Retrotechtacular: Tom Carter Revolutionized your Phone

It is hard to remember, but there was a time when you couldn’t hook much to a telephone line except a telephone. Although landlines are slowly falling out of favor, you can still get corded and wireless phones, answering machines, and even dial up modems. Alarm systems sometimes connect to the phone system along with medical monitoring devices and a host of other accessories.

All of that’s possible because of a Texan named Tom Carter. Tom Carter was the David that stood up to one of the biggest Goliath’s of his day: the phone company. The phone company had a legal monopoly on providing phone service. The reasoning was that it didn’t make sense to have multiple competing companies trying to run wires to every house and business in the country. Makes sense, right?

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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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Chinese Whispers For Arduino

The game of Chinese Whispers or Telephone involves telling one person a sentence, having that person tell another person the same sentence, and continuing on until purple monkey dishwasher. For this year’s Arduino Day, [Mastro] was hanging out at Crunchlab with a bunch of Arduinos. What do you do with a bunch of Arduinos? Telephone with software serial.

The setup for this game is extremely simple – have one Arduino act as the master, listening for bits on the (hardware) serial port. This Arduino then sends those bits down a chain of Arduinos over the software serial port until it finally loops around to the master. The result is displayed in a terminal.

With only about a dozen Arduinos in this game of Telephone, [Mastro] did get a few transmission errors. That’s slightly surprising, as the code is only running at 1200 bps, but the point of this game isn’t to be completely accurate.

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This Sassy Art Installation is Like The Stanley Parable for the Telephone

Insert Customer Feedback Here

Imagine this. A phone on a nearby desk starts ringing. No one is around to pick it up, so you decide that you will be a good Samaritan and answer the phone. You are greeted by a slightly creepy robotic female voice asking you to complete a simple survey. Having nothing else to do, you go ahead and run through the telephone survey. As you start answering the questions, things start to get a bit… weird. The robot voice doesn’t like your answers. She actually disagrees with you, and she does NOT like being interrupted. Now she’s getting sassy with you! What is going on here?

Most likely you are the latest victim of Insert Customer Feedback Here, [Charles’] art installation. You see, that is no ordinary telephone. [Charles] actually removed the guts of an old telephone and replaced them with an Arduino. The Arduino periodically rings the phone, waiting for someone to answer. Once the phone is off the hook, the Arduino uses a Wave shield to start playing back the scripted audio files. All of the text-to-speech files and the various hold music files are played back with the wave shield. The Arduino is also hooked up to the 1, 2, 3, and # keys of the telephone keypad in order to read back the user’s responses.

From here on out the program acts as a sort of “choose your own adventure” game. The program takes different paths and responds in different ways depending on how the user answers the questions. Generally speaking, it will get more “irritated” towards the user if it doesn’t “like” your answers, otherwise it will get less irritated. The hold music will even change to become more or less aggressive.

It’s easy to draw comparisons to Portal’s GLaDOS due to the robotic female voice and to the narrator from The Stanley Parable for the “choose your own adventure” feeling. In fact, if GLaDOS and The Stanley Parable had offspring, this would surely be it. This project brings that same type of silly sarcastic humor to a different medium and it does it well. Be sure to watch the video of the system in action below. It really starts to get interesting around the 1:15 mark. Continue reading “This Sassy Art Installation is Like The Stanley Parable for the Telephone”

PBX blade for multiple extension home telephony


It looks like a consumer good, but this PBX server blade was built by [Benoit Frigon] over the last couple of years. It brings multiple telephone extensions to his home service.

The device runs Asterisk open source PBX software. Because it will be on all the time he wanted something that doesn’t draw a lot of power. The 500 Mhz system seen on the left has just a half a gig of ram. It’s enough to do the job and at 10 Watts it’s not going to break the bank when it comes to paying the electric bills. The board in the middle is used to interface the analog handsets with the land line. From the look of it he’s got it rigged for two extensions.

That’s all somewhat par for the course with PBX rigs, but the enclosure is where he really shines. [Benoit] used 22 gauge aluminum sheet to fabricate the enclosure which is designed to blend in with the rest of his home’s rack mount hardware. To provide control at the rack he added his own LCD and touch-sensitive button interface to the front of the case based on a PIC 18F2520. The system can also be accessed via the web thanks to a custom interface he coded.

Turning a phone into a media center remote


[Kees] wanted a remote for an XBMC audio system. He had a classic T65 Dutch telephone in one of his project boxes and thought this phone with the addition of a Raspberry Pi he could have a functional media remote with classic lines and 70s styling.

Each of the digits on the phone were wired up to a small solderless breadboard. With a handful of resistors, [Kees] set up a simple pull up/pull down circuit feeding in to his Raspi’s GPIO input.

With a short Python script, [Kees] managed to map the buttons to XMBC’s play/pause, volume up/down, next, and previous commands. There were a few buttons left over, so those were mapped to online radio stations, playlists, and a strange setting known only as ‘moo’. We’re not sure what that button does, but you can see the other functions of this XMBC phone remote in action in the video below.

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Getting rid of telemarketers with a Banana Phone


The Federal Trade Commission really doesn’t like robocalls and other telephone solicitors selling you vinyl siding or home security upgrades. The FTC is even offering $50,000 to anyone who can do away with these robocalling telemarketers, and [Alex] looks like he might just claim the prize. He developed The Banana Phone, a device that eliminates those pesky telemarketers.

The basic idea of the Banana Phone is requiring callers to enter a four-digit pass code (played via text to speech over a relevant song to prevent a bot from getting through) before connecting them to the main line. Once a caller has been verified as human, their number is added to a white list so they won’t have to listen to [Raffi] every time they call.

The Banana Phone uses off-the-shelf parts  including a Raspberry Pi and a phone/Ethernet adapter with the total build cost under $100. You can check out a demo of the Banana Phone in action after the break starting at about 2:25.

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