The flotsam and jetsam of gadgetry, especially old tools, can tell us interesting things about the times, the tech, and the people responsible for creating and maintaining it.
At the recent PCIM show in Nuremberg, I had the opportunity to peruse an assortment of antique electrical measurement tools at a sidewalk flea market (Fig 1). There were a few interesting items there, but the two that grabbed my attention immediately were the two test devices, one for Ohms, and one for volts. Initially I had only identified the old circuit tester, as it has a face easily recognized by anyone who has worked with such tools (Fig 2). It’s friendly face with bold gauge and grippy selector knob shouted precision and practicality, reinforced by the heavy banana-ready terminals at the top and no-nonsense bakelite casing.
Fig 1. Sidewalk flea market.
The second device was certainly some kind of tester, but I couldn’t place it to save my life (Fig 3). Quite formidable looking, the tool had two massive prongs issuing from a stout wooden handle, almost weapons-like in appearance. This intimidating aura was reinforced by the “100A” and “200A” markings on the side (visible if you zoom in), on a bus bar that one’s thumb could easily touch while using it. The incredibly high amperage in the resistors set into the handle was balanced by a ludicrously low voltage shown on the tester’s gauge, a swing of only +/- 3 volts.
I gave the strange fork-like object as a curiosity to my friend Peter Rogerson at Power Integrations, and the two of us set out on a search for what the damn thing does. We rapidly found out that it is an old-timey battery tester, as old batteries used to be very low voltage, but deliver a very high current. Such testers were common in their day. Peter turned the device over to his colleague Andrew Bruno, who put it on a test rig to find out that it still functioned (Fig 4a + 4b). A simple design can lead to a long operational lifetime, but being built ruggedly enough to be used as a weapon in a pinch didn’t hurt.
That rugged durability demanded of field tools created a fusion of practicality and simple beauty that is hard to match today, if only because the amount of attention needed would price a current tool out of the marketplace. One of the devices in my collection, a Weston Model 1000 from the 1930’s (Fig 5) also screams rugged practicality, with the same big gauge and knob that begs you to turn it that a good field test device should have, even today. Yet that old-school meticulous craftsmanship comes through in the hand-loomed layout and individually-wound resistors inside it (if you zoom in on Figure 6 you can see where someone repaired it with a resistor modern to the device but antique to us).
What we can take away from a random assortment of antique electrical devices is that even if you can’t hand-make your tools, if you make them easy to use, easy to read, and worth repairing, you will have created a tool that will be cherished and valued for the life of the application space it addresses.