Download a Genuine 1920s Ringtone


Image: Wikipedia, Genevieve Clark using a candlestick phone.

The most common service call for telephone technicians back in the 1920s was to muffle the obnoxious sound of the ringer. Why were those bells so loud? The phone company didn’t make money until you lifted the receiver. It was in their interest for you to answer the phone.

Now you can have the genuine, ear splitting sound of a 1920s era telephone ringer box on your shiny new iPhone or Android device. I recorded the sound of my Western Electric 534A ringer box and turned it into a ringtone that you can download here for $1.29 in the iTunes store. I also uploaded a free version that you can download here as an mp3. If you download the free version you can turn that audio file into a ringtone using these directions.

If the ringtone proves popular I’ll make a Western Electric 500 version and, perhaps, turn the sound of hungry cats into a ringtone that is sure to disrupt your next meeting.

SolSource Review Part I: Assembly


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.


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


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?

In Praise of Backward Compatibility


The garden of nerdiness has many flowers: comic book nerds, computer nerds, fantasy nerds, sci-fi nerds–too many to list. After fifty years I’ve finally recognized my own personal nerd category. I’m an electromechanical nerd. This tendency manifests in an obsession with old telephones, the ability to thread a 16mm projector, fantasizing about the mimeographed version of Root Simple and spending evenings watching films about old office equipment. And I have a reverence, bordering on idolatry, for two machines in particular, the Western Electric 500 telephone and the IBM Selectric typewriter. Note that this obsession is not to be confused with Steampunk, despite my past prediction that we’d see the return of the monocle. No, my fantasy world involves a narrow tie, a cocktail in one hand and a heavy phone handset in the other.

I’ve written about it many times before but I’d like to repeat one of the things that I admire most about the Western Electric 500 and mid-20th century telephony in general: the principle of backward compatibility, an idea taken from computer engineering that you can load new software on old machines. Believe it or not, my 45 year old WE 500 still works (more on that below).

Backward compatibility in the case of phones is as much an economic as technical issue. Our phone system used to be a public utility. Before the Bell system was broken up in 1984, the phone company manufactured and maintained all telephones. They were solidly built, made to last and produced domestically by well paid workers. Because it was in their financial interest, the phone company was conservative about changes that would require new equipment. In the entire history of the Bell system, from 1877 to 1984, there were only five different types of circuits.

Once the phone system was broken up we suddenly had many different new telephones to choose from. But it was a false choice. They were all cheap pieces of crap that didn’t last more than a few years. I can’t tell you how many awful cordless telephones I blew through in the 1990s before I went back to my beloved Western Electric 500.

Similarly, we all get to buy new iPhones every other year. Apple is particularly bad about backward compatibility. Like the Bell system, Apple has total control over its hardware and blocks any attempt to go open source. But unlike the the old Bell system, Apple does not have to answer, for the most part, to any regulatory agency. They can turn our perfectly functional iPhone into a doorstop anytime they want and get us to buy a new one.

Maintaining backward compatibility is about deciding on a common sense design vocabulary and sticking to it. While standards can stifle creativity, they can also prevent waste. What if I don’t want to spend hundreds of dollars every two years on a new phone made by underpaid workers?

And what about the way we use phones? Very early on in the history of the phone system certain audio signals were agreed upon: among others these include the dial tone, the ringback tone, the busy signal and the hang up alert. Of these, the one that one rarely hears anymore is the busy signal. Maybe I don’t want to wade through long voice mails or texts. Maybe you just have to wait until I’m off the phone. And the hang up alert (that annoying sound that lets you know an old phone is off the hook) needs to be re-purposed and brought back to prevent so-called “butt dialing” or “pocket dialing.”

But let me end on a hopeful note. During the Christmas holiday, while we were hosting friends and family, AT&T decided to stop servicing my traditional landline/ISDN combo and forced me to switch to their fake fiber optic service called U-Verse (it’s still, for the most part, copper wire based). After I switched, my dial phone stopped working and our internet service degraded so much we were unable to put out this blog without using our cellphones. I called back the friendly AT&T technician who installed U-Verse and he admitted to me that it didn’t work in our neighborhood (thanks for not letting me know that ahead of time!).

In the end I was forced to switch to Time Warner for slightly better and equally expensive service. Our overseas readers should know this is common in the U.S., that we pay a lot of money for poor telecommunications services.

But the electromechanical geek in me had a delightful surprise. Either Time Warner or the folks who designed the modem Time Warner provides had a respect for backward compatibility. Unlike AT&T’s U-Verse service, my Western Electric 500 dial phone still can make an outbound call on Time Warner. The Western Electric 500’s ringer, the bane of Kelly’s existence, still rings. I suspect some old Bell system engineer must be responsible for this obscure technical detail. To that engineer, I lift my cocktail in your honor. May we always hear that electromechanical ring!

How to Carry Heavy Objects with a Two-Person Carrying Pole

Moore’s law, the idea that computing power doubles every two years is one of the many stories we like to tell ourselves about our culture’s march of progress. But there has to be an inverse of Moore’s law, a cultural forgetfulness that leaves good ideas behind that don’t involve transistors or internal combustion engines. In an old issue of Dwelling Portably, a typewritten zine about living on the cheap I came across a forgotten (at least in the developed West) technique for carrying heavy objects,

Once, while working on a tug boat, the marine engineer asked me to help carry a heavy, greasy, irregularly-shaped chunk of machinery. I assumed we would both just grab hold and struggle away. But the engineer, being of Filipino descent, knew a better way. Wisely, he found a 2-by-4 and lashed its middle to the machinery. Then we each took hold of an end of the 2-by-4. That made our task much easier, and kept us clean.

Other than the awkward phrase “two-person carrying pole,” I can’t find an English word for this method. And note that I’m not talking here about the related milkmaid’s yoke or “shoulder pole,” a method for one person to carry two objects such as buckets. Other than hunters, the two-person carrying pole seems to have fallen out of fashion. Except in Asia. Here’s a video of two people using a pole to carry a television down a staircase in China:

I decided to do a quick test of the concept. Since the only access to our house is up 30 steps, I can’t believe that I didn’t know about this technique earlier. With just a closet rod, a hook and a strap I put together a simple carrying pole in just minutes. Here’s Kelly and I using it to carry a bundle of firewood up our stairs:

It worked amazingly well. I noticed that you do not need to put the pole on your shoulder but, with small objects at least, you can carry the pole at waist level. Some other possible improvements:

  • Use webbing or sew together a set of adjustable straps to use for irregularly shaped objects.
  • Pad and/or contour the pole so it’s more comfortable on your shoulders.
  • Make a kind of carrying platform or box to put multiple smaller objects in like a set of grocery bags.
  • Use two poles and four people for really heavy objects.

I have a utility dolly for really big things like refrigerators but I think the carrying pole would work much better for most other objects.

The carrying pole can be used to carry people, a use for which there is a word in English: “litter.” Here’s a carrying pole being used in Guatemala to carry an injured man to the hospital:


I’m hoping that the litter version of the carrying poll will become Kelly’s new way of getting around the neighborhood during the hot summer months:

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In all seriousness, I would like to figure out a way to get relatives up our steps. That means you can look forward to some litter (not cat litter!) experiments on this blog.