Internet detectives ASSEMBLE: Identify my mystery object!
February 11, 2016 2:45 PM   Subscribe

Dear The Internets: I have had this shiny odd-shaped thing on my desk for over a decade now. People often ask me what it is. I have no answer. No one else has been able to figure it out either. Can you help me? Sincerely, frogs.

What I know:
  • It is some sort of scientific equipment, recovered from a defunct physiology lab. Even though I work in a large research hospital, none of my colleagues has ever been able to identify the purpose of this equipment.
  • The manufacturer is "Sanborn Company, Cambridge, Mass" - as near as I can tell, this company is no longer in business, and I can't find any record of items they made. The serial number scratched above the label reads "PP-1020".
  • The buttons on the back are marked RA - LA - LL; at least one physician felt this referred to Right Arm, Left Arm, Left Leg (why no Right Leg?). If you depress the buttons, it reveals an opening apparently intended for insertion of a wire lead.
  • The bottom contains 3 capacitors, connected with wires and resistors. Capacitors are coated in wax, 0.5, 1.0, and 0.6 (0.5?) microfarads, made by Astron.
  • The top portion contains a photocell. Internally, it has a label that reads (in part) "Model 865 Photocell Type" - any other markings on this label are obscured by the metal framing.
It's fairly heavy, easily 3-4 lbs or more. It makes a nice paperweight and a great conversation piece, but I'd really love to know what it is actually called, and what it was actually used for. Any help?
posted by caution live frogs to Grab Bag (16 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
The arm leg thing is a convention for a 3 lead waveform on an electrocardiogram, for what it's worth.
posted by SLC Mom at 2:53 PM on February 11, 2016

Yes, the RA LA LL are the three leads for attaching electrodes to the body. Heart defibrillation paddle of some kind?
posted by Melismata at 2:55 PM on February 11, 2016

Its definitely from the Sanborn company (Waltham is near Cambridge) and they made electrocardiographs among other things. Those people could probably definitively answer you question.
posted by jessamyn at 2:58 PM on February 11, 2016 [3 favorites]

It seems to be an ECG thing, maybe an old type of holter monitor?
posted by sweetmarie at 2:59 PM on February 11, 2016

Sanborn made ECGs and 'metabulators' to measure metabolic rate.
posted by holgate at 2:59 PM on February 11, 2016

Could it be part of the internal mechanism of this ecg machine made by Sanborn?
posted by SLC Mom at 3:03 PM on February 11, 2016

Best answer: Sanborn was bought by HP in the 1960s. Whatever internal docs/files they owned were spun out to Agilent, their instrumentation division.
posted by JoeZydeco at 3:07 PM on February 11, 2016

i don't know how this fits in with hearts, but the first thing that i thought of was that the rectangular part looks like a waveguide and that maybe this is equipment used with microwaves.

edit: oh, and now i see it's a photocell. ok.
posted by andrewcooke at 3:12 PM on February 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

...and Agilent sold their medical instrumentation business to Phillips.
posted by JoeZydeco at 5:11 PM on February 11, 2016

just thinking some more, could you confuse a photocell with however a bolometer works? googling "microwave bolometer" turns up nothing that looks like that, though.
posted by andrewcooke at 5:32 PM on February 11, 2016

Best answer: Neat! I look forward to seeing what this turns out to be. In case you don't wind up with a compelling answer and are willing to put a little more time into it, some photos of the back side of the circuit board and inside the base might help. (A diagram of how things are wired up would be even better, though obviously a lot more work.) Also, there are a few things that aren't totally clear. Is the height of the arm adjustable using the screw at the base, or is it fixed? Am I right in interpreting the little flap held onto the top of the snout with a screw as covering a hole in the roof of the snout?

With the caveat that I don't actually know anything about medical hardware, it looks like the photocell is made by Weston Instruments of Newark NJ. Here's a similar one for sale on ebay. It will produce a small current when illuminated, and seems to be a single detector with one output. (In the Ebay picture, I'm guessing the case is grounded and the two leads are one isolated pair across the device.) The rest of the circuit that we can see seems to contain the three large capacitors you list (0.5,1.0,0.5 uF) and also three resistors, two 1 MOhm and one 470 kOhm, and a switch. If that's all that makes up the the filter, it's operating at a fraction of a Hz. Also, "RA," "LA", and "LL" do seem overwhelmingly associated with ECG terminology.

I suspect the rectangular opening is an optical input into which light is shined, and the three electrical connections are outputs meant to be connected to a traditional ECG amplifier and chart recorder or display.

My first guess is that it's designed to actually measure optical power for some real medical purpose and they're just using the ECG chart recorder as a recording device, saving doctors the trouble of buying a second recorder. I'm not sure what the optical signal would be: Optical heart rate monitoring? Single pixel X-ray flouroscopy? It could be that the beige surface with the logo that we can see peering through the snout is actually a slab of material that flouresces when you hit it with X-rays (or other energetic things) and illuminates the photo cell.

Second guess is that it's meant to generate fake ECG signals either to calibrate equipment or to train doctors. You connect the three outputs to your real ECG machine, and then point it at a specifically designed optical signal: a film strip or film wheel recording of a real ECG, or perhaps a variable lamp with some sort of programmed dimmer. That all three outputs will look like scaled versions of the same signal makes it seem more useful for calibration than training. But, there are easier ways to generate similar signals, so this seems weirdly over-engineered for the job.

The lack of a well-defined flange on the front, and the very rough welds on the inside of the snout make the waveguide idea seem unlikely to me. Also, the screw flap on top is odd. Could be a way to inject a calibration signal? Or, the place where a mating piece of hardware is connected.
posted by eotvos at 7:54 PM on February 11, 2016 [3 favorites]

If you can find a part number somewhere on it, here might provide some more information. This is a neat piece, and I'm curious what it's function is too...
posted by Northbysomewhatcrazy at 8:29 AM on February 12, 2016

Need to see the top of the snout. Does it have a hole to let in light, and is there a little mirror below?
posted by blue_wardrobe at 9:36 AM on February 12, 2016

How about an optical pace-counter for use with a treadmill and ECG equipment?
posted by blue_wardrobe at 1:08 PM on February 12, 2016

Response by poster: eotvos - Interesting theory, the idea that it is using an ECG recorder to do some other purpose? And yes, the arm height is adjustable, but can't be raised too high given the length of the arm and of the rubber-coated connecting wire.

blue_wardrobe - yes, there is an opening in the top of the snout - rectangular, covered by (slightly frosted?) glass, with a black line drawn down the center (parallel to the snout itself). There is an angled reflective surface below that, not a mirror per se, more of an angled bit of shiny metal. Light coming down vertically through the opening would be reflected at a 90° angle straight out of the front of the snout. Coupled with eotvos's idea that this was connected to ECG equipment for another purpose, it certainly could have been used as a pace counter, perhaps, if the legs moving broke the beam sent into the snout, thus stopping the ECG recorder from outputting a signal.

jessamyn - I'm actually emailing the Agilent History Center to see if they have any input... I'll post any updates here!
posted by caution live frogs at 12:26 PM on February 17, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Finally have a reply from Agilent:
Unfortunately, I couldn’t find anything in the OLD catalogs or brochures. Some of them dated back to 1936 and the early 60’s when HP purchased the company. I can only conclude that the item was a prototype, something that never became a registered product. OR, it fits inside a multifunction device. The thing about that is, some of the brochures showed the inside of a product and there wasn’t anything that looked like this device.

Sorry, looks like it’s still the Mystery Paperweight. But it was fun looking through the old Sanborn marketing materials. Thanks for that adventure!
Curses, foiled again... I guess Mystery Paperweight it is then!
posted by caution live frogs at 10:15 AM on March 18, 2016 [3 favorites]

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