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?

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  1. Amazing! It actually sounds like a TELEPHONE. Just the ringtone to install on your smartphone and have ring loudly during the quiet, romantic aria at the opera.

  2. I have a telephone ringtone on my cellphone. When I was standing in a classroom of seventh graders when my cell rang. Several girls were startled and looked around, very frightened, asking what THAT was. One or two students knew it was a telephone ring. Most of the class had never heard that sound.

    My ring is not like yours, but close. Will this app be available to us?

  3. Oh wow! The having, the fixing, and the ringing are so cool!
    Sadly, my house is newish and far far away from any wire based utilities so no land line for me. 🙁

  4. What I have is both a bit cooler, and a bit less cool than that. I have a whole, functioning wall telephone. It is, however, only from 1940, when the house was built. It hangs in a little made-for-it alcove in the wall, the ledge of which is large enough to hold a pad of paper and a pen. I had to repair the bells, once, and did some research online, and had it ringing again within ten minutes! I love things that were made to last.

    We had a guest, once, who was there to be photographed by my upstairs renter. I was sitting by my computer, when my phone rang, and I answered it, and the person calling asked who had called him from my number. I went to ask my renter’s guest if one of them had called someone, and the girl went all wide-eyed. “I was just playing with the phone on the wall!” she said, amazed. “That thing is real??”

    I’m glad she dialed her boyfriend’s number, instead of some made-up number that would end up being Eastern Europe or something.

  5. Pingback: Download a Genuine 1920s Ringtone | Root Simple

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