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?

In Praise of Backward Compatibility

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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

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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:

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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.

083 Kris De Decker of Low Tech Magazine

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Our guest this week is journalist Kris De Decker, the creator of Low Tech Magazine, a blog published in English, Dutch and Spanish that covers low tech solutions in great depth and detail. Without exaggeration, I think it’s safe to say it’s my favorite blog. On the podcast we discuss high tech problems, Catalan vaulting, fruit walls, Chinese wheelbarrows, open modular hardware, fireless cookers and alternate forms of the internet.

If you want 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.

Low-Tech Magazine

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Chinese wheelbarrow with sail assist. Image courtesy of Low Tech Magazine.

Yesterday, Erik and I had the privilege of interviewing Kris De Decker, the creator of one of our very favorite Internet resources, Low-Tech Magazine. Those of you who know Low-Tech will understand our vast excitement. To make it all even happier, he seems like a really good guy.

If you haven’t heard of this blog, believe me, Root Simple readers, if you like what we do here, you’ll love Low-Tech. This is the sort of site you fall into and stay for days.

Our interview with him will appear on our podcast next Wednesday, but in the meantime I suggest you whet your appetite by reading some of our favorite articles:

How to Make Everything Ourselves: Open Modular Hardware

How to Downsize a Transportation Network: The Chinese Wheelbarrow

If We Insulate Our Houses, Why Not Our Cooking Pots?

Restoring the Old Way of Warming: Heating People, Not Spaces

Recycling Animal and Human Dung is the Key to Sustainable Farming