Retrotechtacular: The Modern Telephone

We take recorded telephone messages for granted in these days of smartphones and VOIP. Our voicemail lives on an anonymous server in a data centre in the cloud somewhere, in a flash memory chip on our DECT base station, or if we’re of a retro persuasion, on a micro-cassette. Wherever we go, we now know our calls will not go unanswered.

Today’s subject takes us back to a time when automatically recording a phone call was the last word in high technology, with British Pathé newsreel piece from 1959 entitled “Modern Telephone”. Its subject is the Ansafone J10, one of the first telephone answering machines available on the British market. After featuring a fantastic home-made Meccano answering machine with turntable recording created by a doctor, it takes us to the Ansafone factory where the twin tape mechanisms of the commercial model are assembled and tested. Finally we get to see it in use on the desk of a bona fide Captain of Industry, probably about the only sort of person who could afford an Ansafone in 1959.

Part of the film’s charm comes not from the technology but from the glimpse it gives us of 1950s Britain sanitised for the newsreel. The clipped tones, leather armchairs and bookshelves, the coal fire and the engineer in a three-piece suit. The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.

Take a look at the film below after the break, and never take your recorded calls for granted again.

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My Payphone Runs Linux

For the 20th anniversary of the Movie “Hackers” [Jamie Zawinski], owner of DNA Lounge in San Francisco, threw an epic party – screening the movie, setting up skating ramps and all that jazz. One of the props he put up was an old payphone, but he didn’t have time to bring it alive. The one thing he didn’t want this phone to do was to be able to make calls. A couple of weeks later, he threw another party, this time screening “Tank Girl” instead. For this gathering he had enough time to put a Linux computer inside the old payphone. When the handset is picked up, it “dials” a number which brings up a voice mail system that announces the schedule of events and other interactive stuff. As usual, this project looked simple enough to start with, but turned out way more complicated than he anticipated. Thankfully for us, he broke down his build in to bite sized chunks to make it easy for us to follow what he did.

This build is a thing of beauty, so let’s drill down into what the project involved:

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Old-school Rotary Phone gets GSM Upgrade

Sometimes, the answer to, “Why would you bother with a project like that?” is just as simple as, “Because it’s cool.” We suspect that was the motivation behind [Dirk-Jan]’s project to make portable versions of classic rotary telephones.

On style points alone, [Dirk-Jan] scores big. The mid-1950s vintage Belgian RTT model 56 phone has wonderful lines in its Bakelite case and handset and a really cool flip-up bail to carry it around, making it a great choice for a portable. The guts of the phone were replaced with a SIM900 GSM module coupled with a PIC microcontroller and an H-bridge to drive the ringer solenoids, along with a Li-ion battery and charger to keep it totally wireless – except for the original handset cord, of course. The video after the break show the phone in action both making and receiving calls; there’s something pleasing on a very basic level about the sound of a dial tone and the gentle ringing of the bell. And it may be slow, but a rotary dial has plenty of tactile appeal too.

Rotary-to-cell conversions are a popular “just because” project, like this conversion designed to allow an angry slam-down of the handset. The orange Siemens phone in that project is nice and all, but we really favor the ’50s look for a portable.

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Phone Scope Build Uses Old Optical Drive

It is hardly news that you can use your smart phone as a really crummy oscilloscope. You can even use it as an audio frequency signal generator. There are also plenty of projects that allow you to buffer signals going in and out of your phone to make these apps more useful and protect your phone’s circuitry to some degree. What caught our eye with [loboat’s] phone oscilloscope project was its construction.

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CRAYFIS Hijacks our Cellphones for a Worldwide Cosmic Ray Detector

Although scientists have known about Ultra-High Energy Cosmic Rays (UHECRs) for years, nobody can pinpoint their origin. When these UHECRs hit the ground, however, they cause a widespread local disturbance called an air shower. This air shower is a wide dispersion of photons, muons, and electrons at sea level. The means of observing this air shower mandates a widespread geographic region for detecting them. One solution would be a very big detector. Physicists [Daniel] and [Michael] discovered an alternative to pricey hardware, though. By leveraging the CMOS sensors in our smartphones, they can borrow some CPU cycles on our phones to create a worldwide detector network.

According to their paper, the CMOS camera in our smartphones is sensitive to the spectrum of radiation induced by muons and photons from these air showers. With an app running on our phones, [Daniel], [Michael], and other scientists can aggregate the data from multiple detections in a similar region to better understand their origins.

If you’re concerned about CRAYFIS taking away from your talk or web-browsing time, fear not; it runs in the background when a power source has been detected, hopefully, when you are asleep. It’s not the first time we see scientists tap into our computing resources, but this is certainly an achievement made possible in only the last few years by the sensor-loaded smartphone that charges on many of our night stands. With over 1.5 billion smartphones active in the world, we’re thrilled to see a team cleverly leveraging a ubiquitous and already-well-distributed resource.

via [NPR]

Convert a Rotary Phone to VOIP using Raspberry Pi

There’s something so nostalgic about the rotary phone that makes it a fun thing to hack and modernize. [Voidon] put his skills to the test and converted one to VoIP using a Raspberry Pi. He used the RasPi’s GPIO pins to read pulses from the rotary dial – a functional dial is always a welcome feature in rotary phone hacks. An old USB sound card was perfect for the microphone and handset audio.

As with any build, there were unexpected size issues that needed to be worked around. While the RasPi fit inside the case well, there was no room for the USB power jack or an ethernet cable, let alone a USB power bank for portability. The power bank idea was scrapped. [voidon] soldered the power cord to the RasPi before the polyfuse to preserve the surge protection, used a mini-USB wifi dongle, and soldered a new USB connector to the sound card. [Voidon] also couldn’t get the phone’s original ringer to work, so he used the Raspberry Pi’s internal sound card to play ringtones.

The VoIP (SIP) was managed by some Python scripting, available at GitHub. [voidon] has some experience in using Asterisk at his day job, so it will be interesting to see if he incorporates it in the future.

[via Reddit]

 

 

Hack your phone: turn your volume buttons into GPIO ports

Internet connected cameras are mighty useful, specially in situations requiring some form of remote monitoring. An always-on camera that is available over an internet connection, is cheap, and uses re-purposed  hardware – that’s what the Gonzo project hopes to achieve. To accommodate these requirements, the Exploratory Engineering program team in Telenor Digital are using off-the-shelf phone hardware running on top of a fork of Firefox OS. You hang the Gonzo where you want to monitor a situation, after which it will function for up to one month before needing a recharge, sending data to a designated public URL over the 2G network.

A big downside with using such hardware is that it is not designed for the task at hand, and offers no expansion ports that may be needed for certain functions. In this particular case, the designers needed a couple of output ports to drive some LED’s. The hardware guys got a bit creative,  and re-mapped the volume buttons of the phone into generic GPIO ports. On the software side, they looked at where the button GPIO’s were referenced, and located how they are mapped to a keymap. They then added a device driver that maps the GPIO ports to be generic ports instead. Modding the hardware needed a little bit more hard work, figuring out which traces connected to the two volume buttons, adding series resistors, and then wiring the LED’s in place. The project itself is still a work in progress, and you can read more about it at the Gonzo website.

If you’re like one of us and have a box full of old phones lying around, take a look at some creative suggestions here for some Arduino controlled robots.

Thanks for the tip [pb] !