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Widget Of The Week

GPO Headset No.1, 1969

There is an interesting document on the Britishtelephones website, probably dating from the early 1960s. It covers the development history of GPO Headset No.1, from 1948 to 1959. It’s a fascinating insight into the bureaucracy of a state-owned organisation, and the legendary inertia of the GPO’s engineering division. But this was a very different time, and truth be told it wasn’t that unusual for it to take 10 years or more for what now seems to be a relatively unsophisticated product, to get from the drawing board to the production line. However, the big question is that how, after more than a decade of work, they still managed to come up with such an inelegant and uncomfortable design…

 

It was definitely an improvement on its predecessor, though, which was a cumbersome and heavy ‘chest’ microphone, suspended around the operator’s neck. High on the list of Headset No 1’s design objectives was that it should be lightweight, and it is, just 120 grams or a little over 4 ounces and this was largely due to what was then newly-developed compact microphone or ‘transmitter’ and headphone or ‘receiver’ modules. These are mounted together into a weirdly shaped, scalloped enclosure moulded from nylon, which also helped keep the weight down. The really distinctive feature though, is the ‘acoustic horn’, which makes it look like something from the 1930s, rather than the space age sixties. To be fair it does the job, and it is cleverly articulated, on a ball-joint type arrangement, which gives it a good range of movement, to put it close to the user’s mouth. It can also be turned through 180 degrees, so it can be used for right or left side operation.

 

The olde-tyme horn is actually a consequence of the microphone module, known as Transmitter Inset No.15 to its friends. It is a carbon granule type and essentially a miniature version of the ones that had been used in phones since the year dot, which was a little after the carbon mike was invented, in the late nineteenth century. Carbon mikes were still in widespread use until very recently and Telephone Inset No.15 also popped up again in the GPO Trimphone, this time used as the sounder for the distinctive ‘warbler’ ringer. The horn helps to make up for the carbon granule mike's lack of sensitivity; they also have a very narrow frequency range, though this isn’t a problem for speech. Most importantly, the way that they work means there is no need for amplification, which is a major plus point for telephone systems. If you are interested there’s more about them in this earlier GPO Dustygizmo.

 

Incidentally, the Acoustic Horn on my example appears to have a slightly narrower mouth, compared with others that I have seen (the original is Part No. 1/DMO/66, this one is marked 1/402), so it may be an alternative type or a later replacement.

 

The headphone module uses rather exotic sounding ‘rocking armature’ technology. Basically a thin diaphragm, attached to a small magnet, moves up and down in response to voltages passing though a coil around the magnet. In other words it’s a lot like modern headphones and loudspeakers. Apparently it worked a little too well and after a while operators in public telephone exchanges could find it a bit too loud. The solution was to wire a 150-ohm resistor across the terminals to wind down the volume a little  

 

User comfort seems to have been given a fairly low priority, fortunately it doesn’t weigh very much but the wire headband is quite springy and gives the hard and uncushioned headset module and round rubber ‘headpad’ on the other end a fair old squeeze; the little sliding pad on the top doesn’t do much at all. It was probably configured for a notional standard GPO head and took little account of different head or ear shapes and sizes, hair styles and so on. You start to notice it after a few minutes, so heaven knows what it was like to wear for hours on end. By the way, there’s also a Headset No. 2. This has a second earphone on the other side (Part 1/DCA/99) plus a more substantial headband (Headband No.13). Both Headset 1 and 2 were made in black and grey plastic.  

 

This one has been tucked away in a box of old phone parts in my garage for more than 20 years so I cannot remember how I came by it, or how much it cost, but if I did pay for it, it would have been pennies, rather than pounds. The only thing missing is the connecting cable and plug. I suspect that it was in poor condition when I first got it, so I cut it off, meaning to replace it at some point. Maybe I will, one day, and I am pretty sure that it still works, as there is almost nothing to go wrong. The overall condition is very good indeed and apart from some signs of light use, it could almost be fresh out of the box.

 

What Happened To It?

Tens of thousands of Headset No.1 were made, probably at great expense to the British taxpayer, and they would have been in regular use at least until the early 1990s. Many of them found their way into the consumer marked as they were replaced, sold off and thrown away as telephone exchanges and switchboards were updated from the1980s onwards. Modern operator headsets are a world away from this old dinosaur, which even managed to look old fashioned when it first came out. The basic design principles haven’t changed much though, and it is still important for an operator to be able to hear both the phone line, and the outside world; nowadays there’s a much greater emphasis on comfort and even hygiene, plus a raft of special features, like noise cancellation that improves sound quality at both ends of the phone call.

 

Unfortunately, apart from a museum piece Headset No 1 isn’t much use for anything anymore. You could replace the microphone and headphone with modern inserts and use it for video gaming, or even as a funky mobile phone headset, but it’s hardly worth the effort, and you wouldn’t want to wear it for any length of time. They are not especially rare either, though prices are creeping up and you can expect to pay £20 to £25 for a really clean one. They’re a little too recent, and not weird enough to be a fully qualified collectible, but give it time. If you spot one at a low enough price it’s probably worth stashing away for your children’s, or more likely your grandchildren’s retirement fund. 


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen                 1960

Original Price           £? (probably lots...)

Value Today             £25 (0115)

Features                   Carbon granule microphone (Transmitter Inset No.15), rocking armature earphone (Receiver Inset No. 3T, 150 ohm impedance), right or left ear operation, sliding headpads, elbow/ball-jointed acoustic horn

Power req.                    n/a (powered by exchange equipment, 40mA optimum feed current)

Dimensions:                  160 x 140 x 190mm (unexpanded)

Weight:                         120g

Made (assembled) in:    England

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):  6


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