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Widget Of The Week

S.G. Brown Type F Stick Earphone, 1925

Most of the gadgets featured in dustygizmos date from the last half of the twentieth century but every so often something so strange comes along, that an exception has to be made. This particular antique oddity is an S. G. Brown Stick Earphone, made in the early to mid 1920s. It is, quite literally, an earphone on a stick. To be precise it is a Type F earphone, which was more usually found in headphones of the time, for listening to early valve radios and crystal sets.

 

So why is there only one of them, and what’s the stick all about? Quite simply it was designed for ladies, and the partially deaf. The idea was that ladies could listen to a radio without the inconvenience and inelegance of donning headphones, and avoid mussing up their carefully coiffured hair. Stick earphones like this one were also installed in churches, theatres and so on for the benefit of those with hearing difficulties, or seated in the cheap seats. It’s difficult to say which of those applications this one was intended for but the presence of a rotary volume control at the base of the stick suggests that may have been more of a luxury product, for personal use, rather than something used by common folk in public buildings.

 

One thing is certain, though, this one wouldn’t have been used with a crystal radio. The impedance (its internal resistance) is simply too low. Type F earphones were made in a range of impedances, this one measures around 50 ohms, and is designed for use with valve amplifiers, whereas the impedance of crystal radio headphones is much higher, typically between 1000 and 2000 ohms, and since the signal is so weak there would be no need for a volume control.

 

Whatever it’s origins there is no denying that it is very well made. Good quality Bakelite (an early thermo-setting plastic) mouldings are used for the earphone casing, the stick, volume control housing and knob, with chromed and plated metal parts and a surprisingly strong metre-long cotton covered cable, terminated in a two-pin Bakelite plug. Both are original and in excellent condition. Incidentally, the volume control on the end of the stick is compact 50-ohm wire wound potentiometer.

 

There’s not much to say about operation and ease of use, except that it is very light and manoeuvrable, and surprisingly loud, so the volume control is more than a fancy add-on. The earphone is a magnetic type and originally it would have had a ‘Stalloy’ diaphragm. This is the thin metal disc that is mounted very close to the magnet’s poles. Stalloy is the trade name for an alloy of aluminium, iron and silicon, which has the useful property of being attracted to an electro magnet, but not becoming magnetised, so in theory the performance or volume won’t deteriorate. If and when it does the trick was to flip the disc over, which would neutralise any residual magnetism. Diaphragms often got damp and rusty and the one in this stick earphone looks like a compatible replacement. It was manufactured by Richard Thomas and Baldwins and made from a material called Ferrosil, which sounds a lot like an alloy of iron and silicon.  

 

This earphone came from a car boot sale in mid Sussex and at first I thought it was a microphone. So did the stallholder who confidently dated it as an early sixties model and claimed to have tested it, which I found somewhat doubtful. Since he was only asking £5.00 for it, it looked like a worthwhile a punt and he accepted my offer of £3.00 owing to a very small crack in the neck of the stick. This was easily repaired and now you would be hard pressed to spot it without a magnifying glass. Following a thorough clean up it’s as close to mint as its possible to get on something that getting on for a hundred years old. The stallholder was right about its condition, though, and it works really well. 

 

What Happened To It?

Sidney George Brown set up the company bearing his name in 1903. He was an engineer by trade and started out making parts and accessories for early radios, including headphones. The company diversified into scientific instruments and most notably a gyroscopic compass, which gained the company lucrative military contracts. Eventually relations between the S.G. Brown and the Ministry of Defence soured and in the years following the Second World War divisions were sold off and what remained was bought and sold a number of times until the brand eventually disappeared after being acquired by the military contractor Vosper Thorneycroft. 

 

Needless to say the market for stick earphones was quite limited, and short-lived. My guess is it fizzled out by the 1940s, though it’s hard to be sure as this is not a widely researched subject. Ironically a quick search on ebay and Amazon brings up countless modern earphones designed for 'ladies', though they tend to have more to do with girly colours and cute animal shapes, rather than protecting hairdos…

 

What you will often find on ebay, though is one or two vintage stick earphones like this one and at a very rough guess there were at least three or four manufacturers. Prices are disappointingly low and rarely top more than £20, and that’s for ones in good condition. The lack of information on the web suggests stick headphones are an unexplored backwater and therefore ripe for collectors. I would also bet a pound to a penny that one of these would get you a spot on TV if you showed up with one at the Antiques Roadshow, but it won’t make your fortune. As always, though, don’t let that put you off snagging one if the price is right.  


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen:          1925

Original Price:   £?

Value Today:     £15.00 (0617)

Features:           Low impedance magnetic earphone with Stalloy (or Ferosil) diaphragm, variable volume, cloth covered cable, 2-pin connector socket.

Power req.                    n/a

Dimensions:                  325 x 62 x 28mm

Weight:                         200g

Made (assembled) in:    Watford, England

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest)   8



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