Video Sundays: Design Line Phones

Am I the only person who has a problem with post WWII consumer objects? When it comes to phones I think they should be black, all the same and weigh 10 pounds. I think the cringe-worthy phones in this film from the fascinating AT&T history channel, prove my point. Some background:

For much of the company’s history, AT&T rented phones to users. But in the 1970s, the company tried a novelty line of phones that customers could actually buy, in stores. For these “Design Line” phones, the users were essentially buying just the housing — the working guts of the phones were still under the Bell System maintenance and ownership contracts.

These phones were not cheap — prices in 1976 for these phones ranged from $39.95 for the basic Exeter to a whopping $109.95 for the rococo Antique Gold model. That’s about $150 to over $400 today. Not that much more than a smartphone, but, of course, no touchscreen. No ringtones.

My mini-rant on the tyranny of choice aside, that “Telstar” model is pretty cool. Add a cat, a swiveling modernist chair and you’re a James Bond villain.

Saturday Tweets: Coffee, Bees and Bog Butter

SolSource Review Part I: Assembly

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When we wrote our second book, Making It, I wanted to include a parabolic solar cooker project. I found a castoff satellite TV dish and covered it with aluminum foil. The problem was how to position a cooking surface in front of it while simultaneously tracking the sun. If you knew how to weld this might be possible– if still a challenging project. I just couldn’t figure out a way to do it without custom welding and gave up on my dream of solar grilling.

That fire, so to speak, has been reignited by the folks at One Earth Designs, who sent us their SolSource solar grill for testing, as part of our solar cooking initiative this summer. This device is different than a solar oven in that it does not function like a slow cooker, but as a high-heat grill. Arguments could be made that a well-outfitted solar kitchen needs both an oven and grill. More on that later!

We’re going to break our initial review of the SolSource into a couple of parts, starting with assembly.

But first, a few basic things so you know what you’re looking at. The SolSource is a parabolic mirror with a clever central cutout to allow easy access to the cooking surface. The sun’s rays are directed beneath a pot/frying pan support, so that all the cooking heat is focused on a single spot at the bottom of the cooking pot or pan.

A small mirror in the center of the assembly helps you keep the light focused in the correct place. You refocus the sunlight by rotating the whole assembly, which move easily on two separate axes.

I have assembled and disassembled the SolSource twice. I shot a time-lapse of the second assembly which I accomplished in 33 minutes. It would probably take a little longer the first time. The grill went together easily using the the provided Ikea-like pictographic instructions. The SolSource comes with two wrenches and no additional tools are needed.

If I wanted to take the SolSource on the road for a picnic or solar tailgate party I would probably not fully disassemble it. The disc and the grill assembly come apart easily into two parts and that’s how I would stash it into my chariot to go on the road.

Los Angeles’ usual June cloud cover has suddenly vanished and a record setting heat wave is set to arrive this weekend–perfect timing for testing the SolSource. (Though, honestly, this heat wave looks so nasty we might able to cook just by setting the food out on the patio!)

The SolSource retails for $499.00. It can be purchased at the One Earth Designs site (shipping is free) and also at Amazon.

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087 Foraging Controversy with Lisa Novick

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Goldfinches on Hooker’s Evening Primrose. Photo: Lisa Novick.

On the podcast this week we talk to Lisa Novick Director of Outreach and K-12 Education of the Theodore Payne Foundation for Wild Flowers & Native Plants. We contacted her after seeing her blog in the Huffington Post, Forage in the Garden, Not in What’s Left of the Wild. In that post Lisa expresses her concern about foraging and suggests that people grow native plants in their yards and in public spaces. While our conversation is California-centric, I think, the principles we discuss apply to other regions. During the podcast Lisa mentions:

Hooker's Evening Primrose in bloom. Photo: Lisa Novick.

Hooker’s Evening Primrose in bloom. Photo: Lisa Novick.

If you’d like to leave a question for the Root Simple Podcast please call (213) 537-2591 or send an email to [email protected]. You can subscribe to our podcast in the iTunes store and on Stitcher. The theme music is by Dr. Frankenstein. A downloadable version of this podcast is here.

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Restoring the Original Black Box: Our Western Electric 534A Subset

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Japanese artist Genpei Akasegawa invented a word, “Thomasson,” for a “useless and defunct object attached to someone’s property and aesthetically maintained.” The term is named, somewhat unfairly, after baseball player Gary Thomasson, who spent the last two seasons of his career in Japan nearly tying the league strikeout record despite being the most highly paid player in the country at the time.

When we bought our house in 1998 it contained one genuine Thomasson in a dark corner of the hallway: a phone ringer box. Somehow, over the years, the previous residents never bothered to remove the box but did feel the need to touch up the metal with a not so good black paint job.

The box in question is a Western Electric 534A ringer box. Candlestick phones in the 1920s did not have enough internal space to squeeze in a ringer so the bells were mounted in a separate box in a central location in the house. This particular ringer box was manufactured between the years 1918 and 1930 and replaced earlier wooden models. Phone expert Ralph O. Meyer speculates that the Western Electric 534 ringer box may be where we get the term “black box” from (flight recorders are bright orange, not black). Ringer boxes and the phones that went with them were also one of the first consumer electronic devices.

There’s a handsome variation on this box. Add a dial, transmitter and receiver to the 534A and you’ve got a wall or “hotel” phone:

Image: Kenton's Antiques.

Image: Kenton’s Antiques.

Ever since we moved in to our house, I’ve wanted to “un-Thomasson” our Western Electric 534A and make the bells ring again. In an earlier attempt at repair I, unfortunately, lost a few of the parts. But thankfully, after some library and internet research I figured out what was missing and got the box ringing again. For the one or two phone geeks in our audience, I replaced the missing capacitor with a new 1uF mylar/film capacitor in series. The capacitor prevents the phone line from going off-hook while allowing the ring signal to go through. I also had to replace a spring and adjust the spacing between the bells. Since these boxes were owned by the phone company, solidly built and meant to be fixed (unlike the cheap crap we buy these days) all of the adjustments to the ringer were relatively easy to make.

For your listening pleasure I posted a video of the interior of our ringer box in action. This, ladies and gentlemen, is what it sounded like when the phone rang in 1920s:

And, yes, I will be making this available as a ringtone in about a week. Though, I’ll note, you probably won’t be able to fix your iPhone 96 years in the future.

Does your old house still have a ringer box?