Ringing in the New Year

My recent passion for bakelite telephones, recounted here, has led to a new and unusual doorbell, though the route was somewhat circuitous.

I developed a personal dislike of wireless doorbells in our last house, an upper maisonette flat, where answering the door involved descending one and sometimes two sets of stairs. Soon after we moved in, the doorbell we inherited became insane and took to ringing on its own initiative, so that I would go plunging down the stairs to open the door and find no-one there. My solution there was to rig an old-fashioned ‘butler’s bell’, the sort that is hung on a coil spring and rung via system of pulleys connecting it to a brass bell-pull at the font door.

Our new house came with a wireless bell that needed only a new battery to make it work and it served well enough but with a couple of drawbacks. One is a peculiarity of the house, which is effectively back-to-front, with the entrance from the street being via the back door, which gives onto a convoluted passage with three right angle turns before you reach the main hall via another internal door which is usually shut. This means that the wireless receiver needs to be in line with the back door, where the bell push is, which puts it at some remove from the main part of the house and on the wrong side of the internal door. Add to this a sonorous chime sufficiently musical to be masked by the radio in the kitchen if (as is usual when I am there) it is playing Radio 3, and you breed high levels of doorbell-related anxiety (exacerbated by a further peculiarity of the house which is that the entrance described above is not on the same street as the house address but actually round the corner on the next street).

My first preference was to replace the wireless bell with something similar to the mechanical bell I had used in our previous house, but butler’s bells had evidently become an object of desire in the interim and the prices were absurd, so I decided to put up with the hard-to-hear wireless bell in the meantime.

Meanwhile, in a parallel universe, my bakelite telephone researches had led me to an article entitled ‘Build your own ring generator for testing!’ which centred round a ‘black magic box’ made by Cambridge Electronics Laboratories in the USA. This device, powered by a suitable battery, would send AC current of the right frequency to cause a telephone connected to it to ring just as it would if its number had been dialled. Picture my surprise when, shortly after reading the article, I came across just such a Black Magic Box entirely by chance on eBay. This was so evidently a sign – and the price so reasonable – that I promptly bought it, along with various other components, in order to build myself a ring generator (even though I did not really need one).

That was in mid-November. When the various parts arrived, it became evident that something was amiss. Although I had followed the specifications in the original posting, the black magic box would not fit in the black plastic box that I had ordered to contain it and the battery. When I looked more closely, I saw that I had bought a different and slightly larger version of the ringing generator; what was more, while the original required a single 12v battery, this one required four.

[Before you begin to have visions of this small box wired up to four car batteries, let me assure you that these 12V batteries – designated A23 – are astonishingly small:

(they are actually made up of a stack of eight 1.5V button cells in series enclosed in a wrapper)]

So I had to order three more batteries (together with three more wee mounting boxes to put them in). No sooner had I done that (my eBay records show) than my eye was caught by something else phone-related, to wit, a no.41 Bellset:

The bellset as it originally appeared: note the black oxidised gongs, which are actually copper. Though they look quite well in the original, I was unable to resist taking them back to the bare metal.

It had a low opening price – £10 – and I stuck in a minimal bid. No-one else was interested and I won it. By the time it had arrived, the thought had crossed my mind that not only could I use my black magic box to make it ring, but I could rig the whole thing as a doorbell.

It is curious how often you can have all the major components of a grand scheme in place only to be thwarted from executing it by some tiny detail. In this case, it was the bell-push. The original ring-generator called for a push-button (or ‘momentary’) switch, and though I had one, I wasn’t sure it had the gravitas for a front door bell (even if our front door was actually the back door):

Furthermore, there was the problem of locating it – the door in question is of the modern sort, lacking the ample wooden jambs of the traditional kind in which a bell-push might be housed. That does not matter for the present bell, which being wireless, can be stuck to the jamb with no need to penetrate it.

Then it occurred to me that there was, in the turn of the hall, the remnants of an earlier bell, which evidently had not been wireless:

Might the original wiring still be intact? A little detective work showed that it was, with the wires emerging at a point concealed by the present stick-on wireless bell. Flushed with success, I attached the bell-set to a makeshift arrangement that housed the black magic box and its batteries, ran a wire from the box to one terminal of the old bell, then attached the two bell wires to one another outside the door (rather than through the bell push, to save me from having to operate it when I wanted to be at the other end of the business) then completed the circuit by touching the other wire from the black magic box to the second terminal in the old bell-box.

The bell-set rang!

It was at just this point, all obstacles removed and problems solved, poised on the verge of success, that things took a baffling turn. The entire set-up, from the connections to the bellset to the black magic box to the batteries, was makeshift, with bared wire simply looped round terminals and in some cases held down with blu-tack – I wanted to be sure that it worked in principle before making the effort to solder on proper connections and the like, knowing that when I did, I could be sure that everything would work as it should. So I set to and made proper permanent connections and put it all firmly together.

And it did not work.

Not a cheep could I get out of it!

I checked and rechecked the connections: they were all tight and where they should be. I checked the batteries: the total voltage was a little down, but surely not enough to account for such complete absence of response? To be sure, I added another battery in series, but still nothing. At this point I became convinced that I had done something foolish and somehow managed to wreck the black box: I recalled there were warnings about polarity, and about incorporating a resistor in the circuit to protect against short-circuits (which I had not done). I began to realise how limited my understanding of electricity really was. Had I, in the moment of my triumph when I made it ring using the old bell circuit, somehow contrived to do it irreparable damage? There had been no bangs, flashes or sparks, but it was certainly now as dead as a dodo, and had been, apparently, since that single, triumphant ring.

Having slept on it, I woke convinced that the explanation was probably less dramatic. I tested the batteries again, this time individually, rather than as a group. Three were fine, but the other was some way below what it should be. I recalled that batteries wired in series (a bit like Christmas lights) were only as strong as their weakest link. I decided to buy some more batteries, but those available locally were exorbitant so I ordered some more (postage free) from eBay, and for good measure, a holder that would take four at time, rather than the ramshackle arrangement I had concocted myself:

on the left, the original box, with a vacant space where the black box was located, and four separate battery containers wired in series using gold wire saved off a bottle of Rioja. On the right, a proprietary quadruple-battery holder.

But while I was waiting for the batteries to arrive, I fell to thinking. If fresh batteries solved the problem, just how practical would this doorbell prove in service? all it took was for one battery to fail a little and it would cease to operate. And how long would the batteries last, anyway? Might I not become ensnared in a downward spiral of anxiety, perpetually concerned that the bell might have stopped working, so always checking it, only to wonder if by doing so I was actually running the batteries down?

Then I saw this:

It is a hand-cranked magneto, designated GPO generator 26AP, and its sole purpose in life is to make telephone bells ring. I watched it closely and saw it was attracting little interest on eBay and was able to secure it with a minimal bid of £9.99 (though the postage actually cost more than that – it’s a heavy little article, but it did arrive very promptly.) With this, I reasoned, I could always be certain that the bell would ring – all you had to do was turn the handle; and there would be no batteries to run out.

The only practical problem was where and how to mount it, since it was somewhat larger than a conventional bell-push. After some investigation (involving drilling holes and a knitting needle) I was able to confirm my surmise that there was a gap of some four inches or so between the cladding of the outer porch and the wall of the house. Since the generator was about five inches front to back, this meant that if I sawed a suitable hole, it could sit on a wee shelf, with most of its bulk concealed and only the face with the handle protruding. After an initial false start when I discovered that an iron rone pipe was already occupying half the space behind the first hole I created, I moved the scene of operations some way to the right and cut a second hole. This was one was unencumbered, and the only difficult was leading the wire to the generator. My first thought was to use the existing wires and add extensions to them at either end, but since they were already old and had at least one dodgy join in them, I reasoned it would be best to use a fresh cable. This was thicker than the old wires and it took a lot of patient work to enlarge the somewhat crooked passage that they followed to allow the new cable through.

But eventually, it was done.

L-R: new cable entering enlarged hole on inner door jamb; emerging at the other side and passing behind the cladding; the initial abandoned hole in the process of repair, with the generator to the left.

And it works, giving me an absurd amount of pleasure when it does. Sometimes I ring it just for fun.

the little gold arrow, in the best tradition, is manufactured from gold foil taken from the top of a wine bottle

The one drawback is that it sounds exactly like the telephone, but since it is in a different place and in any case only rings two or three times (depending on the vigour with which the handle is turned) that does not really matter. And it makes me smile whenever I see it.

Bellset in situ, with the gongs taken back to the bare metal. The box deserves a new coat of varnish.

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