secondary feature). More specifically it is for testing the electrical insulation in cables and inside devices, which means it has to be able to read high values of resistance from thousands to millions of ohms.
If you’re familiar with modern multimeters, that may not sound like an especially challenging task. Even the cheapest models can measure resistance, but in general they do so by sending just a few volts through a circuit. That’s fine for checking cables and devices that operate at low voltages but when it comes to checking insulation in mains-powered and high voltage circuits you need something with a bit more oomph. That is why the Metrohm 981 can do resistance checks by passing up to 500 volts through cables or circuits. If an insulator has failed or is in the process of breaking down it might not show up on a low voltage resistance check, whereas the 500 or more volts from a typical megger is more likely to expose potential faults.
The use of this Metrohm 981 in mines is in no doubt as the meter is clearly labelled ‘Property of N.C.B.’ That’s the National Coal Board, the organisation responsible for running coalmines in the UK since 1947. It was privatised and renamed the British Coal Corporation in 1987. The design has changed little since it first appeared and there are only two controls. The rotary switch is for selecting the function: resistance (mega ohms, kilo ohms and ohms) AC and DC voltage (3 – 9 volts) and Battery Check. Above that is a spring-loaded rocker switch for selecting the resistance range and battery check modes. The reason for this apparently unnecessary additional switch is a safety feature. It's a bit like the 'dead man's handle' in locomotive cabs. It ensures that readings can only be taken when the appropriate rocker button is pressed, so if the equipment was accidentally switched back on, with the meter leads still attached, it wouldn’t burst into flames and produce lots of very unhelpful sparks. On the top of the case there are two pairs of red and black sockets for the test leads. The ones on the left are for ohms and kilo ohms resistance and voltage measurement and the ones on the right are for the 500-volt mega ohm test range. The meter has three resistance scales and a small colour-coded band for battery check and indicating 3 – 9 volts.
The sturdy plastic case is the first line of defence against sparks escaping the instrument, with strong internal seals surrounding the battery compartment, meter movement and test cable sockets. It also comes with a hard carry-case that protects the meter from the inevitable bashing it will get in coalmines. The 500-volt supply for the mega ohm test is generated by a simple one transistor blocking oscillator circuit, which makes a high-pitched whine that also helps to confirm it is working. 500 volts sounds like a lot, and it is enough to give you a bit of a nip if you’re careless with the test leads, but the current is very low, in the order of a few milliamps and not capable of making sparks, even if you touch the leads together as doing so instantly shuts down the inverter.
How this one came to be at a Surrey car boot sale in 2018, or thereabouts, is a bit of a mystery. Normally I don’t give test meters more than a second glance, unless they are clearly old or very specialised, but the NCB label on this one caught my eye. The seller had no idea where it came from, what it was for or if it worked and happily accepted my generous offer of 50 pence for it. From the outside it looked like it had been well used but the hard carry case had kept it safe and the overall condition was quite good. The meter’s needle moved freely, there were no signs of corrosion so the fifty pee I paid wasn’t much of a gamble. Worst case, it might yield a few vintage spare parts. It turned out to be in working order and, with a bit of tweaking of the calibration pots inside the case, reasonably accurate as well. It only needed a clean up to make it presentable and on a few occasions has turned out to be quite useful. Given that the design has changed little over the years it is difficult to be precise about the manufacturing date but the NCB marking and components used strongly suggest this one hails from the early seventies.
What Happened To It?
*Megger is actually the name of one of the companies that developed the earliest insulation testers; it was registered back in 1903, and they are still in business. Meggers, in the wider, generic sense, continue to be a must-have instrument for electrical engineers and the modern and outwardly unchanged descendents of the Metrohm 981 are still with us. Edgcumbe, the company responsible for the original design was founded in 1900 and following a series of takeovers and buyouts Metrohm branded test instruments are still being made.
Although most UK coalmines were closed in the 1980s the need for test meters like this one in other areas of industry has never gone away. Until recently NCB labelled Metrohm meters rarely found their way on to the second hand market but within the last year or so there’s been a steady stream of them appearing on ebay, suggesting someone somewhere has been having a clearout. Usually this results in fairly settled pricing, but a quick trawl through the online listings shows prices, for this particular NCB model, ranging from a reasonable £10 to a ridiculous £150. Vintage meggers from the 1960s onwards, even ones with Coal Board associations, are not especially rare or exciting. Even if you want one to use you won’t have to spend a fortune -- £20 to £50, say -- and the 981 is still a very useable instrument.
There is, however a collector’s market for the really old ones. It is a very different ball game and not unknown for wooden-cased examples from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, especially if they have shiny brass fittings and a winding handle, to change hands for hundreds of pounds.
First Seen: 1970?
Original Price: £?
Value Today: £10.00 (1120)
Features: Electrical insulation & voltage tester, kilo & mega ohm resistance ranges, low and high voltage (500 volts) test modes, AC/DC low voltage check, battery check, intrinsically safe operation, hard carry-case
Power req. 1 x 9-volt PP3 type battery
Dimensions: 130 x 84 x 60mm
Made (assembled) in: Edgcumb, Glasgow
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest) 6
Nuclear Enterprises Ratemeter RM5/1, 1980
It is tempting, but technically incorrect, to call this Nuclear Enterprises RM5/1 a Geiger Counter. It’s not but confusingly, that is what the one in the photo has become because it is connected to a probe (similar vintage to the RM5/1) that uses a Geiger Müller tube to detect radioactivity. Don’t worry it’s just another one of the many quirks and foibles of the nuclear radiation business. The RM5/1 is actually a Ratemeter and what makes it that, rather than a plain old Geiger Counter, is down to several useful features.
The first one is the socket on the front of the case. It’s for the a probe, which can be one of several types, including the Geiger probe shown – as well as other types, which we will come to in a moment. The next most important features are the preset control, marked ‘SET EHT’ (Extra High Tension or just HT) to the right of the main function knob on the top of the case. This adjusts the high voltage supply, to the probe, which significantly varies from one type to another. The useful voltage range is between 300 and around 1400 volts, which covers the vast majority of probes. Variable HT is actually a fairly common feature on Geiger counters and ratemeters but usually its hidden away, inside the case or only adjustable in software. Either way this usually means having to connect the instrument concerned up to a specialised voltmeter or a computer, which is a bit of a faff. Which brings us to another pair of handy features, and they are the EHT position on the main function control knob and the big meter. When the switch is in that mode the voltage output can be set using the meter’s inner red scale. It’s a bit rough and ready but accurate enough for most probes, which generally operate over a comparatively wide voltage range.
This combination of features makes probe switching a really quick and simple operation. It greatly increases the instruments flexibility, especially in the field, which helped to make the RM5/1 a popular choice in research, industry and medicine throughout the 80s and 90s. Radiation probes are typically designed to be responsive to one particular or a range of different types of ionising radiation. The three basic flavours are Alpha, Beta and Gamma and X-Ray (the last two are closely related) – there are other varieties but they are beyond the scope of the RM5/1.
Time for quick and dirty guide to common probe types. On paper Alpha radiation appears to be quite weak as it doesn’t travel more than a few centimetres through the air and can be blocked by a thin sheet of paper. This makes it quite difficult to detect, especially if you are not looking for it, or unaware that it is there. Although Alpha radiation cannot penetrate skin to any significant depth, it can do terrible damage to cells and organs if it gets inside the body, as the Litvinenko Polonium poisoning case in 2006 tragically proved. The most common type of Alpha sensitive probe is a modified Geiger Müller tube, sometimes called a ‘pancake’ (they tend to be flat and round), with a thin ‘window’ at one end made of the mineral Mica. This allows the Alpha particles to pass through, but prevents gasses inside from leaking out. General-purpose probes – like the 1257 C in the photo, have Geiger Müller tubes made of glass or metal. They cannot detect Alpha radiation but they are sensitive to Beta, Gamma and X-Ray radiation. This particular probe also has a sliding metal shield that covers the tube. The idea is it blocks Beta radiation so it can discriminate between the two types. The third class of probe is a Scintillation detector. Inside the probe there’s a detector ‘crystal’ (made of organic compounds or a special plastic). It emits weak flashes of light when exposed to Gamma radiation. The crystal is mounted on the face of a photomultiplier tube, which amplifies the flashes to produce the pulses that a ratemeter like the RM5/1 can measures or display on its meter. Incidentally, Scintillation probes can also be used to identify radioactive isotopes from the brightness and duration of the flashes, though this requires rather more sophisticated equipment.
Back now to a roundup of the rest of the RM5/1’s more notable features, starting with the meter. It is in unusual in that the moving pointer or needle travels through 270 degrees, which means the scale is significantly longer than most ordinary panel meters, which typically have 90-degree scales. The numbers on the scale, showing counts per second (CPS), increase logarithmically. This eliminates the need for a range switch and it can show readings, with reasonable accuracy, from just a few CPS right up to a rather scary sounding 5000 CPS. The upper end of the scale is mainly for the benefit of pancake and scintillation probes, which can be super-sensitive and might easily wrap the meter pointer around the end stop on instruments without a range switch or log-scale. It has a built-in ‘clicker’, heard through a small loudspeaker mounted on the front of the case. This can be muted from a switch to the left of the main function knob. It is powered by a pair of 1.5-volt D cells that should last weeks or months, even with regular use, and these live under the carry handle, which is held in place by four screws.
I have had this RM5/1 for several years, a swapsie for another instrument with a fellow rad enthusiast. At the time they were regarded as quite exotic and rarely seen outside of the usual industrial and scientific settings. It was in pretty good shape, in good working order and all it needed to make it presentable for this piece was a circuit check and quick wipe over. The RM5/1 first appeared in the early 1980s and even back then it was a fairly basic design. It uses only discrete components, there are no microchips and the large circuit board has wire-wrapped connections and a super neat, laced wiring loom. It is the kind of hand-assembled construction that harks back to an earlier age where money was no object and ruggedness and reliability were the prime considerations. And that is how it should be, considering that it was designed to be used in safety critical applications. The lower part of the case is the RM5/1’s only weakness. The plastic is a bit thin around the corners, which makes it prone to cracking if it is dropped or roughly handled roughly.
What Happened To It?
There’s a potted history of Nuclear Enterprises in the write up for one of its close cousins, the PDM1 Doserate meter. Suffice it to say that after numerous takeovers and mergers the brand is no more. At the time this instrument first appeared NE was doing well as a major supplier of radioactivity monitoring and measuring equipment to government and the nuclear industry. But even in its heyday, in the eighties and early nineties, the RM5/1 was starting to look a tad dated, compared with what was coming onto the market from other companies around the world. Nevertheless, because they were so reliable and simple to use many of them continued to earn their keep well into the noughties and were only replaced when they became uneconomic to maintain and cheaper and more sophisticated instruments became available. In the past couple of years hundreds of them have been decommissioned and inevitably a fair few ended up on ebay.
At the time of writing (Autumn 2020) there were a dozen or more for sale, ranging in price from £10 to £50. Buying one not listed as working could be a gamble, however. Most are labelled as untested and sold without probes but if you are feeling lucky, have a spare probe handy, a good working knowledge of electronics, a circuit diagram and some basic test equipment you should be able to track down most faults. Most parts are readily available, and even tricky items, like the bespoke meter and transformers, might be salvaged from cheap basket cases.
First Seen: 1980
Original Price: £?
Value Today: £25 (1020)
Features: Variable HT (0 - 1.4kV. voltage scale on meter), logarithmically scaled meter (CPS), GM tube and Scintillation inputs, battery check (on meter), built in ‘click’ sounder with mute, PET probe connector, built in carry handle
Power req. 2 x 1.5 volt D cells
Dimensions: 240 x 115 x 120mm
Made (assembled) in: Britain
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest) 5
Mini Z Electro Thermometer, 1980?
Dating the many and various items of vintage technology that appear in dustygizmos can be a challenge. Mostly, though it’s fairly easy, thanks to date stamps on mouldings, quality control or test stickers. Some helpful manufacturers put publication dates on instruction and service manuals and a fair few companies oblige with online archives or virtual museums. The first appearance of a popular consumer product can often be pinpointed by searching through contemporary magazines and publications for reviews or adverts. Otherwise it’s down to old-fashioned detective work. The Internet is a goldmine of information, teeming with discussion forums and technical data sheets that show precisely when a particular electronic component or device first went into production. Then there is past experience, comparing designs, styles and manufacturing techniques with products of known provenance. Even in a worst case scenario it’s usually possible to make an educated guess and narrow the date to plus or minus a couple of years, but every so often something comes along that just refuses to divulge its age.
It’s not that the Mini Z Electro Thermometer has no clues to its origins, quite the opposite in fact. There are several, some of them contradictory, but for the moment we’ll stick with my first impression that it hails from Japan and was made sometime between 1975 and 1985, or maybe later, or earlier…
No prizes for guessing what it is for, though. It’s all in the name but the precise nature of the item or substance it was designed to measure the temperature of is harder to determine. The remote probe is clearly meant to be inserted into a relatively soft material – the end of the probe is only lightly rounded, not pointed – so it would appear to be something to do with food, but the temperature range is curiously narrow. General-purpose food thermometers typically cover the coldest to the hottest temperatures that cooks are likely to encounter in the kitchen or on a BBQ, which can be from –30 to 300 degrees Centigrade. The Mini Z goes covers only -5 to 105 C, which limits its usefulness for many common cooking procedures or checking the safety of frozen foods and freezers. None of that stops it being a food thermometer but it does suggest that it is meant for a fairly specialist application. Checking food has been properly cooked or stored springs to mind, but the cramped meter scale just isn’t good enough to display temperatures to within the plus or minus 1 – 2 degrees required for food safety. And to be kind it also looks and feels a bit cheap and cheerful, not the sort of thing you would expect to find in a professional kitchen or used in an industrial process, where accuracy and reliability are vitally important.
On the plus side it is simple to use. It’s calibrated with the probe disconnected, by pressing the on button and rotating the silver knob until the meter reads zero. The probe plugs into a jack socket on the top and it’s ready to go. Readings are taken by inserting the probe into the item to be measured. Press the white button on the front panel and wait a few moments for the meter needle to stop moving. The meter has a mirror-scale, which does help improve accuracy and consistency of readings. The idea is to line up the needle with its reflection at which point you know are looking directly at it, even so the fine graduations on the dial scale would still make it almost impossible to say with any real certainly that a reading was within +/- 5 degrees.
Power comes from a pair of AA batteries, clipped into a holder inside the unit. There is almost nothing to go wrong, apart from the actual meter as the circuit board contains only passive components, which also suggests that accuracy is limited. There’s a handful of ordinary carbon resistors (all preferred values, 1 and 5 percent tolerances) and a thermistor (a resistor that changes resistance according to ambient temperature), presumably to compensate for changes in ambient temperature.
There’s not much to say about the Mini Z’s back story prior to it coming into my possession. I found it at a local car boot sale. It was on a stall where everything costs one pound and no haggling was involved. It was a bit grubby but nothing a damp cloth couldn’t handle, and it worked. It even came with (most) of its original carry case – the cover was missing – and a short printed note from the manufacturer informing the owner that it left the factory in perfect condition and suggesting to always check that the correct range has been selected, which is a bit strange as it only has the one…
What Happened To It?
And so to the dating game. One of my first thoughts, and one I keep coming back to, namely the 1975 to 85-ish vintage, was based on the font used on the front panel. It’s the all-time classic Data 70, the painfully trendy typeface created in 1970 (hence the name). Anyone around at the time may recall that it was liberally plastered on everything and anything considered even vaguely futuristic, until it became a byword for naff, some time around the mid eighties. The next clue was the meter. By the late 80s LED and LCDs had all but taken over the job of displaying numerals on measuring instruments. It was a job they both did extremely well, almost completely eliminating the potential for reading errors that are common an analogue meters. The plastic enclosure is a classic 80s design, in fact it looks like an off-cut from the moulding machine used to make cases for first generation video games. Finally there is the Mini Z brand, and what may be a manufacturer’s name, Hokuto, which appears on the back of the circuit board. The only web references to Mini Z I could find were confined to recently made Japanese radio control cars. Hokotu is also the name of several Japanese Manga and Anime characters and a train line in the city of Hokkaido. This suggests that the company and/or the brand behind the Electro Thermometer may not have lasted very long and didn’t make much of an impression. It’s rare not to find at least one mention of a product, even if it was just a photo, but for once there was nothing, a complete zilch!
You can take it as read that probe-type thermometers haven’t gone away. There are hundreds, if not thousands of them to choose from and apart from the mechanical types, which use bi-metallic strips to turn the needle on a dial, digital displays prevail. This may even have been the reason for the Mini- Z/Hokuto’s demise and they simply didn’t move with the times. It’s all speculation, though, but as far as I am aware this is the only one in captivity and as such must be worth, if not a small fortune then more than the £1.00 I paid for it; possibly as much as a £2.00 to the right buyer. It will probably be a while before it achieves cult or collectible status but I can wait. More importantly, someone somewhere went to the trouble of designing and manufacturing this instrument and it would be a great shame for it to disappear without trace. So now, at long last, it has a presence -- albeit a very tiny one -- on the Internet.
First Seen: 1980?
Original Price: £?
Value Today: £2.00 (0219)
Features Probe type thermometer, -5 to 105 degrees centigrade measuring range, remote thermocouple type probe
Power req. 2 x 1.5 volt AA cells
Dimensions (headphones): 145 x 90 x 40mm
Made (assembled) in: Japan
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest) 5
British Gas Mark 2 Multimeter, 1984
You can tell straight away that the British Gas Mark 2 Multimeter is a no-nonsense test instrument, designed to assist British Gas engineers fix gas thingummyjigs. To be precise it only tests the electrical bits and bobs inside gas appliances, like boilers, electrically operated valves, circulation pumps and so on, but you get the idea. However, what sets it apart from a run of the mill multimeter is that in addition to basic electrical measurements, like voltage, current and resistance, it has dedicated settings for checking thermocouples, temperature sensors and exotic-sounding things called Flame Failure and Rectification Devices.
It helps to have qualifications in gas engineering, or at the very least an operating manual, to fully understand its specialist features. I have none of those so apologies to those in the gas-biz for mistakes, wonky explanations and missing anything out but there are a couple of things I can say with some certainty. Firstly it was made in England by GEC, and it dates from 1984 or thereabouts. That snippet of information is courtesy of a factory calibration sticker, signed by ‘JW’ in August of that year.
It looks a lot like a typical multimeter but closer inspection of the labelling around the large rotary range selector knob on the front panel reveals some of its special talents. The meter’s measurement ranges appear to be optimised for the sort of voltages, currents and resistances engineers are likely to encounter in the course of their work. For example, it measures AC/DC voltages from 30 to 60 millivolts (in two steps, for testing thermocouples) and 3 to 300 volts, in three steps, covering control circuitry and mains supply. Regular multimeters typically have wider range divisions and go up to 1000 volts (1kv) and beyond. There are high voltages knocking around inside boilers and cookers, several kilovolts in fact, for spark ignition systems etc, but I guess you don’t need a meter to see if they are working or not… The current range is also quite narrow, from 3 to 600 microamps in 4 steps, which seems to be associated with checking those mystifying Flame Failure and Rectification devices. It has three resistance ranges, two for 0 to 1000 and 0 to 1 million ohms, the third one is a simple continuity checker with a built in buzzer.
There are only two other controls; a push-button for testing the meter’s internal batteries (one 1.5 volt AA cell and one 9v PP3 type battery), and a rotary control for selecting AC/DC ranges, and zeroing the resistance range. Readings are shown on multiple scales on the face of the moving coil meter and there are three LED indicators for fuse failure, overload and AC range selection. There’s one more significant difference to conventional multimeters and that’s the multi-pin probe socket; conventional meters usually have two or three individual lead sockets. This layout was probably chosen to make it easier to connect specialised test rigs, like the one for thermocouples, which came with the meter, still sealed in its original plastic bag; I presume this was a standard accessory with this instrument.
The single AA cell and PP3 battery live in a compartment on the rear of the case. It came with a custom hard carry-case and this looks like it may have been fitted with compartments for the meter and accessories. There’s also a mystery object inside the case. Bolted to the inside there’s a rectangular plastic box designed to hold four 9-volt PP3 batteries. They are connected together in series with three shorting clips, giving a total of 36 volts. A pair of holes at either end of the case allows access to the battery connectors. I have absolutely no idea what this is for but I can take a couple of wild guesses. Maybe it is meant to power another test rig or instrument that either came with the Mark 2 as standard or was an optional extra. Perhaps the 36-volt output is significant? Could it be some sort of reference or a standard supply voltage for boiler control boxes? It’s obvious I haven’t the foggiest, and I cannot find anything about it on the web so if anyone can enlighten me I would be very interested to hear from you.
Inside the meter case there’s a single PCB populated with what looks like fairly standard electronic components. Again this is different to most other analogue multimeters, which tend to be stuffed full of large precision resistors, capable of dealing with hefty currents and high voltages. The only heavy-duty component in the Mark 2 is a BUX82 power transistor, and instead of precision resistors there are a couple of op-amp chips and a handful of miniature multi-turn calibration potentiometers. Front-line overload protection is provided by a cutout relay and last line defence against cack-handed users is a small fuse. It has been very well built, as befits a professional test instrument that needs to be accurate and reliable, and can expect to lead a fairly tough life in the field.
This Mk 2 caught my eye at a small local antique fair. It looked completely out of place in amongst several cardboard boxes full of random and mostly nasty knick-knacks and china cats. This often indicates that the seller isn’t a specialist in the sort of things I’m interested in. It was probably part of a job-lot house clearance and bodes well for a haggle. It looked like it had seen the insides of a fair few boiler installations, and given that there wasn’t much chance of testing it the seller’s initial price of £5.00 sounded a tad optimistic. He obviously thought so too and happily accepted my counter offer of £2.00.
The multiple layers of grime and that special type of greasy gunk you only find in gas appliances came off fairly easily, leaving it looking almost like new. I wasn’t too surprised to find that it was lifeless. Well, that’s not strictly true, the battery check function worked, which was very good news and indicated that the meter movement, at least, was okay. Being largely electronic in nature I feared something nasty in the microchip and transistor department but luckily my old fault-finding skills, and knowledge gleaned from a great many mistakes kicked in. Checking the bleeding-obvious first is always a good idea, so before I got down and dirty with my own test instruments and a soldering iron I did a continuity check the probe leads. Bingo! The red lead was open circuit at the probe end and I had it fixed inside ten minutes. All functions worked, even the buzzer, though judging by the sad little noise it made at first suggested it hadn’t been used for years. After a few seconds it perked up and in no time at all it was on full song.
What Happened To It?
Gas engineers still need test instruments but modern day central heating boilers and appliances are a good deal more sophisticated than those from the 1980s. Analogue meters like this Mark 2 simply aren’t equipped to deal with complex digital circuitry, fancy transducers and all the other gubbins they use nowadays. Even so it probably saw active service well into the nineties and it wouldn’t surprise me if a few of them were still in regular use. Specialist test instruments, especially comparatively recent ones like the Mark 2, tend to excite little interest and have next to no value as collectables outside of the very small band of gadget enthusiasts. This one is still useable as a basic multimeter and the handful that have sold on ebay recently went for between £10 and £15, so they’re not completely worthless. On the other hand vintage test instruments and scientific apparatus made before 1950-ish, especially large items that involve a lot of brass, Bakelite, wood and glass, can have a lot of appeal. Sadly a lot of them end up being converted into Steampunk table lamps but there’s little chance of this one getting a funky retro-style makeover, now or in the foreseeable.
First seen: 1984
Original Price: £?
Value Today: £15.00 (0318)
Features: AC/DC voltages: 30 & 60mV, 3, 30 & 300 volts; AC/DC current: 3, 30, 300 & 600 microamps; Resistance: ohms, x1 & x1k, batter test (1.5 v & 9v), Overload Test, Temperature, zero ohms, LED indicators (fuse, overload AC range). Probe leads (point, crocodile & long reach) thermocouple test jig, custom hard carry case
Power req. 1 x 1.5v AA cell, 1 x 9v PP3 battery
Dimensions: 144 x 94 x 58mm
Made (assembled) in: England
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest) 5
G & E Bradley CT471C Electronic Multimeter, 1964
Military equipment is generally built to a much higher specification than similar or equivalent civilian hardware; and that is as it should be, but what happens when things go wrong? Sending a broken MK III Whizwang to the nearest service centre or back to the manufacturer may not be an option in the heat of battle, so most repair jobs have to be done in the field, or in-house, as it were. That means that the majority of the gear used to maintain and fix busted kit also has to be made of sterner stuff, like this military grade test instrument. It’s an Electronic Multimeter Type CT471C, made by G & E Bradley back in the early to mid 1960s and apparently it was reliable enough to still be in use up until the early noughties. The basic specification is not that different to the sort of ‘professional’ multimeters used in the electronics industry, like the classic AVO 8, but you only have to feel the weight, and take a peek inside to see that it is probably quite capable of surviving the blast from a small atomic bomb.
Considering that it was designed to measure relatively straightforward things, like AC and DC voltage and current, resistance and RF voltages, it is surprisingly complex. Most analogue multimeters made up until the late 90s managed to get by with just a high quality meter movement, a few precision resistors and a battery. In contrast the CT4716C is stuffed full of electronic circuits involving a score or more transistors, and dozens of electronic components. The real difference, though, between the CT471C and a regular multimeter, is the range and accuracy of measurements, which is necessary when it may be called upon to fault find anything from the final output stage of a piece of complex communications equipment to fixing a headlight on a 10 ton truck. To make sure it survives the rigours of life in the armed forces everything about the CT471C is deliberately over engineered, with the circuit boards mounted in a sturdy metal chassis and housing it inside a tough, water-resistant alloy case.
If you’re of a technical bent please read on, otherwise you’re excused this paragraph. The meter’s circuitry is split into three basic sections: a precision ‘chopper’ power supply, an attenuator network and an amplifier. The power supply drives the various circuits and guarantees that drive voltages, derived from three 1.5 volt D cells housed in a compartment on the back of the case, remain constant, as the battery runs down. It also compensates for variations in temperature, so that readings are always as accurate as possible. The Attenuator Network is built around the cluster of range switches and resistors. It’s designed to adjust incoming voltages and signals so that they are at the correct or safe level for processing by the amplifier. The Amplifier’s job is to actively control the level of the voltages and signals, pass them through a series of filters and feedback loops to maintain accuracy and drive the front panel meter. Speaking of which, the meter is another very high quality and robust item with multiple scales and a curved mirror. Its job is also to ensure the accuracy and consistency of readings. It’s a clever idea and when you are looking directly at the meter – as you should, rather than off to one side, etc. – you won’t see the reflection of the needle in the mirror. Incidentally, this being the ‘C’ version of the CT471 means that it has a Centre Zero mode. This is a potentially useful feature when it comes to monitoring voltages and currents. Selecting the function puts the needle in the middle of the scale, representing a value of zero. Positive and negative values are therefore clearly shown by the direction the needle moves. Without it the user would have to constantly swap the leads around.
The meter’s capabilities for measuring RF signals can be further extended by fitting one of four probe adaptor modules to the test leads. These are normally stowed in the detachable lid, along with the probe leads. Sadly these were not included with this meter, which I found in another all too familiar muddy field at a local car boot sale. On the plus side the stallholder was only asking a couple of quid for it. This was about right for something that was only barely recognisable as a high quality test instrument through the crust of mud, and it came with no guarantee that it worked, which basically meant that it didn’t. However, I judged it worth a quick haggle. Even if it turned out to be a complete dud the meter and any salvageable components made the £1.50 I eventually ended up paying for it, a pretty good deal.
As expected it was completely dead and one of the reasons, at least, became apparent when I got it home and managed to extract the three long dead D cells. There had been some slight leakage from one of them but this was easily removed. After an extensive clean up operation, restoring it to its currently quite presentable state, and a set of new batteries, I was able to confirm that the battery check function and more importantly, the meter, were all okay. None of the measuring ranges worked but thanks to some online documentation I had a pretty fair idea of where to look for the problem(s). The power supply and amplifier mainly use germanium transistors and vintage semiconductors are notoriously delicate, so I wasn’t surprised to find at least three of them had popped their clogs, with two others way off tolerance and probably about to go the same way. Luckily they are mostly fairly common types and replacements and equivalents are readily available. So far I have managed to get the voltage and current ranges up and running. The resistance function is next on the list, as soon as I’ve had time to sort out some more vintage parts.
What Happened To It?
G & E Bradley Ltd seem to have vanished, almost without trace, but while they were in business they appear to have been a relatively prolific manufacturer of high quality measuring instruments. However, the trail goes cold in the mid 70s, so any additional info will be very welcome. Products like the CR417C were clearly built to demanding military standards but arguably over-qualified, and probably too expensive for the general electronics market, which may have led to their demise or takeover, at a time when cheaper test equipment was becoming available.
For some inexplicable reason collecting vintage test equipment hasn’t caught on, which is great news for weirdos like me, who find them endlessly fascinating. This lack of interest also means they can be found for ridiculously small amounts of money, especially when you consider how much they originally cost. I don’t have a price for the CT471C but I would be very surprised if it wasn’t a high three-figure sum, and back then cost was generally no object for the military. Vintage test equipment in good working order can also continue to be used, though this particular instrument has no special talents, that are not available on modern devices costing just a few pounds. It’s monetary value, therefore, is negligible, though it’s the sort of thing that could easily be up-cycled into a table lamp and sold in one of those trendy retro-kitsch shops for stupid money. Not this one, though, I am hanging on to it, confident that one day its true worth will be realised, though whether I will be around to cash in, is another matter…
First seen: 1964
Original Price: £?
Value Today: £5.00 (0218)
Features: Ranges: voltage 0 – 1200 VDC, 0 – 1200VAC (11 ranges); AC/DC current: 12uA – 1.2A (11 ranges); resistance 0.1 ohms – 1G ohm (5 ranges); RF voltage: 40mV – 4volts (5 ranges), centre zero, battery check, calibration check; sensitivity 10M – 120M/volt DC, 1M – 1.2M/volt AC: accuracy +/- 2 – 5 percent
Power req. 3 x 1.5 volt D cells
Dimensions: 250 x 205 x 145mm
Made (assembled) in: England
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest) 6
Runbaken Ardwick Battery Tester Type 172, 1960?
We like to think that our beloved motorcars are at the cutting edge of technology but most of the engineering and much of the technology is well over a hundred years old and one vital component goes back to 1859. It’s the lead acid battery, used to start the engine and in case you were thinking that electric vehicles are about to reset the clock, think again. Electric motors trace their origins back to 1821; development work on Lithium batteries began in 1912 and electric cars and trucks were a relatively common sight on the roads up until the 1920s when Henry Ford’s low cost production methods made them uneconomical.
Were it not for the unfortunate fact that lead acid batteries weigh so much electric cars might have made the internal combustion engine obsolete decades ago, and we would all be breathing a lot easier, but it looks like they’ll be with us for a while yet. What has changed, though, is the way lead acid batteries are used. Improvements in charging and monitoring systems and production methods means that they last a little longer these days but when eventually they fail to hold a useful charge they are replaced, but it wasn’t always that way.
In days gone by when a lead acid battery lost its Mojo there were all sorts of DIY tricks and snake oil remedies on sale that promised to extend their lives. Well-equipped garages could also save you a few bob with so-called rejuvenators and acid top-ups that sometimes gave a tired old battery a new lease of life. One of the first things a garage mechanic would do is check a suspect battery’s individual cells with an instrument like this Runbaken Ardwick Type 172 Battery Tester.
It is surprisingly simple. At the end of each ‘fork’ there’s a sharp metal spike. The two arms are separated by an insulator but connected together by the meter and a hefty heating element, housed in the black box just above the spikes. The idea is the two spikes are jabbed into the exposed terminals of each cell (they’re made of soft lead), and held in place for a few seconds. The heating element puts a very large load on the cell, potentially drawing up to 200 amps. The mechanic notes the voltage and current readings displayed on the meter, as well as the motion of the meter’s needle. All this tells an experienced user everything they need to know about the basic health of each cell, and whether or not there’s any chance of recovery. It’s a fairly brutal method, and far removed from today’s fancy digital diagnostics but in the right hands it did a thorough job, and it was quick; it had to be, if left connected for too long both the tester and the battery could be destroyed.
By the way, you may have noticed that in the photos the meter needle is shown in the middle of the scale. It is clearly not being used but it’s not a fault. The ‘centre zero’ meter is a design feature that means it doesn’t matter which way around it is connected to the cell under test; connecting a meter the ‘wrong’ way runs he risk of burning it out. This arrangement means that readings can be taken on the left or right hand sides of the scale. If you look closely you might also spot a small torch bulb in a wire cage, just below the handle. This illuminates the meter, which can be hard to read, especially at night or in a gloomy garage.
Like almost all professional grade tools it is built to a very high standard and designed to be used, and take a lot of abuse. It also has to withstand high temperatures, especially around the heating element. This is encased in a tough hard rubber material, and surrounded by asbestos insulation. The insulating pieces on this one looks a bit crusty and nowadays it would almost certainly be banned as a health hazard.
I found it in a box of rusty junk at a local car boot sale; the seller wanted to sell it as a job jot but seemed content with the 50 pence I offered for just the tester on its own. What caught my eye was the meter, which looked like a quality item and might, one day, come in handy for fixing up something else. However, by the time I stripped it down it was clear that the whole thing was in good shape and worth restoring. It didn’t need much work. All of the metal parts responded well to a rub sown with a fine wire brush and some metal polish. When I get a moment I will rub down, stain and polish the wooden handle. If I were of the arty retro steam punk persuasion I am pretty sure it could also be turned into a stylish table lamp.
What Happened To It?
Although lead acid batteries haven’t changed much in the past 150 plus years, hairy-chested testers like this one have become largely obsolete, and faulty batteries are simply not worth restoring. In any case modern car batteries are virtually untestable by instruments like this, as the individual cell terminals are no longer accessible. Sealed construction also discourages checking and replacing the liquid electrolyte.
This label on the front says this Ardwick Model 172 tester was made by Runbaken Electrical Products of Manchester. Founded in 1908 they started out making motorcycles and went on to become a fairly big name in the automotive and aeronautical industries, producing a wide range of electrical parts, coils, magnetos and so on, as well as test equipment, engravers and much more besides. Unfortunately I have been unable to find out much about the company’s history and what eventually became of them. Web references peter out on products made by them after 1963. That makes it difficult to accurately date this Ardwick 172 so I’ve taken a stab at 1960, and that’s mostly based on the materials used and things like the off-the-shelf bulb holder, which is a classic early late 50s early 60s design. As to its value, that’s anyone’s guess. Vintage battery testers on ebay are fairly common and I have seen similar ones selling for anything between £5.00 and £25, suggesting the collector’s market for this sort of thing is limited at the moment. Cleaned up it’s certainly quite presentable and it definitely has some decorative value. I suspect that once they start appearing on the walls of themed restaurants prices will skyrocket and fans of retro techno-chic will be happy to pay hundreds of pounds for one, probably…
First seen: 1960?
Original Price: £10?
Value Today: £10 (1017)
Features: centre-zero moving coil meter, 0 – 2.5 volts, 0 – 200 amps, cell charge/state, illuminator lamp
Power req. n/a (self powered)
Dimensions: 295 x 98 x 34mm
Made (assembled) in: England
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 6
Promax GV-298 TV Pattern Generator, 1990
You hardly ever see it these days but there was a time when the legendary Test Card F – see below, the one with the girl playing noughts and crosses on a blackboard -- was on television screens for more hours each day than the actual programmes. It was much more than just a station ident or placeholder filling the gaps between transmissions; that colourful image contained a number of important test patterns and signals that helped broadcast engineers check picture quality, and assist TV engineers with the alignment and repair of old-tyme analogue colour TVs. Here’s a couple of little known tidbits about Test Card F; the X on the blackboard is precisely in the middle of the picture and used for centring the image, and when it was first broadcast, in 1967, Test Card F was produced optically, from photographic slides, integrated into a colour TV picture tube; from 1984 onwards it was generated electronically.
Nowadays with 24/7 TV there’s little or no downtime for test cards, not that they are needed much anymore. Before digital TV arrived tellies were expensive and incredibly unreliable, and it was usually cheaper to get them repaired when they went wrong. Repairs to a modern digital TV can cost more than was originally paid for it so it’s often cheaper to buy a new one. Before digital TV arrived Test Card F was a useful tool, but the obvious problem was that it was only available at certain times. That is why this Promax GV-298 TV pattern generator, and devices like it, were must-have test instruments in service centres, and for the small army of now extinct engineers who made house calls. It produces many of the elements of Test Card F, needed for both fault-finding and alignment, and trust me, those old analogue TVs with CRT picture tubes needed a helluva lot of alignment…
The GV-298 is designed for bench use but its small enough to be used in the field. It generates 8 test patterns, though four of them are essentially single, screen-filling colours: red, blue, green and white. These are mostly used to check colour purity. In other words, a single colour is all that you should see on the screen. Typically any impurities or coloured patches indicate a processing or picture tube fault or more likely a build-up of magnetic fields inside a CRT picture tube. This happened all the time, some of due to the earth’s own magnetic field, but mostly it came from nearby devices, like loudspeakers and electrical appliances. Almost all CRT colour TVs had a built in ‘degauss coil’ to get rid of weak magnetic fields but if it failed, or the field was too strong, an engineer had to wave a large portable degauss coil over the front of the screen to disperse it.
The other four patterns are Crosshatch, Chequerboard, Dots and Colour Bars. Crosshatch and Dots come in handy for two notoriously tricky alignment procedures, known as convergence and linearity. The picture on a CRT is made up of three separate red, green and blue images, and they have to be very accurately aligned to get the whole range of visible colours. Controls inside the TV shift the RGB images up and down, and side to side and when they overlap perfectly (rarely achieved in practice…) the crosshatch and dots will appear white, with no colour fringing. Linearity is simply the shape of the picture so the aim is to twiddle internal controls to stretch and squeeze the image so the crosshatch squares and dots appear a uniform size, shape and they’re evenly spaced. These patterns are also a good check for picture focus. The chequerboard pattern is another good focus check and also handy for testing a TVs colour (chroma) and black and white (luminance) processing circuitry. The colour bars provide an accurate reference for colour and signal processing, synchronisation and a range of other analogue TV maladies.
The GV-328 has four outputs; the three BNC sockets and a 21 pin SCART socket, aka the infamous Euroconnector. Two BNCs on the front panel handle the standard CCIR PAL composite video signal output, and an RF modulated video signal, so it can be connected to a TV’s aerial socket – just like VCRs and TV games used to do. The third BNC is on the back panel and outputs a video synchronisation signal. This is used to trigger an oscilloscope, so the waveforms running around inside the TV can be more easily analysed. The SCART socket, also on the back panel, carries a composite video output, RGB video signals and a 1kHz tone, for testing a TV’s audio circuitry.
There is a small LCD display on the front, which shows the pattern selection code (A to H), and RF output channel and frequency. There’s also push-button switches for disabling the colour signal (chroma subcarrier), disabling the PAL R-Y signal (a check for colour processing circuitry), switching interlacing on and off, audio test tone, and two stages of attenuation for the RF output signal (20, 40 or 60dB). It is mains powered and the supply voltage can be set between 110 and 240 VAC using a selector switch built into the rear panel mains socket.
This one was one of ten (possibly more) on sale at a recent Sussex car boot sale and I’m guessing they came from a recently closed service centre. When new they would have cost the thick end of £800, possibly more; they all appeared to have been really well cared for and it came with the original manual and collecting leads, so I couldn’t resist and didn’t bother haggling over the £5.00 asking price. It could have been a gamble but my instincts were correct; it was little used and in good working order. After a quick clean up it looked like it had just emerged from its box.
What Happened To It?
Barcelona based Promax was set up in by electronics engineer Jose Clotet in 1963 and from day one the company developed radio and TV test instruments. Jose, is still at the helm of Promax, as CEO, and they’re still making test and measuring instruments for specialist applications, which nowadays includes information technology.
By all accounts the GV-298 was a tough and reliable design and it appears to have been in production from the mid 80s until at least 1996. Video test pattern generators are still being made today though they are a far cry from this one. As you can see the 298 is crammed full of logic microchips (there around 20 of them); modern versions are a fraction of the size and cram all of the functions of this unit, and much more besides, into just a small handful of chips. A lot of engineers don’t even bother with dedicated instruments any more; test patterns and measuring functions can be ably replicated by software and apps running on laptop computers, smartphones and tablets.
This GV-298 still has a good few years of life left in it, though, and there are plenty of situations, even in these days of digital video there’s a need for patterns and colour bars, but the sad fact is the fiver I paid for it is an fairly accurate reflection of its current value. The market for recently obsolete test instruments is tiny, and it’s nowhere old enough to regarded as a proper collectible; to be honest it is only really of interest to a very small band of enthusiasts. I can’t even say it will appreciate in value in the future, which makes it sound like a bit of a dud. On the other hand I have been knocking around vintage gadgets long enough to know that the day will come when I’m going to need a crosshatch pattern or a set of colour bars in a hurry, so bring it on, I’m ready!
First seen: 1985?
Original Price: £?
Value Today: £10 (1017)
Features: 8 patterns (100% white, crosshatch with circle, dot, chequerboard, colour bars, Red, Green & Blue), CCIR PAL (B, G & H) video, RGB, tuneable RF & video sync outputs (BNC & SCART), switchable chroma, interlace, audio & attenuation (0 - 60dB), LCD mode & frequency display, fold down banch stand
Power req. 110 - 240v AC
Dimensions: 102 x 90 x 240mm
Made (assembled) in: Spain
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 7
Acos SLM3 Sound Level Meter, 1969
Given that sound is something that virtually everyone is intimately familiar with, quantifying how loud a particular sound actually is, is surprisingly difficult. Most of us have heard of the decibel (dB) in relation to the measurement of sound level and we’ve all seen vague mentions that X or Y decibels is like standing next to a Jumbo Jet revving its engines, or being in the front row at a Metallica concert, but it’s all pretty meaningless, and compounded by the fact that unlike degrees centigrade, miles per hour, and how many beans make five etc. decibels are not linear quantities. They are logarithmic in nature, in other words, a sound level of 60dB (someone speaking, for example), is not half as loud as a sound level of 120dB (someone shouting really loudly). The real problem, though is simple numbers don’t tell you anything about how the measurements were made, the distances involved, and so on.
Until fairly recently only chaps, (and a few lady-chaps) in white coats, equipped with specialist measuring instruments, tape measures and clipboards, could tell you with some confidence precisely how loud a sound is. One such instrument was this Acos SLM3, which we’ll come to in just a moment. But nowadays just about anyone can take reasonably accurate* decibel sound measurements. All you need is a smartphone and a free app. However, as before simply quoting decibels without the context of the distance between the measuring apparatus and the sound source, background noise levels, the perceived loudness of human hearing and so on doesn’t really mean much, but it’s a start and now the average Joe can put a number on a particular sound, and more importantly make comparisons and take before and after measurements.
To do the job properly, though, you will need something like this Acos SLM3; though compared with modern digital sound level meters it is a bit basic, but it does the job, and does it well. The key features are the detachable directional microphone at the top – so it can be removed and used remotely with an extension cable – and the big analogue meter calibrated in ‘A-Weighted’ decibels, from –10 to 10 (A-Weighting is a way of compensating for the human ear’s sensitivity to various frequencies). The actual reading is made by adding the reading shown on the meter with the selected attenuator setting on the rotary control below. So, for example, if you select 100 on the attenuator knob the meter reads decibels in the range 90 to 110 dB, and so on. The rotary knob is also the on/off switch and the first position is for checking the battery (green zone on meter dial). The only other control is the Fast/Slow switch, which simply dampens the meter movement, so the needle either jiggles around like a mad thing or rises and falls more slowly as the sound level rises and falls. Also on the front panel is a jack socket, for recording the audio captured by the mike, and preset adjustments for zeroing the meter and calibration. The unit is powered by a single 9-volt PP3 battery, which fits into a clip next to the circuit board inside the case. On the base of the unit there’s a threaded bush for a tripod. This is how properly accurate measurements are supposed to be made as being mounted on a tripod helps eliminate erroneous readings due to handing noise or slight changes in distance to the source or the direction of the microphone.
Like any good scientific instrument the SLM3 is mostly built to last, to take the knocks and abuse of everyday use, particularly in the field. I say mostly because whilst the front panel, chassis and internals are all made to the highest standards, the rear of the case is formed from very thin plastic and doesn’t look like it would take much to crack or crush it. In practice it probably wasn’t a problem as it comes with a tough fitted leather carry case. When new the outfit would also have included the previously mentioned microphone extension cable and the all-important tripod. A calibration module was also available, which plugs into the microphone socket.
This one caught my eye at a large northern open-air antique fair and the stallholder probably could have sold it several times over if only he had bothered to give the case a wipe over and open it to display the meter. As it was it just looked like a slight manky, oddly shaped black box, but the Acos name on the front rang some dim, distant bells, which required further investigation. The stallholder wasn’t sure what it was, hence the asking price of £5.00. Outwardly it seemed to be in pretty good condition but it wasn’t possible to do an internal check (the back is screwed on), so I put in a counter offer of £3.50, which he accepted. Luck was on my side, the leather case had done a superb job of protecting the instrument and all it needed was a wipe over with mild detergent to remove some dust and a few light marks. Inside it was more or less the same story, though it looked worse than it was as some foam rubber padding on the battery clip had turned to a nasty looking brown powder. It wasn’t a problem, though, it was bone dry and all of it came out with a few puffs from an air duster. With the battery installed the check mode confirmed the meter was working, and so too was the rest of it, on all of the attenuator positions.
What Happened To It?
Acos was the main brand name used by an old established (1922) British electronics company called Cosmochord. Originally based in Enfield in London, they mostly made turntable arms, pickups and microphones. In 1956 the company moved a few miles north to Waltham Abbey. Microphones and pickups, especially crystal types, remained the firm’s core business but in the 1960s they broadened their scope, manufacturing audio-based instruments, like the SLM3, hearing aids and tape heads. There’s virtually nothing on the web about the company’s fortunes but in 1982, it went into liquidation. Like so many other small electronics companies its eventual demise was probably bought about, or hastened by competition from the Far East.
Specialised sound level meters are still being made and you’ll find plenty of sophisticated, and possibly quite accurate digital instruments selling on ebay for less than £20. However, it seems likely that market will contract, now that smartphones have been shown to be very effective in this field, for some less demanding applications at least. My feeling is that vintage sound level meters have an unpromising future as collectibles. I have no doubt that with a bit of work some models, like this one, could be turned into an eye-catching table lamp selling for £100 in a trendy tat shop, but that would be a very cruel end. As to value, even though it is quite rare and a bit unusual I suspect my estimate of £25 for this pristine example is a tad optimistic, but it’s a funny old world and stranger things have happened.
* Several recent research studies suggest that under ideal conditions measurements taken on some smartphones can be to within +/- 1dB of true sound level readings.
First seen: 1969
Original Price: £82.00
Value Today: £25 (0917)
Features: Range 55 – 130db, 7-stage attenuation (120, 110, 90, 80, 70, 60dB), fast/slow meter damping, detachable microphone with extension lead, external recording (3.5mm minijack), tripod mounting thread, leather carry case
Power req. 1 x 9 volt PP3 battery
Dimensions: 220 x 103 x 60mm
Made (assembled) in: England
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 7
SCG0012 Contamination Meter No. 1 Mk 2, 1955
Say what you like about successive British Government’s attitudes to Defence spending but back in the early 1950s no expense was spared. The spectre of the Second World War was still fresh in everyone’s minds, and the threat of nuclear proliferation and the beginning of the Cold War was a growing concern so somewhere deep in the Ministry of Defence it was decided to equip British troops with what was reckoned to be the best radiation detection equipment that money could buy, and here it is the mighty SCG0012, known to its friends and admirers as Contamination Meter No 1.
It was either very good, or it cost so much that the MOD couldn’t afford to replace it completely because it remained in service for around 30 years, until the early 1980s. To say it was over-engineered would be an understatement. At around 5.5kg in its canvas haversack it must have been a nightmare to cart around, especially if the user was also wearing a full NBC (nuclear, biological, chemical) protection suit. On the plus side, if the balloon went up the user could be fairly certain that when they flicked the On switch, even if they were being bombarded, nuked, soaked, frozen, or baked, there was a fair chance that it would work..
We’ll start with the case, which is in two parts and made from cast alloy. It’s incredibly tough and thanks to some heavy-duty rubber gaskets and washers, is entirely waterproof. So much so that the case is fitted with two humidity indicators that change colour should so much as a drip of moisture find its way inside. The all-metal case also provides screening against interference from other nearby electrical devices, and protection against the Electromagnetic Pulse or EMP that accompanies nuclear detonations. This is a powerful pulse of electrical energy that can fry delicate electronic components, though in this case it wasn’t a great concern because the internal circuitry was entirely valve-based (though transistors were later used, as we’ll see in a moment).
Controls are few and far between, which was important, as it had to be really easy to use, and understand the readings. On the top panel there are just two switches for power on/off and battery check. The latter is shown on the meter in the middle, which displays radioactivity levels in milli Roentgens per hour, but helpfully includes a colour coded scale that roughly translates as green = safe, yellow = caution and red = get the hell out of it! There are a couple of covered selector switches for changing the HT voltage, to suit different types of probe, and a 2-pin socket for a set of headphones.
Nerdy Fact: the meter featured here is the Mk 2 version; you can tell that because it has rubber covered sockets for the cable connecting the main unit to the probe. The Mk 1 had screw-fit connectors, which turned out to be a bit unreliable. Otherwise the Mk1 and Mk 2 designs are virtually identical.
The probe is a truly weird and unwieldy-looking shape, presumably designed to make it easier to hold when wearing thick protective gloves. It is connected to the main unit by a hefty rubber coated cable but strangely the delicate Geiger tube – the long black cylinder, has almost no protection, other than a thin rubber sheath. This is in stark contrast to the rest of the unit and accidental drops and knocks must have damaged a great many tubes. Odder still is the rectifier valve, which lives under the metal cap next to the probe handle. There must be a good technical reason why it, and its associated circuitry has to be on the probe handle, rather than safely inside the main unit, but it’s not immediately obvious from looking at the circuit diagram. Maybe someone more familiar with the workings of these devices can enlighten me?
Whilst it is a valve-based design, it uses what were then state of the art components. Unlike most run of the mill valves these are cold cathode tubes, which do not have power hungry heater elements. This was a smart move that dramatically reduced battery consumption. That was just as well because initially the main unit relied on a pair of 150-volt batteries, which must have been horribly expensive. Needless to say they stopped making them years ago and it seems this was a major concern fairly on in the meter’s career. At some point in the late 50s a transistorised ‘Vibrator’ power unit was developed that ran on 4 x 1.5volt AA type cells, which fitted snugly into the unit’s battery compartment. (Vibrator power units use a mechanical buzzer type device to generate an AC output, which drives a step-up transformer to boost the voltage to around 300 volts that is rectified and smoothed to a DC output).
In the 1970s and 80s ads for decommissioned Contamination Meters appeared regularly in the Exchange and Mart and classified sections of electronic magazines. Prices were typically in the £20 to £50 range, which was quite a lot back then, well out of my reach but it went on my wish list. Forty odd years later and I’ve managed to cross it off with this one, which turned up on ebay. They can sell for anything between £10 and £100, depending on condition and whether or not they work (few do) and I often have a punt on ones with low starting prices. I placed my customary £10 bid with no great expectations. The email informing me that I had won was a surprise, and a very pleasant one at that because I was the only bidder. More good luck, because of the weight the meter was collection only; the seller lived just 10 miles away so no expensive shipping charges.
It got even better. It hadn’t been fiddled with and the condition, inside and out was excellent. It came with the Vibrator Power Module (many have just the 150 volt battery holder), a set of instructions and the original canvas haversack. The power unit works but unfortunately the rest of it is as dead as a doornail. Normally this can be a problem for me. I dislike working on anything using valves as they always seem to give me shocks and burns, but the design and layout of this device makes everything really easy to get at. There’s also a wealth of information on the web, including repair manuals, which should all help to make it a fairly straightforward job. However, all of the advice starts by suggesting that the many waxed paper capacitors it uses should be replaced. That makes sense because after 40 plus years most will have failed. The few I have tested so far were all way out of spec. As soon as that’s done I can see what else needs to be changed. Fortunately I was able to check the GM tube, which can be difficult to replace, and that’s in good order but sadly the complete overhaul it probably needs will have to take its turn on the rainy day to-do list.
What Happened To It?
Although Contamination Meter No.1 was in service for several decades -- until well past its sensible use-by date -- since the 1970s the MOD and Civil Defence has been steadily updating their inventories of radiation monitors with smaller, lighter and even more reliable instruments. The Plessey PDRM-82 from the early 1980s is a good example of the newer semiconductor based devices that replaced it. Whilst they may be more functional there is no denying the Meter No. 1 was a class act, and really looked the part.
Collecting vintage Geiger counters is a fairly specialist hobby so if you fancy having a crack at it you are not going to encounter much in the way of competition. The downside is that the really interesting items, that are worth collecting, tend to be few and far between. There’s no marketplace as such, but ebay is an obvious place to look and you can sometimes get lucky when, thanks to the seller’s lack of knowledge, they are wrongly or inaccurately described. Antique markets are another occasional source and again, stall holders often have little idea of what they are selling and prices can be very reasonable. Contamination Meter No. 1 is an exception, though and there’s little doubt what it does and rock-bottom prices are rare. On the other hand the chances of finding an original one in working order is next to zero, which always helps when negotiating a price. It’s not a big deal, though, even in non-operational condition they’re a sight to behold and if the worst comes to the worst they make great doorstops and exercise weights…
First seen: 1953
Original Price: £?
Value Today: £50.00 (0617)
Features: Gamma detection range 0 – 10 mR/hr, variable HT, remote hand-held probe with 2M waterproof connecting cable, 50mm meter display, headphone socket, CV2247 GM detection tube, 5 x cold cathode valves (CV575 in probe, main unit: CV509, CV138, CV286 & CV284), battery test function, colour change humidity sensors, folding carry handles
Power req. 2 x 150 volt batteries, 4 x AA cells using Power Unit Vibrator module (6665-11029) or mains power unit (6665-110028)
Dimensions: 260 x 248 x 117mm
Made (assembled) in: England
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 7
Central C-7080EN Multimeter, 1975
With very few exceptions there is a written, visual or digital record of the vast majority of the gadgets featured on Dustygizmos. At the very least there’s usually a photograph, advert or mention of one for sale in an online auction. Even brief snippets can yield basic facts, like the date of manufacture, original price and so on. The Central C-7080EN multimeter is one of those rare exceptions and based on its online presence, or rather lack of it, it seems that it never existed…
Except it does, and it’s probably not alone as it is clearly a factory-made product. Hundreds, if not thousands of them must have been manufactured, possibly at some time in the early 1970s. However, it appears to have come and gone without leaving a trace, which is a surprise as it is a competent and still quite useable instrument. By the way, a multimeter is a versatile portable test instrument for measuring voltage, current and resistance and the most obvious feature on this one is that large meter. The above average size makes it much easier to take precise readings; and it also has a mirror scale, which further improves the accuracy and consistency of readings. The idea is to line up the meter needle with its reflection in the narrow curved mirror ensuring the user’s eye is directly over the scale markings.
The 7080EN’s operating ranges are a good deal wider than many of its seventies rivals. For example, it can measure up to 5000 volts (AC & DC), and cope with quite hefty currents, up to 10 amps. The large meter also helps with resistance measurements, though since the scale is logarithmic it gets quite cramped at the high end, and anything over 5 megohms gets a bit tricky to make out. There’s also a decibel scale but since hardly anyone in the history of multimeters has ever used or relied on this facility we’ll move swiftly on to the design and layout.
There are only three controls. The large knob on the left has 5 positions for selecting Off and operating mode (AC/DC volts, DC current and resistance). The knob on the right is a 7-position range switch and the zero ohms adjustment is in the middle. This compensates for the internal batteries running down. Speaking of which. It uses four AA cells and one C cell to make resistance measurements. In theory, with normal use they should last years, though in practice it’s wise to change them every few months. Modern batteries are notoriously leaky. Whilst this has a lot to do with some gadgets being constantly on and drawing a small current, in recent years there have been big changes in battery chemistry and materials, to reduce toxicity and cost, but that’s another story for another day.
It has a sturdy carry handle, but otherwise the case doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence. It’s made of a fairly thin and I suspect rather brittle plastic. I doubt that it would survive even a short drop onto a hard surface, which might explain why there are so few, or any -- other than this one -- still around. Instruments like this were designed for relatively serious applications in servicing and manufacture and in operational terms it stacks up quite well against the likes of the classic AVO 8, though it doesn’t come close to the latter’s legendary durability. It also lacks one critical feature, a safety cutout or fuse. It would only take a minor mis-adjustment on the mode or range switches to instantly fry the meter and this could be yet another reason for this model’s scarcity.
What may turn out to be the only working Central C-7080 in captivity was found at a Dorset car boot sale. It looked like part of a garage clearout; it was a bit grubby but the meter moved freely when shook and there were no obvious signs of external damage so the £2.00 asking price seemed fair and I didn’t bother haggling.
Once it was opened up it was clear that at some point it had been in the wars. A couple of precision resistors on the range switch have been replaced and another showed signs of getting very hot but luckily the movement escaped unscathed. Otherwise it was in pretty good shape, just a couple of small marks on the meter cover, probably from a passing soldering iron, and a few light scuff marks and scratches in all of the usual places. A wipe over with household cleaner and light dusting was all it took to get it looking quite respectable. It works on all ranges and accuracy is about as good as it got for a seventies analogue instrument so it would have been a viable and cost effective alternative to the expensive high-end multimeters of the day.
What Happened To It?
I can tell you nothing about Central, the manufacturer except that they were Japanese and based on the internal components and styling the C-7080 was probably made at some time in the early 70s, though it could easily be 5 or more years either way. How many of them were made is also unknown, though 274, is stamped on the face of the dial, which may or may not be a serial number.
Affordable digital multimeters started to appear in the early 80s, and they changed everything. At a stroke they eliminated all of the guesswork and skills needed to use old style meters like this one. More importantly accuracy increased by an order of magnitude and within a decade analogue multimeters had all but disappeared. Ironically their inherent reliability meant that lots of them continued to be used, even to this day, and there are still a few things they can do that are beyond the scope of a row of winking digits. The way the needle moves can tell an experienced user a lot about the behaviour of an electronic circuit or component, for example, and in general analogue meters can handle higher currents than their digital counterparts. Nevertheless, it was game over for these old relics and because they’re fairly specialist in nature, and not much to look at, late models like the Central C-7080EN are of limited interest to collectors of vintage technology. Even though this one might be incredibly rare (cue for lots of people to tell me they also have one…) it has little value in the real world and the £2.00 I paid for it is about all it is worth, unless one day all of the world’s microchips suddenly stop working…
My thanks to Russell Webb for letting me know that there is at least one other working C-7080 in existence and in particular, for helping to fine tune the date of manufacture to the mid 1970s.
First seen: 1975
Original Price: £40.00?
Value Today: £2.00 (0417)
Features: Multimeter, 50uA movement with mirror scale, Voltage: 0 – 5KV (DC 0 – 0.25, 0 – 1, AC/DC 0 - 2.5, 0 – 10, 0 – 50, 0 – 250 volts & 0 – 1/5 kV), Resistance: (3 range x1, x10 x 100), Current: DC 0 – 10 amps (0 – 50uA, 0 – 1mA, 0 – 10mA, 0 – 100mA, 0 – 500mA, 0 – 10A), DC 20k ohms per volt, AC 5k ohms per volts, zero ohms
Power req. 4 x 1.5v AA cells & 1 x 1.5v C cell
Dimensions: 190 x 160 x 75mm
Made (assembled) in: Japan
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest) 9
Telequipment Servicescope S32A. 1962
It would be a bit misleading to say that fixing vintage electrical and electronic gadgets is easy. Sometimes it is, but mostly it’s not, however, it’s not exactly rocket-science either and anyone with a modicum of DIY skills and some simple tools can have a go. Knowing how to do it well comes with experience, and learning from making lots of mistakes. It also helps to have some basic test instruments. A good multimeter is the absolute minimum and a signal injector/tracer comes in handy for sorting out problems on anything involving audio circuitry, but the gold standard of test instruments is undoubtedly the oscilloscope.
It’s a powerful diagnostic tool arguably the tech-medic’s equivalent of an X-Ray machine, able to show what is going on inside an electronic circuit. It does this by converting electrical signals into waveforms, and generally displayed on a cathode ray tube (CRT) screen or one of its modern replacements. In very simple terms the display shows the height or amplitude of a waveform, corresponding to its voltage, against time, and from this it’s possible to work out its frequency. In truth oscilloscopes have always been a bit of a luxury for the average tinkerer; that’s changing – more on that in a moment – but there are plenty of occasions when they’re the only device capable of finding a really tricky fault, especially in radios and so on, and they can be invaluable for taking measurements or making a precise adjustment.
This Telequipment Servicescope S32A is the one of a number of scopes I’ve owned and used over the years. It has been living out its retirement in my loft for the past decade or so. It still works, sort of, but it has become a bit cranky and difficult to use and can no longer be relied upon for measurements. In theory it could be fixed but that’s probably never going to happen, at least not by me. Many of the parts are either no longer made or have become very difficult (and expensive) to obtain.
It dates from the early sixties, towards the end of the valve era, which is one of the reasons why it would be such a challenging restoration project. In its heyday it definitely would have been worth maintaining. It was an expensive, precision instrument, costing well over £2000 in today’s money and that would have been a fairly typical price for a well-featured model like this one, aimed at the busy TV and radio servicing sector. It helps to know that most major electronic appliances made in the 50s, 60s and well into the 70s, also tended to be quite expensive, and because a lot of them used valves reliability was an issue. When they went wrong, which they did all the time, it was generally cheaper to get them repaired, rather than replaced, and that kept a large army of service engineers, working in high street shops and repair centres, in very lucrative employment.
There’s no need to delve too deeply into the technicalities, suffice it to say the S32A is capable of displaying pretty well all of the waveforms likely to be found in TVs and radios made at around the same time. All those knobs and switches make it look quite daunting but they are helpfully divided into three groups. The first one takes care of adjustments for the display (brightness, focus, horizontal (X-axis) and vertical (Y-axis) position. The second group deals with the voltage of the signals it is measuring, these can be between 0.1 and 500 volts per centimetre, which relates to the 1 x 1cm grid overlaid on the screen and used to make measurements. The third group of controls are concerned with the timebase, which is the circuit responsible for generating the spot of light that creates the display on the screen, and how fast it moves. In the case of the S32A the time it takes for the spot to move 1cm can be adjusted between 10 milliseconds and 1 microsecond. A X1 to X50 range multiplier switch extends the range to accommodate very low and very high frequency signals. The timebase also has a set of trigger controls, which locks onto the signal, to ensure a stable waveform display.
It probably sounds a lot more complicated than it is but I reckon that given a few brief instructions, or even left to their own devices, randomly twiddling knobs, almost anyone can figure out how to get a stable display on the screen, and by counting squares, work out the amplitude and even the frequency of a simple waveform.
All of this is fairly standard stuff on a service scope – hence the name – and the only slightly unusual feature on this one is the angled display tube. This is supposed to make it easier to see, as on the bench it’s likely to be below the user’s eye-line. The downside is that it can pick up annoying reflections from wall and ceiling lights.
The overall standard of construction is of an incredibly high standard, beautiful even, in its own way, but inside the metal case is no place for the faint-hearted. It’s full of my worst nightmares, lots of valves (9 of them), densely populated, hand-wired circuit boards, a forest of wires, dozens of hard to get at trimmers and presets for setup and calibration and monstrous high voltage capacitors and coils, just itching to zap unwary hands and fingers. Another reason I won’t be messing around with it anytime soon.
I have had this S32A for the best part of 30 years. I bought it second hand for £25, as a distress purchase after my previous scope turned up its toes (a real pile of crap that lasted only 5 or so years). It served me well for over 15 years but eventually its technical limitations, declining performance and great weight wore me down and it was consigned to the loft.
What Happened To It?
For well over 50 years, until the mid 1980s, the general design of oscilloscopes changed very little. Of course there were developments, transistors replaced valves, they became smaller and lighter but then the digital revolution kicked in. Up until that time scopes, and the devices they were used to test and align were pretty much all-analogue but digital microchips re-wrote the rules. Scopes rapidly evolved to meet the new demands with increased performance and extra capabilities, and new display technologies meant they could be shrunk to pocket size modules. They also stopped being entirely dedicated, stand-alone instruments. PCs could become virtual or part-time oscilloscope using a combination of software and a plug-in interface module. However, one of the most welcome spin-offs from the digital takeover has been the dramatic reduction in cost of owning an oscilloscope; good quality PC systems now cost less than £100 but in my view the most impressive additions to the market are small DIY kits, like the DSO 138 – that’s one in the photo above. They sell from around £15.00 or so on ebay, including a simple case, and can be built by almost anyone able to wield a soldering iron in just a few hours (or bought ready-built for around £25.00).
This particular one has a 6cm colour LCD and a good assortment of features and functions Although by current standards it is fairly basic it is capable of dealing with almost anything the average vintage electronic gadget has to throw at it.
There are a small number of vintage test instrument collectors but I doubt that the S32A rates very highly, or would attract the sort of prices that could make them attractive to mainstream collectors. Being so large and bulky they’re not especially decorative either, all of which translates into them not being worth a great deal. As a working instrument it would have some value, but given its age and present condition I doubt that it would be much more than £10.00 or so. One day old scopes could become highly prized. Stranger things have happened, so if you want to get in on the action and take a punt there’s a few of them around and they often pop up at boot sales so now could be a very good time to start investing, but as usual, don’t hold your breath…
First seen: 1962
Original Price: £1300
Value Today: £10 (0217)
Features: Single trace oscilloscope, 7.5MHz resolution, 0.1 – 500V/cm vertical, 1uS – 10 seconds/cm horizontal, 7cm CRT, auto/manual & internal/external trigger
Power req. 120 - 240VAC
Dimensions: 180 x 225 x 410mm
Made (assembled) in: UK
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest) 6
Micronta Radio Shack SI-100 Signal Injector, 1978
Not so long ago, when your radio, amplifier, tape recorder or record player, in fact almost anything with a loudspeaker or headphone socket, went on the Fritz you simply took it to your local radio or TV repair shop to get it fixed. Nowadays you chuck it away, give it to a charity shop or flog it at a car boot sale or on ebay. (And don’t forget to say it's probably okay but you don’t know if it works or not because you haven’t got the right batteries, leads, tapes, records etc. to test it…).
The sad fact is the item in question can probably be fixed. In many cases a competent service engineer, using a very basic test instrument like this, can quickly locate the general area of the fault, if not the actual faulty part. It’s a signal injector and the one featured here is the Micronta SI-100, sold by Radio Shack (aka Tandy in the UK) in the late 70s
Signal injectors are not complicated but feel free to skip this paragraph if you glaze over at the mention of teccy stuff. Essentially it’s a simple oscillator circuit, specifically a blocking oscillator that produces a range of audio and radio frequency signals. This particular one uses a single transistor plus a few other common components, including a small coil, a couple of capacitors, some resistors and a diode, mostly to stop it getting zapped if it accidentally comes into contact with very high voltages. In addition to the main or fundamental frequency (around 300kHz) it generates lots of harmonics and sub-harmonics that include low frequency signals in audible range (20Hz – 20kHz), up to around 30MHz and beyond, which is into the Short Wave and VHF/FM radio bands. That broad spectrum of frequencies means that it can be used to inject signals into a wide variety of devices, like radios, which have circuit elements that operate over narrow bands of frequencies.
That's enough of the techno-guff, all you really need to know is signal injectors are used to determine if there’s any life in an electronic device, by prodding strategic points on the circuit board with the probe and listening for a tone from the loudspeaker. If a tone is heard it should be possible to backtrack to the part of the circuit where it disappears, which is the place to start looking for the fault. Incidentally another simple diagnostic tool, called a Signal Tracer, is often used in conjunction with an injector. This works the other way around and a small amplifier, built into a hand-held probe, and connected to an earpiece, is used to find the point where the signal cuts out.
Either way these handy little widgets can significantly reduce the amount of time and effort it takes to track down straightforward faults in analogue audio and radio devices. They also helped to make a generation half-assed service engineers look like they knew what they were doing…
Two AA cells power the Micronta Signal Injector and because they are used intermittently they can last for months if not years. It is very well made and with virtually nothing to go wrong (but it’s easy to fix if it does). To use it all you have to do is connect the crocodile clip with the black wire (normally stowed in a small compartment next to the probe) to the faulty item’s chassis or negative power connection; touch the probe on a known point in the signal path on the circuit board and press the red button on the side. This fires up the oscillator and to let you know it’s working there’s a red LED on the top. In some cases you don’t even need to make a physical connection; the injector puts out weak radio frequency signals and you can often hear a tone just by holding it close to the aerials or antennas on some radios.
I honestly cannot remember how or when I acquired this one, or even if paid for it – over the years I have acquired most of my test gear by accident, as swapsies or impulse purchases -- but it has been in my possession for at least 25 years ago and in semi regular use ever since. In all that time it has never let me down, though the croc clip had to be reconnected a couple of times. It looks almost as good as new and I am confident that it will continue to work, and prove useful, for as long as I keep it fed with AA batteries, and there are dead radios, tape recorders and amplifiers that need fixing.
What Happened To It?
The SI-100 made its first appearance in Radio Shack’s 1978 US catalogue priced at $3.95; it went on sale in the UK’s Tandy subsidiary a year or so later for £2.79. This was the first of a new generation of Korean-made injectors using a silicon transistor, LED indicator and a new slim case. This replaced a long series of Japanese-made models, dating back to the 1960s, housed in cylindrical cases. It made its final appearance in 1983, replaced by a more sophisticated logic probe for troubleshooting faults in digital devices, though the new model featured a ‘tone’ output, which could be used for testing analogue audio circuits.
Signal injectors can still be found in many old-school service engineers’ toolboxes, though these days I fear they get little use. Relatively few consumer products can be economically repaired – compared with the cost of a replacement – but in any case the extensive use of digital circuitry and near microscopic surface mounted components (SMCs) make repairs, using conventional workshop tools nigh-on impossible. It’s also worth mentioning that modern electronic devices are inherently more reliable. Even when they do go wrong, even if it’s only after a year or two, there’s usually a new model on the market with a few more pointless bells and whistles, slightly different cosmetics, updated software or simply a lower price that makes an older product instantly less desirable
I cannot believe there’s much of a collectors market for old signal injectors like this one though I did come across a SI-100, sold on ebay in the US, for what looks like a ridiculous amount (£50). I put that down to it being in as-new condition, in its original unopened packaging and like as not, bought by someone collecting vintage Radio Shack products. Even so it is still a practical test instrument, and genuinely useful to electronics enthusiast and repairers or restorers of ancient analogue technology. £10 or so for one in good working order seems like a fair price, though, rather than wait for one to come up on ebay a keen tinkerer can easily put one together for next to nothing using a few simple parts from the spares box and readily available circuits on the web.
First seen: 1978
Original Price: $3.95 (£2.79 UK 1979)
Value Today: £10 (0117)
Features: single transistor blocking oscillator, centre frequency approx 300kHz with AF, IF & RF harmonics, LED power on indicator, steel probe, crocodile clip earth lead with cable stowage
Power req. 2 x 1.5v AA cells
Dimensions: 102 x 41 x 29mm
Made (assembled) in: Korea
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 8
Nuclear Enterprises PDM1 Doserate Meter, 1983
Although nuclear or 'ionising' radiation is invisible, has no taste or smell and is beyond the normal range of our senses, it is not too difficult to detect. There are several methods, apart from growing an additional head or zombieism, and the best known is the ubiquitous Geiger Counter. Other method include things like Cloud Chambers and scintillation detectors, which contain exotic crystals that produce brief flashes of light when struck by radioactive particles. However, one of the simplest type of detector is the Ionisation Chamber. You probably have several in your home in the form of 'free air' ionisation chambers. These are the little metal cylinders used in most types of domestic smoke detector. They are open to the atmosphere and inside there's a tiny radioactive source. This emits a stream of particles and if it senses that the flow has been interrupted, by passing clouds of smoke or noxious gasses, an electronic circuit sets off the alarm.
Another type of ionisation chamber can be found inside this Nuclear Enterprises PDM1 Portable Doserate Meter, it’s around 50 times larger than the ones in most smoke detectors, and this time it is sealed and filled with a gas at low pressure. It is designed to detect radiation, rather than smoke, and instruments like this are used throughout the nuclear power industry, in research laboratories, hospital nuclear medicine and radiography departments and for environmental monitoring. If fact you’ll find them wherever there’s a possibility of encountering potentially harmful levels of X-Rays, Gamma rays and Beta particles, which are the main types of radioactivity proven to cause long-term damage to human tissue, with prolonged or uncontrolled exposure.
Inside the PDM1’s ionisation chamber there is a pair of electrodes carrying an electric charge. When a radioactive particle enters the chamber it interacts with or ‘ionises’ gas molecules, releasing electrons that head towards the electrodes – attracted by the electric field – and from there the tiny charges can be measured using relatively straightforward electronic circuits. This type of Ionisation chamber is not especially sensitive and it doesn’t respond to low-level sources or Alpha radiation but it is very good at detecting and accurately measuring radiation in terms of exposure or dosage.
It looks quite complicated but it is actually very easy to use and everything the user needs to know is shown on that large analogue meter. The rotary switch on left is responsible for switching it on, checking the batteries, zeroing the meter and putting it into measuring mode. There’s a small knob in the middle for the meter’s zero adjustment and the switch on the right sets the type of measurement (dose or doserate) and the measuring range.
Broadly speaking dose is an indication of how much radioactivity you are being exposed to at any one time. Nowadays dose is measured in Sieverts but a Sievert is a helluva lot of radioactivity and in practice it is more convenient to express it in terms of microsieverts (uSv). Doserate is a measure of radioactive exposure over time, in micro or milliSieverts per hour (uSv/hr). The Dose ranges on the PDM1 are 30 and 300 uSv, and for Doserate it’s 30 and 300uSv/hr and 3, 30 and 300 mSv/hr. What the readings mean, and when it’s time to run is another matter, but be assured that if ever your job entails using an instrument like this, you’ll know exactly what to do when you see that needle move…
There’s only one other item of interest on the outside and that’s a sliding panel on the base. When open this exposes a sheet of thin metalised plastic film, and behind that is another metal film covering one end of the ionisation chamber. The purpose of the panel is to block Beta particles, which the instrument will detect, but they skew readings of X-Rays and Gamma rays, which is what the device is calibrated to measure.
The PDM1 was made in the UK (Scotland) in the early 1980s by Nuclear Industries, then a division of Thorn EMI. It’s a little larger than a standard house brick and probably cost hundreds of pounds when new. Precisely how much it cost is difficult to say, it’s not the sort of thing you have found in an 80's Argos catalogue… Around a third of the case is taken up by the ionisation chamber, which is mounted underneath the meter. There’s a large compartment, beneath the carry handle, for the batteries; it takes five, four 9 volt PP3s, used to generate the high voltage field for the ionising chamber, and a 9 volt PP9, which drives the electronics. The sealed module beneath the battery compartment is a high-gain, low noise amplifier that’s connected directly to the Ionisation chamber. It is very sensitive and the designers have gone to a lot of trouble to shield it against interference from other electrical and electronic devices, which could cause spurious readings. No expense was spared in its design and construction, so you can take it as read that it’s rugged and capable of withstanding a lot of harsh treatment. The only really fragile components are those thin metalised plastic membranes covering the ionisation chamber and if the inner one is punctured it’s basically kaput.
According to the stallholder at the Surrey antiques fair where I bought this PDM1 (one of a pair of meters he had – the other, a simple PDR1 rate meter will appear here soon) it was part of a lot of instruments sold off by a company involved in the digging of the Channel Tunnel. It sounds quite plausible and there’s no doubt that the extracted materials would have been routinely monitored. However this one appears to have been removed from service quite early on in its career, judging by its unusually clean appearance and a ‘Not to be used sticker’ on the meter. In other circumstances it might have been a risky purchase but since the two meters only cost me £20, and the film covering the ionising chamber seemed to be intact, it wasn’t a huge gamble. The meters alone were worth the asking price. It turned out that the PDM1 had been decommissioned for good reason, someone forgot to change the batteries and there was a rather nasty mess inside the battery compartment. Fortunately the damage was minimal and mostly confined to the battery terminals, which had to be replaced. The corrosive fluid that leaked from the batteries had dried out and cleaned up quite easily. It didn’t even stain the thick layer of powder coat protecting the alloy case and apart from the battery terminals the only other casualty was a foam insert meant to stop the batteries rattling around.
There was a minor problem testing the unit as PP9 batteries are now obsolete. They are still available but very expensive and typically sell online for over £7.00, far too much to spend on what may have turned out to be a doorstop. Luckily they’re really easy to replicate with a cheap 6 x AA cell battery holder costing £1.50. I still wasn’t holding my breath; this particular instrument is well over 30 years old but I needn’t have worried and it fired up first time, responding well to a particularly ‘lively’ travel alarm clock with radium-painted luminous hands and face. The readings may not be that meaningful as by now it is well out of calibration but it definitely detects radioactivity, and long-term readings suggest that it may even be sensitive enough to respond to normal background radiation, and over time, could let you know if there’s an unexpected increase.
What Happened To It?
The roots of Nuclear Enterprises dates back to the 1950s as Netsensors, a company making instruments for the aerospace industry but after a number of takeovers and mergers it was sold to EMI in the mid 1960s, and became part of the Thorn EMI group in the late 70s. By then Nuclear Enterprises was heavily involved in radioactive measurement and instrumentation, and doing quite well by all accounts, but the division was sold off in 1987 in a management buyout. I worked for the consumer side of Thorns in the late 70s and I was aware that the company was having a tough time. By the mid 80s they were selling off a lot of their smaller subsidiaries, so it may have been a bit of a fire sale. Anyway, Nuclear Enterprises continued in the field of nuclear detection and instrumentation and in 2002 it was acquired by the French company FGP Sensors, at which point the NE brand and identity seems to have disappeared from view.
Back to the here and now and technology has moved on. Modern instruments are smaller, more responsive, have many more features and almost certainly cheaper than this old beast so it’s probably outlived its usefulness. Nevertheless, it is entirely possible that there are still a few PDM1s of a similar vintage still in service and provided they’re regularly calibrated and well looked after they can go on for a very long time. Outside of their natural homes, in the lab or in the field, they’re not a lot of use to the average citizen and the enthusiast and collector’s market is quite small, so don’t expect to turn a quick profit if you ever find one going cheap at your local car boot sale. On the other hand, if you’re of a cautious disposition, concerned about the next (and probably last, world war…) or living next door to a flaky nuclear power station or weapons facility, it might be worth having a working one tucked away, just in case the balloon goes up. It might be a long wait, though, so don’t forget to remove the batteries…
First seen 1983
Original Price £?
Value Today £10 (1116)
Features Down-pointing ionisation chamber with sliding beta shield, (100sq cm detection area), skin & depth dose/doserate measurement, (30 – 300 uSv, 30 – 300uSv/h & 3 – 300mSv/h, 9cm analogue meter display, battery condition indication, set zero adjustment
Power req. 1 x 9v PP9 & 4 x 9v PP3
Dimensions: 245 x 125 x 170mm
Made (assembled) in: UK
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 8
Smiths SR/D366 Automotive Instrument Tester, 1965?
These days when something goes wrong with your car’s engine or electrics one of the first things most mechanics reach for is not a spanner or screwdriver, but an electronic box of tricks called an OBD scanner. OBD or On Board Diagnostics was developed in the early 90s and since then it has become an industry standard, adopted by virtually all major car manufacturers. It uses the vehicle’s computer or engine management system to log and report on faults and changes in performance. On most cars you will find a 16-pin OBD connector mounted close to the steering wheel, under or behind the dashboard.
OBD scanners and code readers are now readily available on the web for under £20 so just about anyone can play at being a car mechanic. Whilst a lot of the information they display will be meaningless to most people, there are plenty of websites that can help to decode and interpret fault codes. OBD scanners can’t necessarily fix faults, but knowledge is power and having advance warning of problems can save motorists a few bob on costly garage bills.
Back in the BODs before OBDs (bad old days, before on-board diagnostics…), fault-finding was largely down to the knowledge and experience of skilled mechanics. However, in the 1960s there were stirrings of what was to come, in the shape of devices like this Smiths SR/D366 Automotive Electrical Instrument Tester. Obviously it is nowhere near as sophisticated as a modern OBD reader and as the name suggests it is mainly designed to test car instruments, but it was part of a growing trend in the automotive industry towards taking the guesswork out of fault detection and diagnosis.
The SR/D366’s basic test functions are for fuel and temperature gauges but as part of that, and before the checks are carried out, it can also be used to assess battery voltage and voltage stabiliser operation. It’s designed to work with the most common types of gauges manufactured by Smiths, and other companies. According to the instruction label inside the lid these include fuel gauges that use ‘Bi-metal’ or ‘Segment’ senders, and temperature gauges with ‘Thermal Segment’, ‘Semiconductor’ and ‘Bi-Metal’ sensors. The instruments under test are identified by code prefixes, and these are selected using the rotary switch on the right side of the top panel. The tester connects to the instrument or wiring using a pair of leads, terminated in crocodile clips. The operation of the instrument is then shown on the small meter, which appears to be based on the distinctive ‘quadrant’ family of gauges made by Smiths and fitted to many British cars built in 60s.
Under the bonnet, as it were, it is really simple and not too dissimilar to a regular multimeter. The circuit consists of a meter connected, via the selector switch, to a bank of 15 precision wire wound resistors. The instruction sheet is very easy to follow with advice on how to tell if the problem lies with the instrument under test, the wiring or the car’s voltage stabiliser. This is a really well made piece of kit, from Smiths Motor Accessory Division’s Service Department, located at 50 Oxgate Lane in London. It is housed in a smart little plywood box that is quite capable of standing up to the sort of rough treatment it would be expected to receive in a typical garage workshop.
A large boot sale in Sussex was where I found this one. The stallholder started the haggling process at £5.00 and moments later a mutually acceptable £3.00 changed hands. It seems like an absolute bargain now, but at the time it was a bit of a gamble as the box and its fittings all looked a bit rough and there was no way of knowing if it worked or not. Luckily getting it into a presentable condition wasn’t too difficult, though it did entail a complete strip down, sanding the case and bringing the tired wood back to life with liberal applications of a good quality wax polish. There was an accumulation of grime on the inside of the meter so this had to be taken apart, which again wasn’t too difficult. The meter uses a bimetal strip instead of a more common moving coil or moving magnet mechanism. When the strip is heated, by a current passing through a small coil wound around it, it flexes and a simple lever arrangement connects it to the needle. The pointer moves very slowly, and is unaffected by vibration, which is why it was the meter technology of choice for instruments like fuel gauges that would otherwise be jumping around every time the vehicle goes around a corner, or over a bump in the road. The meter on this one was in good shape and the needle moved when connected to a bench power supply. There’s not much that can go wrong with a bunch of resistors and a rotary switch so it is safe to assume that it’s still in working order, but until I acquire a British made car from the 1960’s fitted with Smith’s instruments that will have to be taken as read.
By the way, the manufacturing date of 1965 is only a semi-educated guess. There’s nothing about the SR/D366 in the history section of the Smith’s website, or indeed any references to it on the web, other than a tiny handful of archived sales listings on auction sites. The meter, however, is very clearly related to those shown fitted to vehicles in mid 1960’s catalogues and motoring magazines and is it reasonable to suppose that an instrument to test them would have been developed at around the same time.
What Happened To It?
Smiths dates back to the early 1850s and started out as a family run business making watches and clocks. During the early years of the twentieth century Smiths expanded into parts and accessories for the emerging automotive industry; one thing led to another and by the beginning of World War One they were also making aircraft instruments. At the outbreak of Second World War the Motor Accessories Division was split off from the rest of Smiths Industries and in 2000 the parent company merged with the TI Group. The Smiths success story continues and nowadays it has fingers in numerous pies concerned with industrial electronics, interconnections, measurement and instrumentation.
The timeline for the SR/D366 is less clear. It’s not too surprising, though, and given its specialist nature it is likely that relatively few of them were ever made. It may be relevant that this one has the number 143 written in pencil on the inside of the box. It was probably only ever marketed through trade catalogues and magazines but how much it originally cost remains a mystery. I’m not even going to take a guess, but it won’t have been cheap and as usual clarification and corrections are most welcome. I suspect it lasted from my estimated manufacturing date of the mid sixties to the late seventies or thereabouts. By then it would have become largely obsolete thanks to the demise of the UK car industry through fierce competition from overseas companies and the appearance of more flexible and sophisticated test instruments. Doubtless a few units have survived in the hands of collectors and restorers, but they don’t come onto the market very often, which again suggests that it could be quite a rare item. As far as I determine only couple have appeared on ebay in the last few years and they went for £50 and £70; the only other one I have seen mentioned was sold by a specialist auction house for £150, so you know what to do if you ever spot another one in the wild!
First seen 1965?
Original Price £?
Value Today £40 (0816)
Features Battery test, fuel gauge (segment/thermal), temp gauge (Bi-Metal/Semiconductor/Thermal), Voltage Stabiliser
Power req. n/a (powered by vehicle under test)
Dimensions: 182 x 118 x 118mm
Made (assembled) in: UK
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 8
Dawe Transistor Stroboflash 1209B, 1967
How often have you wanted to know exactly how fast is something spinning or vibrating, or experienced a sudden desire to indulge in a spot of disco dancing? Good news! Here’s something that can help satisify both urges. It’s a Dawe Instruments Ltd Transistor Stroboflash. It's a stroboscope, aka a strobe’, a box of tricks that emits flashes of light, which on this one, can be varied between around 10 and 180,000 times a minute.
It was originally designed for scientific and industrial measuring and analysis, rather than a disco lighting effect, and even though that is something it does quite well, it is a bit over-qualified for such a mundane task. Once you get past 2500 or so flashes per minute (fpm), it appears like a continuous light, taking all the funkiness out of your dance floor moves, but shine it on something that spins or vibrates really quickly – anything from a motor spindle to a loudspeaker cone -- by carefully adjusting the speed the flashes will appear to make it stand still, and that can be quite useful. For example it can be used to examine the item whilst it is in motion, accurately measure how fast it is moving, and whether or not that movement is steady.
The Dawe Stroboflash can also be coupled to a camera, to take high-speed photographs, or it can be triggered externally but what makes it especially useful, though, is the fact that it is very accurate. When the fine speed control is used to make a moving object appear stationary the flash rate can be read off the large meter built into the top of the unit. Accuracy is maintained by a simple mains frequency calibration feature. The AC mains supply is used as the reference as in most countries the frequency is carefully regulated to within 0.2% of the nominal 50Hz (or 60Hz).
The business end of the Stroboflash is a white light Xenon flash tube, mounted in front of a large parabolic reflector. Some versions use a neon flashtube, which gives out a less intense red light, presumably for applications where that colour is more effective. The controls are very easy to use. The speed control consists of two knobs stacked on top of one another; the large one is for coarse control, the smaller one for fine adjustment. There’s a pair of selector switches, one for the flash and meter range (and calibration) the other is for selecting internal or external triggering.
This particular strobe dates from the mid to late 1960s; it was clearly one of the first models made by Dawes to use all transistor circuitry as this (then) novel feature is proudly emblazoned on the control panel. That date also ties in with the sort of transistors used, which are five ‘OCx’ germanium types (see Gizmo Guide below) made by Mullard. The circuit is very straightforward; the high voltage charge used to ‘fire’ the flash tube is stored on a bank of hefty capacitors, a two transistor oscillator supplies the variable pulses and these are used to trigger a chunky power transistor, which sends bursts of the high voltage charge to the flash tube. In theory there is comparatively little to go wrong, except that over time the kind of electrolytic capacitors used to store high voltages tend to degrade, germanium transistors are notoriously delicate, and flashtubes have a finite life, so it was a complete surprise to discover that this one still worked!
Like most of my best gadget finds this one came from a car boot sale. The muddy Kent field, overcast skies and threat of rain probably contributed to the very reasonable price, which was haggled down from £10 to £7.00. Even so, it was still a bit of a punt, given the previously mentioned problems with 60’s vintage components, and the fact that it couldn’t be tested, even if a mains supply had been available in the middle of that field. The problem was it didn’t come with a mains lead and it uses an old and obsolete 3-pin connector, known to its fans as a Bulgin PX0631. Fortunately this was something I had at home, but before I dared to power it up it was treated to a full strip down and spring clean, plus some basic circuit checks to make sure it wasn’t about to explode. It was in a fairly grubby state but it was mostly surface grime; inside it was just a bit dusty, suggesting that it had been quite well looked after for most of its working life, as befits what would have been an expensive precision instrument. It worked straight away, no fuss or troubling smells but given its age it’s only going to get used for special occasions as many of the parts are now well past their sell by date and a lot of them will be difficult to replace.
What Happened To It?
Dawe Instruments, later to become part of the Lucas group, appear to have been in business since at least the mid 1940s manufacturing a very wide range of industrial measuring equipment and professional photographic flash systems. There’s comparatively little about the company's history on the web and its later years are shrouded in mystery but it’s likely that, like a lot of small and specialist UK firms, it suffered badly from foreign competition. They seem to have shut up shop at some point in the 1980s. What was left of the company passed through a succession of owners but by the late nineties the name and brand had quietly faded away. As always corrections and clarifications are very welcome.
Stroboscopes are still as popular as ever and basic disco-type lighting strobes are cheap and plentiful – prices on ebay start at under £20. However, you can expect to pay upwards of £100 for a modern device with something approaching the spec of the Stroboflash, though properly serious instruments of equivalent quality are going to set you back several hundred pounds. There are usually two or three Vintage Dawe Stroboflashes on ebay at any one time and prices are all over the place. Two non-runners – both in apparently good physical condition -- recently sold for 99 pence and £30, whilst clean, working examples typically sell for between £50 and £100. If you’re handy with a soldering iron and have some basic knowledge of transistor circuitry there are some good opportunities, though you might have to scavenge a couple of basket cases if the repair requires any specialised or obsolete parts.
First seen 1967
Original Price £50?
Value Today £50 (0716)
Features Xenon flashtube, 130mm reflector, continuously variable flash rate 10 – 18000 flashes per minute, moving coil meter display, 50/60Hz mains frequency calibration, external trigger, pulse/syncro output, 5- transistor drive circuit (2 x OC71, OC139, OC202, OC28), carry handle
Power req. 110 - 240VAC
Dimensions: 180 x 210 x 185mm
Made (assembled) in: England
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 7
Micronta 22-195A Digital Multimeter, 1986
The ability to accurately measure the three basic units of electricity, namely volts, amps and ohms, has been one of the cornerstones of electrical and electronic engineering for almost 200 years. However, until comparatively recently it was more of an art than a science and relied, to a considerable extent, on the waggling of needles on meter scales, and the eyesight and judgement of whoever was doing the measuring.
Everything changed with the introduction of digital electronics and numerical displays in the late 1960s, which turned guesswork into certainty, and it has to be said, took some the soul out of the task. Most engineers wouldn’t dream of swapping their fancy pocket-size digital multimeters for a venerable old AVO 8, andno one can deny the benefits of digital technology when it comes to speed, accuracy reliability and cost, but it didn’t happen overnight. The first generation of affordably priced digital multimeters started to appear in the late 70s and the mid 80s professionals were starting to take them seriously, with their large and legible displays, improved accuracy and a comprehensive range of measurements that rivalled the best of the traditional analogue instruments.
Second generation digital multimeters, like this Micronta 22-195, dating from 1986, also introduced new features that were previously impossible, or uneconomical to include on analogue meters and the one that got the most attention was auto-ranging. In order to use a traditional multimeter you needed a pretty good idea of what you were about to measure, be it voltage, current or resistance, and more importantly, roughly how much of it there was. This meant you could set the appropriate units and range before you applied the probes. If you got it wrong with the probe leads the wrong way around or you tried to measure a hefty voltage with the meter on a low current or resistance range, for example, at best it was goodbye meter with a bent needle and a puff of smoke. At worst there could be a small explosion and the possibility of a nasty burn or shock for whoever was holding the probes.
Auto-ranging removes a lot of the guesswork and perils involved in making measurements. Some models will do everything for you though this Micronta multimeter is a relatively inexpensive device and the user still has to make some basic choices about what they want to measure, i.e. voltage, current or resistance, but after that it mostly figures out the quantities on its own and where the decimal point goes without any need to twiddle dials or swap probe sockets. To those unfamiliar with the dark arts of multimetering this might not sound very important, or indeed interesting, but take it from me, when you’re trying to measuring a live circuit carrying several hundred volts, with both hands occupied holding the probes (usually in a dark corner, surrounded by lots of juice-carrying wires and components), the last thing you want to do is keep taking your hands out to mess around with range knobs.
The Micronta 22-195 has a number of other refinements and these include simple diode and transistor test functions, an audible continuity tester, a high-low memory function for gauging or comparing changes in a variable input, data hold, which freezes the display and it is well protected against overload and transient voltages and currents on all but the very high current range. Readings are displayed on large 4-digit LCD panel that also has mode, status and battery condition information. There’s a row of function selector buttons to the side of the LCD and the buttons below are used for secondary features, like the memory display, manual range control and the built-in buzzer. On the far right there are three sockets for the red (positive) and black (negative) colour-coded probes. The two lower ones are for everyday use; the one at the top is for high range AC/DC current measurements.
It’s housed in a slim, heavy-duty plastic case with a carry handle that doubles as a tilt stand. Power is supplied by four 1.5-volt C cells that live in a compartment on the underside. Build quality is very good indeed, it’s rugged too, which is just as well as test instruments that spend a lot of time in the field (quite literally in some cases) need to be able to withstand a lot of harsh treatment.
Micronta was one of Radio Shack’s house brands. The once mighty corporation had thousands of stores across the US, and several hundred in the UK under the Tandy name. The 22-195 made its first appearance in the US parent company’s 1987 catalogue, though it was almost certainly on sale from mid 1986 due to long product and catalogue lead times. It was priced at just under 100 dollars, which was a tidy sum for a multimeter (equivalent to around £200 in today’s money). I can’t be sure about it’s UK debut but typically products appeared here at or around the same time as the US.
This one was a chance find at a local car boot sale a couple of years ago and it has been sitting in the dustygizmos to-do box ever since. I can’t remember how much I paid for it but it would have been less than £5.00. Buying vintage battery powered gadgets is always a bit of a gamble, more so with early digital devices. They are virtually unrepairable due to the scarcity of critical parts, like integrated circuits and displays, which were often custom designed. The shabby condition is something else that would have limited how much I was prepared to pay for it but the battery compartment was clean and test instruments are designed to take a bit of rough and tumble, so it’s less of a concern. As it turned out all it needed was a strip down, a thorough spring clean, and with a fresh set of batteries installed it powered up worked straight away.
What Happened To It?
There are two stories here; the first was the sad collapse of Radio Shack, which finally filed for bankruptcy in 2015 but it had been going steadily downhill since the late 90s. Radio Shack, and overseas subsidiaries like Tandy were in almost every shopping mall and high street and they were a haven for gadget nuts. It pioneered many electronic technologies, and those of us of a certain age will be immediately familiar with their home computers (the legendary TRS-80), CB Radios, radio scanners, radio controlled toys, novelty radios, electronic kits and parts. For years Tandy was the go-to place for everything from batteries to cheap hi-fis and TVs, but they fell afoul of rival chains, their prices became uncompetitive, it was slow to respond to changes in home computing, they got left behind in the home entertainment, video and mobile phone booms and once the rot had set in, it was only a matter of time before they went into terminal decline.
The wider story of multimeters is less dramatic and for a long time Radio Shack/Tandy was the only place to go in the high street for decent quality test instruments like the 22-195. At the time, for the price, it was one of the most advanced models available to the general public, but this was a tiny market. By the early 90s Radio Shack had begun to reduce its involvement with the nuts and bolts side of electronics. In every store, usually at the back, there was an Aladdin’s Cave area, stacked to the ceiling with electronic components that drew in enthusiasts, constructors dabblers and DIYers. The shops changed, and the knowledgeable folk behind the counter were replaced by slick salespersons doing their best to shift shiny ready-made gadgets and black boxes. Interest in building and repairing electronics devices was also on the wane and with it went what was left of the market for multimeters. For those that wanted one there were plenty of cheap instruments online, though the vast majority of them were nowhere near as sophisticated as this one but for most casual users, who only wanted the basics, it didn’t matter.
The thing about a good multimeter is that one is all you will ever need, even if you only get it out a couple of times a year and if you are careful it should last a lifetime. Late vintage models, like this one, providing they are in good working order, are no less useful for being old – volts, amps and ohms do not change with the years – so they’re worth having in any case, just don’t expect them to go up much, if at all, in value. Really old instruments, and I’m talking pre WW II can be interesting objects in their own right, and have become very collectable, but they’re strictly for show, and definitely not for testing or any safety-related applications.
First seen 1986
Original Price $99.95 (£65)
Value Today £20.00 (0616)
Features 4-digit LCD display, auto ranging, 300mV – 1000VDC, 3 – 750VAC, DC Current 300mA – 30A DC, AC Current 300mA – 10A, Resistance 3 Ohm – 30 Megohm, continuity, diode check, transistor check (hfe/gain), memory (max-min values), input impedance 10M/volt (AC/DC) 100M on 300mV DC scale, data hold, low battery indication, carry handle/tilt stand, fused protection (not high range AC/DC current)
Power req. 4 x 1.5v C cells
Dimensions: 200 x 125 x 68mm
Made (assembled) in: Taiwan
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 7
Advance PP5 Stabilised DC Supply, 1963
Here’s another unsung hero from the early-ish days of transistors. One way or another just about every electrical and electronic gadget you can name has at some point owed its existence to a device just like this.
It’s a stabilised DC power supply, a type PP5, made by Advance Electronics in the early 1960s who, at the time were based in Hainault in Essex (according to the ID plate on the back panel).
Now normally bench power supplies live and work far behind the scenes and to be perfectly honest, they don’t do a lot, other than converting high voltage AC mains into low voltage DC. They lack the glamour and glitz of other varieties of test and bench instruments, like oscilloscopes with their fancy dancing displays, and multimeters with slick digital readouts or giant meters (and you need to be an old-school electronics engineer to appreciate that...) but this one is a bit out of the ordinary.
It is full of character, and a real old-timer; and it is still going strong. The fact that it has lasted this long, in such good condition, says everything you need to know about the build quality, but the real surprise is that it’s a hybrid design, employing what is usually considered to be an unholy mixture of valves and transistors. Semiconductors and valves normally make uncomfortable bedfellows and as a rule they are kept well away from each other. To begin with they operate at vastly different voltages, valves get intentionally hot, transistors work best when cool or at room temperature. Valves do not stand up well to physical punishment and early transistors would blow if you so much as looked at them, so all in all it’s not a very promising sounding partnership. Except, that in this case it has clearly worked and continues to do so more than half a century after it was made.
The feature list is fairly brief, it has a variable DC output, controlled by the knob on the right, from 0 to 15 volts DC, and because it is stabilised that means that it shouldn’t deviate from the set voltage by more than a fraction of a volt, and there should be little or no evidence of AC mains, in the form of ‘ripple’ on the output. The supplied voltage is shown on the central meter, and at the flick of a switch (the one between the two knobs) it displays how much current whatever is it connected to, is drawing. This sort of thing is well worth knowing, particularly if the device or product is designed to run off batteries, and showing how many amps (or milliamps in this case) a device is actually drawing, compared to what it is supposed to be, is a useful fault finding aid. There’s another handy current-related feature and that’s a variable cutout, controlled by the knob on the left. Basically this lets the user set a current limit, between 0.05 to 0.5 amps, and if this is exceeded the supply is cut, hopefully protecting both the power supply and the circuit or device it is powering, from going up in smoke. Other items of interest on the front panel include the on/off toggle switch, a red neon power-on indicator, and two terminal posts, coloured red (for positive) and black (for negative) output cables. There’s not much to see around the back, just a round socket for the mains cable and on the underside there’s a folding tilt stand, so the meter can be read more easily when it is below eye-level, on the bench.
Construction quality is simply outstanding; the case feels like a solid chunk of metal, with the sides acting as cooling fins for the transformer and valves, which can get quite hot. The circuit board and all of the ancillary components are hand assembled and as you might just be able to see from the photos, all neatly arranged with connecting cables bundled together in miniature looms. All of the seriously hefty metal parts are bolted together and it looks as feels like it could go on for another 50 years. Topping it all off is a tough leather folding carrying handle. To say they don’t make them like this anymore would be a serious understatement!
The date of manufacture is a bit of a guesstimate but there are a few clues. The germanium OC30 and OC44 transistors it uses date from the early 1960s and according to the company website (after several changes of ownership they're now known as APS or Advance Product Services), Advance outgrew their small Hainault factory in late 1960s, by which time the reliability and performance of transistors had improved to the point where it would be highly unlikely that they would still be using valves.
I have owned and used this PSU for the best part of 25 years; a retired engineer friend gave it to me. I sensed at the time that it was a real wrench for him to be parted from it, so much so that I had to promise never to sell or scrap it, otherwise he would demand it back so he could be buried with it when he popped his clogs. He's gone and now it’s now going to have to be prised from my cold dead hands...
What Happened To It?
Bench power supplies have never gone away and some modern ones are smothered in knobs, buttons and displays but essentially they do the same job as the PP5. To be fair the output voltage of recent top-end bench supplies are even more stable, and generally ‘cleaner’ than this one (or at least they should be), but they are, for the most part, fairly dull grey boxes lacking the character and classic 60s styling of the PP5. What's more few, if any of them will still be earning their keep in 50 years time.
It has to be said that bench power supplies do not stand a snowball’s chance in hell of ever becoming collectable, or achieving more than their scrap value, especially if they no longer work (I reckon this one is worth about least £10, but only because it still works). They are quite rare though, because not many were made, but no-one in their right minds could ever be excited by them, however, it would be a real pity if quirky old ones like this vanished from sight or memory and they do deserve at least a little recognition for the important part they’ve played in the development of electronic technology.
First seen 1963
Original Price £?
Value Today £10 (0715)
Features Mains powered stabilised bench power supply (0 – 15 volts DC), presettable current cut-out (0.05 – 0.5 amps), meter display switchable volts/amps, neon indicator, screw/banana terminal output, leather carry handle, valve-transistor hybrid circuitry (1 x GD83M, 1 x 15OC4, 5 x OC44, 1 x OC30, 1 x OC35), folding tilt stand.
Power req. 240V AC
Dimensions: 160 x 143 x 160mm
Made (assembled) in: England
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 8
Simpson Model 389 Ohmmeter, 1955
Apart from a handful of arguably mad collectors of vintage test instruments – and I am pleased to be one of them – most normal people probably wouldn’t give this rather uninteresting black box more than a second glance. Those who do may spot a somewhat bizarre warning message embossed in red capital letters on the front panel: ‘NOT TO BE USED FOR TESTING EXPLOSIVES’. That’s clearly good advice, in fact testing explosives by any means has to be a fairly risky business, but the fact that this instrument makes the point so prominently suggests that it might be the sort of thing that it could, but definitely shouldn’t, be used for.
It is, in fact, an ohmmeter, Model 389 to be precise, manufactured by the Simpson Electric Company of Chicago, possibly some time in the 50s or early 60s. It does just one thing and that is measure electrical resistance, and in that respect it is not especially rare or unusual and one of hundreds of similar test instruments on the market at the time; but that warning message makes it a bit different. This turns out to be a surprisingly obscure model and confusingly Simpson uses the same 389 model number on a range of temperature measuring meters. I have been unable to find any reference to it in the company’s extensive archives, and never seen one before, or on ebay, which suggests that it may have been a special design, and the odd reference to explosives might indicate it was made for the military, rather than the general population of electrical engineers.
In case you are wondering about that warning message, it has to do with the fact that many types of explosives are set off using electric detonators. Basically these are small devices that go bang when connected by a (long) cable to a battery or hand-operated generator, and this initiates the main explosive charge. The implication therefore, is that following a failed detonation it would be tempting to test the electrical circuit using an instrument like this. However, somewhere down the line this was found, or judged to be inadvisable, as it could accidentally fire the detonator.
And so to the Model 389’s more conventional applications. It has two measuring ranges, 0 – 2,000 ohms and 0 – 200,000 ohms and this is determined by connecting a test lead to one of the screw terminals ether side of the central ‘Common’ terminal. A small voltage passes between the two test leads, which are used to complete a circuit, with the resistance of said circuit – i.e. whatever the leads are connected to – displayed on the meter. There are no controls as such but there are a couple of adjustments. The first one is a set-screw built into the meter, for setting what would normally be the zero point, though in this case the meter reads backwards, as it were, with maximum resistance, shown on a logarithmically calibrated scale, on the left. The other adjustment, on the lower end of the case, is the actual ‘zero set’. The procedure is to short circuit the Common and one of the two range terminals, effectively creating a zero resistance between the two. The screw, connected to a small potentiometer, it turned until the meter reads zero on the right side of the scale. This adjustment has to be made periodically, to compensate for a failing battery, or when a new battery is installed. For the record it is powered by a single 1.5 volt D cell and with normal use this lasts many months. This also means that there is a danger that the battery will be forgotten and eventually leak; fortunately this one had been well looked after.
The case is made from a tough Bakelite-type material and the back panel, which covers the battery compartment, is held in place by six small screws. There’s not a lot to see inside, just a few wires and a couple of resistors, all well protected by waxy insulation. In common with most good quality test instruments it is designed to take the knocks and bumps and this one is especially rugged, quite possibly to a military-spec. This assumes – quite rightly -- that it will be subject to some pretty challenging conditions and rough treatment. Suffice it to say that after what looks like a fairly arduous life, this one still works perfectly.
What Happened To It?
Simpson Electric, now based in Florida, are still going strong and continue to be a leading light in the test instrument business. They still make ohmmeters, though these days the majority of theirs, and those of most other manufacturers, now use digital technology for measurement and display. This little meter came my way via a box of electrical and electronic bits and bobs given to me by a friend. It had been gathering dust in his father’s garage for some years, and they were having a clearout. How and where it came into his possession no one can recall, so its exact origins are unknown.
Meters like this turn up fairly regularly in bric-a-brac shops, antique markets and car boot sales and generally attract little attention. Needless to say the collector’s market is quite small and this is reflected in the prices, which are usually quite modest, especially considering the build quality, workmanship, comparative rarity and what they would have originally cost. The £10 value I’ve put on this one is probably optimistic, which is okay, and it means that anyone discerning (daft...) enough to want to start a collection isn’t going to upset the bank manager -- or get rich....
First seen 1955?
Original Price £?
Value Today £10
Features Moving coil meter, dual range 0 – 2000 & 0 – 200,000 ohms, zero set adjustment, screw terminals
Power req. 1 x 1.5v D cell
Dimensions: 125 x 72 x 48mm
Made (assembled) in: USA
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 7
GPO 12B/1 Multirange Test Meter, 1965?
For many of us the General Post Office, or GPO conjures up images of chunky black Bakelite telephones and red phone boxes. It was the highly visible and public face of the communications division of the government organisation that became BT in the early 80s. Behind the scenes, though, there was a large army of engineers who tended the ageing and often temperamental equipment and a fair number of them were issued with instruments like this. It’s the 12B Mk 1 multi-range meter, dating from the 1960s and one of a vast array of test meters used by the GPO over the course of its 70-year history. This particular one is a lightly customised version of a model 127A multi meter, made by Taylor Electrical Instruments Limited of Slough. .
It’s the sort of thing that would be used to diagnose routine faults in exchanges, phone lines and customer installations; nothing too exotic, it measures AC and DC voltages up to 1000V, currents of up to 100 milliamps and resistances of between 0 and 20 meg ohms with a fair degree of accuracy. It can also measure decibels, though I have yet to meet anyone who actually did such things with an analogue multimeter... Above all, it was easy to use and built to withstand the rough and tumble of fault-finding in the field. Ruggedness was taken very seriously back then and it came with a really tough leather carry case that looks capable of protecting the meter from a fall from the top of telephone pole, which probably happened quite a lot…
It is housed in a Bakelite case, with the large meter movement taking up around half of the front panel. Below that is a single knob for selecting the AC, DC voltage current and resistance ranges, a switch for AC or DC/Ohms measurement, 5 sockets for probes and optional plug-in shunts (to extend the current measurement range) and a knob for zeroing the meter prior to making resistance measurements. It’s all very straightforward but it did have one minor flaw. One of the sockets, marked S, is used for the aforementioned shunts and is connected directly to the meter coil, which has a rating of just 40 microamps. If a test probe was plugged into this socket by mistake there was a very good chance of wrapping the needle around the end stop and blowing the meter; wise engineers blocked the socket or fitted a blanking plug, to avoid unfortunate accidents.
Apart from that there is little to go wrong, it’s mostly filled with precision resistors and a couple of rectifiers. Resistance measurement requires a source of power and this comes from two batteries that fit into a compartment on the rear panel. They were then and still are fairly specialist types. The BT121 (aka BLR-121) has an output of 15 volts and the other one is a U10, which is a 1.5 volt cell, but close enough in size and shape to a modern AA cell. They are both still available, at a price, and a BT121/BLR-121 can be cobbled together using contemporary button cells, so one way or another it is still very useable.
What Happened To It?
Doubtless one day someone will document the history of GPO test instruments (maybe they already have – if so please let me know) but for the moment the precise dates at which this one came into and went out of service is pure guesswork. The Taylor 127A, on which it is based is almost certainly 1960’s vintage, and like a lot of multi-meters of the period, it would have lasted well into the 70’s and early 80s, though by then increasingly sophisticated instruments were required to maintain the network, which was well into the process of being upgraded from analogue to digital technology.
I came across this one recently at a local car boot sale, priced at a fiver and haggled down to £2.50 as it didn't come with any probes. Sadly that is about all that it is worth; for those that are interested they turn up quite regularly on ebay. According to ballpoint markings on the inside of the case it once belonged to P. Townsend, and if he's still around he may be pleased to know that it still works, and will probably continue to do so for many decades to come, which is more than can be said for many modern multimeters. This sort of thing doesn’t rate very highly as a collectable so its value isn’t likely to rise by very much, but the 12B Mk 1 and its ilk are well worth preserving and would be a great shame if this rarely visited backwater of communications technology were to be forgotten.
First seen 1960
Original Price £?
Value Today £5
Features 20k opv (ohms per volt) DC, 1k opv AC, +/-3/4% fsd (full scale deflection), AC/DC 0 – 1000v 6-ranges, DC current 0-50uA, 0-100mA 5-ranges, resistance 0 – 2k, 0 – 20k & 0 – 20M 3-ranges, decibels (-10 - +55 5 ranges), zero ohms adjust, external shunt socket
Power req. 1 x BT121/BLR-121 (15v) & 1 x U10 (1.5v)
Dimensions: 145 x 95 x 48mm
Made in: England
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 5
Mention the name Clive Sinclair and those who know of him probably think of cheap and cheerful home computers or the ill-fated C5 electric vehicle. Maybe if they are of an age, or a gadget nut like me, then miniature televisions, tiny radios, calculators and watches might also come to mind, but I doubt that very many people associate him with test instruments. As it turns out Sir Clive had relatively little to do with this side of his business but it seems that for a while it was a profitable enterprise and almost certainly funded some of his more wacky products and projects.
Throughout the seventies Sinclair Radionics produced a succession of digital instruments including multimeters and frequency meters, starting with the DM1 in 1972. This was quite revolutionary and one of the very first low cost portable digital test meters to come onto the consumer market. This model ran for three years, when it was replaced by the DM2 in 1973. Things really took off in 1977 with the PDM 35, which we’ll be looking at in a moment, as well as the PFM 200 frequency meter and in the following two years there were ever more sophisticated multimeters and even a portable oscilloscope.
The PDM 35 resembles several other products in the Sinclair range and shares the same case as the Oxford calculator, which was also used to house the PFM 200. The specification is unremarkable by current standards but back then digital multimeters were more likely to be found in a lab, than on a home experimenter’s work bench, nor were they as small or as cheap (it sold for £33.00 by mail order) as the PDM 35. It covers a useful, rather than extensive range of measurements, including AC and DC volts, DC current and resistance. The mode is selected by a pair of slide switches on the top panel and the probes plug into a row of sockets along the bottom edge. Readings are shown on a tiny three and a half digit LED display and power comes from a standard 9-volt PP3 type battery.
Operationally there’s very little to say. According to contemporary reports it worked well, though the small display was said to be hard to read at a distance or in bright light, but on the plus side it was small, light and reasonably accurate. It also proved to be fairly robust, unless you dropped it or did something stupid, like trying to measure very high voltages on the resistance or current ranges.
What Happened to it?
Unfortunately the instruments division went down the pan with the rest of Sinclair’s operations in 1979 but it was saved and re-emerged as Thandar Electronics in 1980, later to become Thurlby Thandar Instruments, which has grown into a successful international business.
Although it was advanced for its time, developments in digital test instrument design came thick and fast in the late 70s and 80s. LEDs gave way to larger and easier to read LCDs, and manufacturers in the Far East came out with cheaper and better products, leaving the PDM 35 and its successors looking a little old fashioned. For a few short years, though, this and the other Sinclair test meters sold well and they were produced in quite respectable numbers. A fair few of them seem to have survived as they regularly turn up on ebay, often in good condition and usually still in working order.
I never actually owned a PDM 35, or felt inclined to buy one as I always preferred analogue multimeters but that didn’t put me off seeking one for my collection. This example came from ebay and cost £25.00. That’s about right for one in such good condition and as an added bonus it came with its original box, leads and even a set of instructions. Apart from a loose connection on the battery clip it has performed faultlessly. Test instruments like these are unlikely to ever become mainstream collectibles or worth very much but it would be shame if they drifted into obscurity as they definitely deserve a place in the history of digital technology.
DUSTY DATA (manual)
First seen: 1977
Original Price £33.00
Value Today? £20
Features: 3.5 digit resolution, 10M ohm input impedance DC Volts 1mV to 1000V, AC volts 1V to 500V, DC Current 1nA to 200mA, resistance 1 ohm to 20M ohm,
Power req. 1 x 9v PP3
Dimensions: 155 x 74 x 33mm
Made in: England
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 4
White Electrical Advance Lecture Ammeter , 1965?
Anyone who has been through the UK’s secondary school system will have sat in front of one of these, or something very much like it in physics lessons. It’s an ammeter, a device for measuring electrical current, but on a grand scale, so even the kids at the back of the class could see it. Not that I can remember many of my contemporaries paying much attention to amps, volts and ohms. I on the other hand was fascinated, thanks to 'Gaffer' Groom, my inspirational physics teacher, who undoubtedly steered me along the path that led me to a lifelong interest in electronics.
But back to my giant meter, which was made by the White Electrical Instrument Co. Ltd. and is known as The Advance Lecture Model. White Electrical used to be based in Amwell Sreet in London and moved to Malvern in Worcestershire in 1966. (see below). I haven't been able to put a precise date on it but this model was in production from the early 1950s and possibly before that, until the mid 1980s, at which point I suspect that many school labs switched to digital equipment, and interest waned in the workings of analogue meter movements.
For me and generations of kids learning about electricity it works on two levels. Firstly as a measuring instrument for electrical experiments, and secondly as very clear demonstration of how a moving coil and moving iron meter movements work. The innards are clear to see, from in front and behind through glass panels and there’s no mistaking a reading given on the huge scale.
It’s a real piece of craftsmanship too, beautifully made of wood and glass, and I’m guessing it’s pretty sturdy, designed to withstand the rigours of the school lab. This one has three large terminals, a red one marked c (probably for common) and two black ones marked 3 and 30, indicating that it can read currents in the range 0-3 and 0 – 30 amps (AC and DC). The only other feature is a small wire arm that twists when you turn a knob on the side of the case. The tip of the arm is bent at right angles and when in position it limits the movement of the needle to just a few degrees, probably to prevent damage to the movement when it is being moved.
What Happened To It?
The digital demon put paid to wonderful display instruments like this one. These days everyone expects clear unambiguous numbers and of course, you can’t argue with a row of bright LEDs or an LCD, but we’ve lot something. Analogue meters can tell you much more about the volts, amps and ohms being measured. The movement of the needle shows changes and trends far more clearly than winking digits and you can see exactly what makes it tick – try explaining the workings of a digital multimeter to a class of 15 year olds.
I have no idea what it is worth, I have seen similar large scale display instruments from time to time on ebay but there’s no consistency in prices or condition and they sell for anything from £10 to £100. This one I found at a car boot sale in mid Sussex. It was in a fairly grubby state and the stallholder had no idea what it was or what it was worth. He said ten pounds, I said how about eight, and the deal was done. It looked a lot worse that actually was and half an hour spent cleaning off the caked grime, and a liberal application of good quality furniture wax and it looks great, oh yes, and it still works.
Update. My grateful thanks to Alex Worswick for filling in the many missing details about this instrument. After leaving the RAF Alex started working for Whites as an apprentice in the 1950s and retired as the Technical MD in 2000, shortly before the company closed in late 2000.
First seen: 1965?
Original Price £30?
Value Today? £50
Features: Large scale display or classroom ammeter, 0 – 3 & 0 – 30 Amps, see through movement, needle lock
Power req. n/a
Dimensions: 420 x 150 x 420mm
Made in: England
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 8
At least, I’m fairly sure it’s made by Taylor Instruments, and the date is a bit of a guess as well. There are no manufacturer’s marks or dates anywhere but it looks a lot like barographs made by the company, of that era. In case you’re wondering what a barograph is, it’s an instrument for recording changes in air pressure, and if you’re familiar with aneroid barometers -- the sort you hang on the wall, with a round dial, marked ‘stormy’ and ‘change’ – then you may recognise part of the mechanism inside the case. The stack of round cylinders on the right is a type of bellows, all the air has been sucked out so when the atmospheric air pressure changes they expand or contract.
The top of the bellows is connected by a lever mechanism to a simple pen nib and ink reservoir, on the end of the arm, and this draws a continuous line on a strip of chart paper, attached to a drum that rotates once a week. The drum, in this case, is driven by a battery powered clock movement in the base, which makes it a bit unusual. The drums on most ‘classic’ barographs are usually driven by clockwork movements, which is probably why ones like this are eschewed by serious collectors, and can still be found relatively cheaply.
It’s small size and the fairly plain, functional design and Perspex dust cover makes me think this particular model was made for schools and libraries and so on, rather than for ornamental, scientific or domestic use, even so it’s a really interesting object to have around, and functional too. The pen trace gives you a real-time indication of the weather, as it is now, and as it has been, and with a little practice you can spot trends and take a fairly good guess at what the weather will be.
What Happened to it?
Barographs of this type are still being made and good ones cost hundreds, if not thousands of pounds, and antique ones – especially fancy models from top name makers – cost a small fortune. Nowadays, though, anyone seriously interested in recording air pressure will use an electronic instrument or one kind or another.
Barographs can be quite expensive to run. Blank recording charts are quite difficult to find, and when you do they can be silly prices, so I make my own. I found one the right size and scanned it, erased the ink trace with PaintShop Pro and print them out as needed. To prevent the ink soaking in I spray them with a fixative spray. Special barograph ink is also very expensive, so I make my own. Ordinary ‘Quink’ type pen ink dries out in a few days, so to stop that happening just mix it with glycerine, a 50/50 mix works just fine.
I bought this one from good old ebay a few years ago for £30, the only trouble was the seller was Canadian, so it cost me another £30 to have it shipped over (and careful packaging is essential) but it was money well spent and I have seen them selling for two or three times as much, through the occasional bargain still slips through, especially when the seller doesn’t know what it is and it ends up in the wrong category, or can’t spell the word barograph….
First seen: 1930
Original Price £?
Value Today? £100
7-day movement, continuous barometric
pressure recording, Perspex dust cover
Dimensions: 198 x 111 x 135mm
Made in: USA
Hen’s Teeth (10 rarest): 4
AVO Model 8 Multimeter 1965
In my opinion you are now looking at one of the finest electrical test and measuring instruments ever built and until a few years ago, if you ever needed to have a piece of electronic equipment repaired there’s a very fair chance an AVO meter, and quite probably a Model 8, had something to do with it.
By current standards the AVO 8 is fairly basic; all it does is measure AC and DC voltage and current and electrical resistance. You can buy a pocket test meter in Maplin for under a tenner that does all that, and quite a bit more besides, and probably more accurately -- but I absolutely guarantee it will not be still working in 40 or 50 years time. AVOs even older than that are still in daily use. What an AVO 8 and analogue meters lack in fancy features they more than make up for with the extra information they provide about the circuits they are being used to test. It takes a while to learn and understand the behaviour or a wiggling moving coil meter but it’ll tell you more than a bunch of digits ever will. However, what really sets the AVO 8 apart from almost every other test meter is its rugged construction. In short it’s built like a brick outhouse and can take a ridiculous amount of physical punishment, and if you do abuse it electrically the fast mechanical cut-out usually saves the day.
There’s not really much to say about the technology, it’s simple and it works, the only points of interest to those unfamiliar with mechanical test meters are things like the curved mirror on the meter scale. This is used to improve accuracy; it’s elegantly simple, when reading the dial you position your eyes so that you can’t see the reflection of the needle, at which point you know you are looking directly down on the scale. One less welcome feature is the really unusual 15 volt battery it uses to power the resistance measurement circuit. Fortunately they last for ages, and they are still available, though it’s a constant source of worry that one day they’ll stop making them
What Happened to it?
The Model 8 was introduced in the early 1950s and this one, one of two that I own, is a fairly early example because it has a (notoriously inaccurate) decibel range. Legend has it that it was designed to meet military specifications but the manufactures decided it was so good it was developed for the civilian market. As a matter of interest the Model 8 is still being made and costs around £600, though AVO has long since moved on to more hi-tech products and sadly most of it’s model range is now manufactured overseas. I can’t honestly remember what I paid for my two AVO 8s, one I’ve had for at least 25 years, the other I found at a car boot sale ten years ago so it probably only cost £5 or so. They are not especially collectible so you can expect to find bargains but for a generation of old hands that grew up with them they are still very useable test instruments and their worth goes way beyond mere monetary consideration.
First seen: 1951
Original Price £30
Value Today? £10
28 ranges: DC Current 50uA - 10A, DC Voltage 2.5 –2500 volts, AC
Current 100mA - 10A, 0 – 20M Ohms, insulation resistant ace up to 200M (with
external 150 volt supply) sensitivity 20,000 Ohms/volt, 1% accuracy
Dimensions: 195 x 170 x 115mm
Made in: UK
Hen’s Teeth (10 rarest): 6
Anyone who has worked in the electrical or electronics industry will be familiar with the name AVO. British made AVO (short for Amps, Volts and Ohms) test meters and instruments are justly famous for their accuracy, reliability and above all, the kind of rugged construction that means they can take a great deal of punishment. The design of AVO meters changes little over the years and the classic Model 8 analogue multimeter, which I was using back in the 1970s is still being made, and nowadays costs the thick end of £600!
The Multiminor was designed for portability and use in the field or up ladders so it’s relatively small and light, and very easy to use. There’s only two controls, the large range/mode switch and the small ohms ‘zero’ preset, which you twiddle to compensate for the aging effect of the single AA battery, used to measure resistance. There’s also a meter zero adjustment, though this would normally only be set if the meter had suffered a severe shock, or set to the wrong range, and the needle had wrapped it self against the end-stop…
This model range has also been around for a long time and I have found references to Multiminors dating back to the 1930s. This particular one is almost certainly from the mid to late 1960s, judging by the materials and the design of the leather carry case. The top panel and switch are all made from black Bakelite and the lower part is a hammer-finished steel pressing; earlier models were all Bakelite.
The leads are not original, and like most well-used AVOs they are probably the third or fourth set, earlier ones being lost, stolen, destroyed or the insulation burned by a carelessly placed soldering iron.
What Happened to It?
Analogue test meters are now very rare, having been largely replaced by digital instruments, nevertheless, AVOs and their ilk will continue to find favour with engineers, especially those from the old school, who appreciate the extra information they can give, and their inherent reliability. Analogue AVO meters were produced in fairly large numbers, so they’re not especially rare, and they’re virtually indestructible, so you’ll regularly find good examples selling on ebay, often for a fraction of their real worth (or original cost). A good example of a practical and genuinely useful collectible, but probably not much of an investment.
First seen: c1966
Original Price £50 - 150
Value Today? £10
Measuring ranges DC volts: 2.5, 10, 25, 100, 250, 1000; AC volts: 10, 25, 100, 250, 1000 V; Current: 0.1, 1, 10, 100, 1000 mA; Resistance:
x1, x100k ohms
Dimensions: 143 x 92 x 35 mm
Made in: Archcliffe Road, Dover, Kent, England
Hen’s Teeth (10 rarest): 4
TTC C1001 Multimeter, 1971
Back in the 60’s and 70s there was huge amount of dabbling going on. Boys of all ages (and it was very much a boy thing), especially nerdy ones, were into electronics in a big way. For a short while electronic construction kits were all the rage but for the hardcore enthusiast it had to be DIY all the way, which meant learning which end of a soldering iron to hold, and buying your transistors, resistors and capacitors from the dozens of companies that sprung up all over the place.
There was a healthy magazine market too, with titles like Practical Wireless, Radio Constructor, Practical Electronics. Elektor and Electronics Today International (ETI, who gave me my first job in journalism). Each month these magazines published detailed plans for impossibly complicated electronic gadgets, most of which never worked, and the must-have accessory was a Multimeter, so you could find out what went wrong with it.
Incidentally, after working for various electronic constructor magazines over the years I can tell you that at least half the things we published never worked and one of my first jobs was to put together the corrections page each month. Also, my sincere apologies for anyone who received shocks from the many dodgy mains-powered projects we occasionally and most unwisely published…
Anyway, this particular multimeter dates back to the early 70’s and was ideal for simple projects, being able to measure AC and DC voltages, small currents and resistance. It was reasonably accurate and a pocket-money alternative to serious multimeters like the magnificent AVO models used by serious teccies. This one is based around a large angled moving coil meter, housed in a sturdy bakelite case and it came with a leather carry case and pair of tests leads.
What happened to it?
Most test meters had gone digital by the late 70’s and very accurate they were too, giving precise readings of volts, ohms, amps and much more besides to several decimal places. However, call me an old stick in the mud but I still prefer to watch a flickering needle. I genuinely believe it tells you more about what’s happening in an electrical or electronic circuit than a set of digits. Changes in current or voltage, for example, are much easier to see when represented by a moving needle. It’s also easier to judge the performance and condition of a capacitor by measuring its resistance, and watching the charge quickly rise and slowly fall. Most moving coil multimeters of this era were built like brick outhouses and they didn’t reven need a battery for measuring volts and amps (the battery was used for checking resistance).
Old test meters pop up now and again in junk markets and car boot sales. However, it is unlikely that cheap little ones like this will ever become seriously collectable but big old AVO meters are definitely worth having; they are superbly well built and to anyone who has used one, a thing of beauty and precision.
First seen: 1971
Original Price £8.95
Value Today? £2 - £5
Features: Moving coil meter, DC volts 5 – 500/2.5k, AC volts 10 – 1000, DC current 0-5uA/0-250mA, DC Resistance 0-infinity 2 x ranges
Power req. 1 x AA
Dimensions: 115 x 85 x 28 (very approx)
Made in: Japan
Rarity: 6 (1 = common, 10 = Hen's teeth)
All information on this web site is provided as is without warranty of any kind. Neither dustygizmos.com nor its employees nor contributors are responsible for any loss, injury, or damage, direct or consequential, resulting from your choosing to use any of the information contained herein.
Copyright (c) 2007 - 2021 dustygizmos.com