Technology 0.5?
December 9, 2006 4:30 PM   Subscribe

Any idea what this object is/was once used for? I'm fairly certain it represents an obsolete technology, but I'm curious. It's quite well-made.

I'd imagine it (photo set) was made in the early 20th or late 19th century, judging from the design and manufacturing process. But what was it used for?

On the cast-iron base, the stamped inscription reads:

NORTHERN ELECTRIC CO
CHICAGO
27

The handle is of painted, carved wood. As you can see, it has a brass-colored metal ball joint on the top end, and is designed to be lifted from the cast iron base using the hand, presumably to be carried around. The 'NoElCo' inscription has me thinking some sort of lamp (or other powered implement?) would have been attached at the top. But what would have been the purpose? There would have been some sort of cord attached, right? So wouldn't that hamper the mobility that has obviously been designed into this thing?

Anyway, if you know what this thing is/was, please tell me. If you don't know, but have an informed guess, I think that will help me, too.

Thanks in advance.

(Oh yeah. My floors really are that dirty. Pity me. Also, that was my first day with the digi-cam, which is only part of the reason the pictures are so awful.)
posted by trip and a half to Grab Bag (56 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
 
I'd guess that northern electric company is this one, a telephone company and apparently the precursor to Nortel. Maybe that will help?
posted by malphigian at 4:39 PM on December 9, 2006


Perhaps it is the base for a device used for the treatment of hysteria.
posted by yclipse at 4:44 PM on December 9, 2006


Thanks, maphigian! Yeah, I'm pretty sure that earlier company is behind this thing, but I am having a hard time imagining what its use would have been.

I mean, obviously there was a need, otherwise they wouldn't have budgeted a spec, designers, custom molds, etc. But what the hell did they use it for?

On preview, yclipse: I actually had a similar thought, but I'm convinced this thing had a more generally functional (i.e., made necessary by the regular contemporary societal infrastructure) use. You know: why would they include a company and city name for that kind of thing?
posted by trip and a half at 5:00 PM on December 9, 2006


Is it a base for a "candlestick" style telephone? Does anything appear to be missing? Holes anyhwere that something else could be bolted to?
posted by cosmicbandito at 5:11 PM on December 9, 2006


I am completely baffled by this thing. Could it be a salesman's sample for something? Where did you get it? Could there be a part missing? Could this be a mold for something? I will be interested to see what someone comes up with.
posted by Lockjaw at 5:17 PM on December 9, 2006


As far as I can tell, the only thing 'missing' is whatever was attached to the top of this thing with the ball joint. I don't think it was a telephone. There must have been some reason they needed whatever was attached at the top, and they needed to carry it around, apparently, and yet have a convenient base where they could easily stow it.

Thanks to everyone who's commented for helping me try to figure this out. It's been bugging me for years -- ever since I bought this thing.

(On preview: I bought it many years ago at a thrift shop, because I couldn't figure out what it was!)
posted by trip and a half at 5:20 PM on December 9, 2006


Just a wild guess, but how did they deal with phone lines back then? Rather than tacking them to the base board, might they have run them around the edge of a room and thus required something like a hose guide in the corners?

Perhaps that is the purpose of your strange device, to route a wire. Though I'll admit, it seems over-engineered for that.
posted by quin at 5:24 PM on December 9, 2006


I never thought of that, quin. I suppose the thing could be used to redirect cable. But then again, why the decorative base and the gracefully removable 'wand'?
posted by trip and a half at 5:42 PM on December 9, 2006


It looks like it's a base for something; the broad and (presumably) heavy foot would be an excellent stabilizer.

I'm thinking something must have attached to the brass joint thing on the detachable green thing. Are there screw threads where something could screw on?

You should leave the thing out, what a great conversation piece. :)
posted by Malor at 5:46 PM on December 9, 2006


It does look like a base. Maybe for something with a spring loaded socket that connected with the brass knob.

Look closely at the knob. Are there vertical scratches in it that indicate something may have been taken on and off it?

Given that the "handle" comes off the base, maybe the "payload" could be attached to the handle and the whole structure taken off the base to be used.

Are there verticle scratches on the brass rod?
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 5:53 PM on December 9, 2006


Okay, so far I'm thinking telephone stand, but does that really make sense to anyone? Why would the electric company produce a telephone stand?
posted by trip and a half at 5:55 PM on December 9, 2006


Looks like it might be the base to a "candlestick telephone" (see the second picture on the right here). I'd e-mail the guy at that site with the pictures, he seems like he might know something about this sort of thing.
posted by Partial Law at 6:02 PM on December 9, 2006


Picture 3 shows a hole in the base covered with plaster. Might some kind of electrical cord have run inside the base?
posted by Brian James at 6:05 PM on December 9, 2006


Ah, I see cosmicbandito mentioned the candlestick thing already. I'd e-mail that Adams fellow anyway.
posted by Partial Law at 6:08 PM on December 9, 2006


You know, it sort of looks like the base to an old electric fan, like the one seen here. Maybe the top part lifted up for the wiring? Doubtful, but who knows.
posted by landedjentry at 6:33 PM on December 9, 2006 [2 favorites]


The fan base idea would make sense.... the brass joint could have been for a swivel. Didn't most fans back then have cords that went directly from the wall to the motor on the back of the unit?
posted by Malor at 6:42 PM on December 9, 2006


Okay, so far I'm thinking telephone stand, but does that really make sense to anyone? Why would the electric company produce a telephone stand?

"The electric company" wasn't a power distribution company. It was an "electric" company like General Electric or Westinghouse, that made things that used electricity. They later became Northern Telecom, which is now known as Nortel.

I have no idea if it's a telephone base or not, but I'd fully expect something from Northern Electric to be related to telephones.
posted by mendel at 7:26 PM on December 9, 2006


Point taken.

But I still don't know what the hell this thing is. (I'm pretty sure it's not 'outsider art' or a prank. Or can anyone make an argument for that?)

Anyway, thanks again to everyone. If I ever figure this out, I'll post.
posted by trip and a half at 7:34 PM on December 9, 2006


My vote is part of a phone. Searching on ebay came up with this, which isn't too terribly far off.
posted by pieoverdone at 7:36 PM on December 9, 2006


My SO thinks that a fan, specifically from around the 1930's, is the most likely option. He further thinks that the wooden part was added on after for--get this--holding toilet paper rolls :) . That thought aside, do check out "electric fans" in Antiques on Ebay to see some similar bases.
posted by thebrokedown at 7:58 PM on December 9, 2006


the base to a Tube Radio Northern Electric Company Loop Antenna 1920 (not a very good picture and none better).

Is your device about 15" tall? The reason you would want to have a detachable handle is so you can swing the antenna around and find the best direction for a radio station. Once found, it can be returned to its base.
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 8:03 PM on December 9, 2006 [2 favorites]


MSN: No, it's only about 9", maybe 10" tall. I don't think it could be used as a radio receiver at all.
posted by trip and a half at 8:14 PM on December 9, 2006


If not the base for an antenna, as suggested by MSN, then how about as spindle for spool of telephone wire ? the base would allow the spoole free rotation as the electrical or telephone wire is pulled around the house. ( I like MSN's idea , but it does seem a bit short for that .
posted by Agamenticus at 8:21 PM on December 9, 2006


I don't think it could be used as a radio receiver at all.

Did you look at the (bad) picture? I said that it could be the base for a loop-antenna (maybe not the same size as the one I linked). Loop antennas are directional – they need to be pointed in a best direction to receive a radio signal.

Once you pick it up off the base with the handle, you wave it around to find the best antenna orientation. If the loop antenna is attached to the ball with some sort of springy clip mechanism then that would allow it to be rotated above or below the vertical. That would allow the user to reproduce the right orientation once the antenna and handle were returned to the base.

What is the scratch pattern on the ball?

P.S. your item is in the "arts and crafts" style which is earlier to #landedjentry's fan with more of an "art deco" style.
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 8:34 PM on December 9, 2006


I really thought it was for one of those oldfashioned phones, but I wondered about the missing dial. I see from Partial Law's post that they didn't always have dials. I think you just tapped them for the operator. It would totally make sense a person would want to lift off the mouthpiece, don't you think? I wonder when those phones were prevalent?
posted by Listener at 8:49 PM on December 9, 2006


I like the antenna base idea, but if it is phone related the folks at the geek utopia* The Telephone Museum will definitely know. Don't know if they answer their email but it's worth a shot.

*They have at least two (small, but working) fully-functioning automated central offices on site, as well as a number of working step-by-step, crossbar and switchboard setups. And it's all connected to different eras' customer equipment so you can place calls throughout the facility. Those cats are hard-core.
posted by Opposite George at 10:36 PM on December 9, 2006


I gotta go with desk fan base.

If something is meant to be mounted on the ball joint, the shape of the foot would indicate that the weight of this something would generally be forward or back of the ball joint, like a desk fan, and not like a candlestick telephone. Also the handle would be convenient for rotating the thing without getting your hand too near the whirling blades of doom.
posted by fleacircus at 10:38 AM on December 10, 2006


could it be, perhaps, some sort of electrostatic discharge or charging apparatus, along the lines of this stuff?
posted by sergeant sandwich at 11:57 PM on December 10, 2006


I don't have an answer (though I support the antenna-base guess), but I think it should be noted that anybody who's enjoying this would love the What Is It blog.
posted by dansdata at 12:29 AM on December 11, 2006 [1 favorite]


My thought is it looks like a handle for a large switch. Kind of like an old one-armed bandit (slot machine). But old electric machinery often had over-sized handles.
posted by Goofyy at 1:49 AM on December 11, 2006


Could it be a tool for checking to see if electrical wires are live? The wood handle could serve as an insulator and the brass knob would maybe give off a spark if it touched a live wire. I've seen things like this next to the El tracks in Chicago and have always assumed that the track workers use them to check to see if there is current running before they start work.
posted by felix betachat at 7:50 AM on December 11, 2006


Stingers
posted by felix betachat at 7:52 AM on December 11, 2006


I'm coming late to the thread, but I'll toss in my wild guess anyway: What if the missing top is, indeed, a light? I can easily imagine the practical uses for a light at the end of a short pole which can be held and moved as required, and then placed back into a stable base for hands-free use.
posted by Faint of Butt at 12:26 PM on December 11, 2006


I asked my Dad, who is an electrical engineer and collector of all sorts of old electrical and radio-related items. He says:

Some rough guesses; I know a later Northern Electric was a phone company, sort of Western Electric of Canada. I think they also made radio transmitters, possibly small appliances. So, maybe an early microphone stand, or a small brass bladed fan, both of which need swivels at the top. Does the handle index on the rod at all, or fit tight to avoid swinging free? It could also be a mount for a small desk lamp, where the in-unit bulb and brass metal shade attach via a clamp type swivel joint, and the cord just drapes? That was very common in about 1920 for those behind the chair reading lamps. Do you see any wear patterns indicating rotation or how it was worn in use? Clues there??

So, he seems to agree with either the fan or light theory.
posted by nekton at 7:52 PM on December 11, 2006


let me reapeat that the item is stylish (done in a "arts and crafts") style. It is definitly furniture (i.e. an appliance) not something used by an electrician.
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 9:11 PM on December 11, 2006


No concrete ideas, but when electricity was new in the home it was common to buy an electric motor that was multi-purpose. The single motor could be mounted as a fan, or with another attachment to a vacuum cleaner or a washing machine or a mincer.
Perhaps this is the foot for a motor to be used as a fan etc?
posted by bystander at 1:39 AM on December 12, 2006


It is clearly an artificial leg for a small child.
posted by DesbaratsDays at 5:41 AM on December 12, 2006 [1 favorite]


After poking around, I think it's pretty clearly the base for a no-dial "candlestick"-style telephone. I haven't found a picture of an identical model, but here are plenty of slimilar to look at:

GIS for "candlestick telephone"

The top brass pivot would be where the microphone was mounted, and perhaps the bracket for holding the separate earpiece as well. The removeable wooden handle might have allowed one to carry the phone around while in use. This would explain the lack of cords.

What do you think?

-R
posted by reborndata at 6:53 AM on December 12, 2006


Oops, just realized I was about the 5th person to suggest the candlestick telephone theory... sorry!
posted by reborndata at 6:59 AM on December 12, 2006


Wow. I had no idea so many people were interested enough in this to make it my most popular Meta post evar!

Sorry, I've been a little busy and haven't had time to properly respond. Thank you all very much for your responses!

I don't really think I can mark best answers yet, as you have all been very helpful but I still don't have a definitive answer as to what this is/was. The "candlestick telephone" idea was interesting, but there are definitely no missing parts or places that could have contained electrical cords or dials. (What looks like a plaster-covered hole in the base in picture 3 is a trick of the light and my clumsy photo skills: it is a actually a very tidy attachment of the spindle to the base.)

The "universal-electric-motor-holder" idea is also quite interesting. If most appliances had their cords directly connected to the motor then I can see how it might have served as a base for something like that (it certainly was a base for something). But something about the mobility of the "wand", as I have called it, makes me wonder about multiple applications for this thing. I think I have neglected to mention that the "wand" is quite light and obviously designed to be moved around fairly freely by hand, whereas the base is quite heavy.

To fill in a few details that have been asked about: There are "engagement scratches" on the ball joint, about four prominent vertical ones at more or less "compass points". There also seems to have been some swiveling going on "equatorially" around that joint.

I think I will make some inquiries with Nortel to see if they have archival information. (Speaking of which, Partial Law: I'm sure I've missed something obvious, but who is "that Adams fellow"? I'll definitely email him if he can help nail this down.)

Anyway, as I said above, I'll post back if anything definitive turns up, and thanks again to all!
posted by trip and a half at 9:26 PM on December 12, 2006


BTW- it wouldn't have to have any wires on it to be a no-dial candlestick phone- this is the type used before switchboards were automated. The ringer and electronics were usually in a separate box, and the wires would have run directly to the top part that attached to the ball joint.

Seriously, contact a phone museum.
posted by reborndata at 6:57 AM on December 13, 2006


Speaking of which, Partial Law: I'm sure I've missed something obvious, but who is "that Adams fellow"? I'll definitely email him if he can help nail this down.

I was referring to this guy, whose page I linked to earlier. Based on his pictures, I bet that if it's related to telephones, he'll know what it is or know someone who does.
posted by Partial Law at 7:31 AM on December 13, 2006


When will the technology come along where you can do a reverse search on google images? Meaning that you put the image in and get the word back instead of vice-versa? I've been hankering for that.
posted by Aghast. at 2:06 PM on December 13, 2006


I found an old eBay auction that includes the same inscription on the base. Unfortunately the pictures are no longer visible, but maybe you could contact the seller? The item was from the estate of a person who restored old light fixtures. The description says the auction item is a base from a gooseneck lamp.
posted by nelvana at 10:08 PM on December 13, 2006


Scould it be a base for a loudspeaker like this one? Different style, but dimensions and basic design look right. I'm betting on the base for some sort of antique radio accessory, such as speaker or antenna.
posted by TedW at 7:00 AM on December 14, 2006


Hey, cool! Just noticed this got side-barred on the blue.

Anyway, thanks again for all the suggestions. I haven't had much time, but tonight I hope to get an email off to Tom Adams at the link above.

If I learn anything definitive, I'll be sure to post an update.
posted by trip and a half at 4:20 PM on December 15, 2006


Don't know if anyone's still playing along, but emails have been sent to both the Adams guy and to Nortel.
posted by trip and a half at 8:39 PM on December 15, 2006


#trip and a half: emails have been sent to both the Adams guy and to Nortel.

I'm still interested. But have you sent to the 2 ebay sellers or to likely people involved with antique radios (for that googlesearch you need to find people who might respond)?

Once you have collected a bunch of email addresses, just send all of them an email
Subject: can you help identify this radio or telephone base?I've given a full description at  http://ask.metafilter.com/mefi/52752but nobody there knows enough
Dealers are complete weasels. You will get a lot of responses like "it is a minor piece of old junk but I'd like it to complete my collection so I will offer you $5 for it. Other (slightly) more scrupulous dealers will generally offer one quarter of the price that they know that they can sell it at.

As a non-expert in the field but with some knowledge I would guess it is worth somewhere in the $50-200 range. Then again if it is rare it might be worth thousands.
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 9:36 PM on December 15, 2006


nelvana is right, I think. Old gooseneck lamp base. Or other lamp. See

this one

and this one
posted by Cassford at 11:50 PM on December 15, 2006


Heard from Tom Adams:

I'm sorry [trip], I have no clue to what it is.

MSN: Good idea. Hopefully I'll have some time later today to gather some likely email addresses.
posted by trip and a half at 11:45 AM on December 16, 2006


This may not have to do with Nortel.

In googling about this, I found a 1994 history of Sunbeam-Oster Co. Inc. (now part of the Jarden Corporation). Here's a quote from the history:

In the 1950s, Oster acquired the Northern Electric Company, which produced such consumer items as electric blankets and mattresses, vaporizers, thermostats and humidifiers, a variety of hair dryers, hair setters, and mirrors.

I haven't found clear evidence that this Northern Electric Company was located in Chicago, though its one-time descendant division, Sunbeam-Northern was based there.
posted by gubo at 2:11 PM on December 17, 2006


I forgot to add: If this was a product of that company bought by Oster, perhaps it was a stand for some kind of electric hair care apparatus, with the wooden part being the handle.
posted by gubo at 2:15 PM on December 17, 2006


I don't have a clue, either, but there are some observations to be made....

The base is cast iron. If it were for something like a phone, that weight would seem excessive. To me, that implies that it was a base for something substantial or with significant moments. To me, that sounds much more like 'fan' than 'phone', but could be antenna, too.

A ball joint gives pretty wide latitude for positioning, important for both fan or antenna.

I'd be skeptical of it being for lab use. Too decorative.

Also, the base is not insulated from the ball joint... it seems to have a direct connection from the base via the brass rod.

I've never seen an adjustable radio SPEAKER of any sort, but I'd certainly buy into an antenna base because of the size, stability issue, positioning flexibility, decorative nature.

Anyone consider a mirror base? They need positioning flexibility and stability.

Stumped otherwise. Can't wait for a definitive solution!
posted by FauxScot at 5:11 AM on December 20, 2006


On re-read and further thought, I think I most agree with a microphone base. That would fit Northern Electric, too.

Early ones were quite decorative, needed adjustment flexibility and stability, would have the wires separate from the base.

It has that general appearance, too.
posted by FauxScot at 5:21 AM on December 20, 2006


Just in case anyone missed it, flickr user Hieronymous posted a comment that seems to make sense:
It's the base of a now-antique electric heater. Missing is the bowl-shaped (think wok) adjustable piece that belongs at the top. The bowl (for lack of a better term) was fitted with a replaceable screw-base heating element that looked like a ceramic cone wrapped in a spring (the heating coil itself). The oldest hardware store in town might still have some. The bowl was attached to the ball-shaped knob so it could swivel about. A protective wire grating, similar to the type used to keep fingers out of fans, covered the bowl. Heaters, fans, gooseneck lamps, etc, circa 1920's -30's all used similar bases. These things are heavy because the business end of the appliances got pretty hot and could pose a fire hazard if tipped. The company Rodale was one of the longer-lived manufacturers.
In another comment he gives two examples (the second of which does not load for me) of the kind of heater mentioned. I searched on ebay a little and found this auction for the kind of heating element referred to, which includes this image from a hardware store catalog (mirrored here for when the auction goes away) of the type of heater.

It seems to make sense that it would be hefty so that the heater wouldn't be easy to knock over and start a fire, a concern that seems more pertinent in that case than for a microphone or telephone, which seem overkill for the kind of heft that the photos seem to imply. And the base need not have any signs of an electrical cord if its attachment to the heater was entirely through the bowl-shaped part, a design decision that eliminates the need to figure out how to allow the wire to swivel with the ball joint and eliminate the possibility of it becoming twisted or frayed.
posted by Rhomboid at 9:13 PM on December 26, 2006


I'm now pretty much convinced that MonkeySaltedNuts is right: it must have been the base for a radio loop antenna.

After emailing various people to no avail, it was finally this Google Images search that convinced me. While none of them are identical to the object I have, enough of them are close enough (including the image MSN originally referred me to), and closer than anything else I've found, that I'll live with 'radio loop antenna' until I discover otherwise.

Thanks again, everyone, and especially MonkeySaltedNuts!

On preview: Rhomboid, thanks very much! For some reason I hadn't seen your comment here until I previewed this one (i.e., this very comment I am now making), nor had it occurred to me that anyone would actually find those photos on Flickr and comment over there, as Hieronymous obviously has.

However, I think his answer can't be correct. The wand/handle part of this thing was quite evidently designed to be easily lifted and carried and/or waved around, in a way that I would find it very odd and impracticable to do with a space heater. So far the radio antenna idea still seems the best to me.
posted by trip and a half at 1:54 AM on January 5, 2007


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