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Widget Of The Week

Hero HP-101 All Transistor Handy Phone, 1966

In my ongoing quest to re-acquire the long lost electronic gadgets of my youth this has been one of the most elusive but now, thanks to ebay, the search is over. The Hero Handy Phone is a 2-station intercom and it played a key role in my understanding of electronics, communications technology, and remote surveillance, but more about that in a moment. I cannot recall if the one I had was badged ‘Hero’; it probably wasn’t, early 60s Japanese electronic products like this often appeared under a dozen or more different band names but that doesn’t matter, in all other respects it is identical to the one that I once owned.

 

Although devices like these were sold in Exchange And Mart and wonderful shops, like Headquarters and General, as intercoms, they were more realistically baby alarms, and little more than toys. To qualify as a properly serious  Intercom it really needs at least two ‘sub’ stations in addition to the ‘master’ unit, but that really didn’t matter to pre-teenage kids; in the early 1960s being able to hold a private two-way conversation with a sibling or friend over distances of up to 60 feet -- the length of the connecting cable -- was nothing short of a miracle.     

 

Nevertheless it is a fully functional Intercom and with the master unit switched off both units can ‘call’ each other by pressing the button on the top; this generates a tone or rather a buzz on the other unit’s speaker. When the sub calls the master the procedure is to use the volume thumbwheel to switch it on and the sub’s speaker becomes a microphone allowing whoever is using the master to hear the caller. To reply they press the button on the top and the master unit’s speaker now becomes a microphone. Leaving the master unit switched on puts the Handy Phone into monitor mode, allowing the master user to hear whatever is going on in the vicinity of the sub unit. This feature was one of the Handy Phone’s, and similar models, biggest attractions. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how it can be used for spot of discrete eavesdropping. Probably fortunately for my juvenile ears, my parents were sufficiently tech-savvy to know about this feature and my attempts to covertly listen in to what they were saying after I had gone to bed were thwarted, either by the cable being unplugged, or it being ‘accidentally’ sucked up in the vacuum cleaner.

 

The circuit is a brilliant piece of minimalist design with very clever use of (then) expensive components. Using the speakers as microphones is one example and the call function tone, which  is derived by forcing the simple two-transistor push-pull amplifier to oscillate, shows considerable ingenuity. It also helped keep the cost down, which, for the record was typically forty-seven shillings and sixpence (£2.37), plus another four and sixpence (22 pence) for postage, if bought by mail order.

 

I have been on the lookout for one of these for a while and although they do occasionally pop up on ebay but they are either long past help or stupidly expensive. This one ticked all the right boxes, though; it was clearly in pretty good shape cosmetically and the description made it clear that it was complete, but a non-runner. There were no other bidders and was all mine for just 99p (19 shillings and 10 pence), though postage prices have risen somewhat in the past 50 or so years (£3.50…). It came in its original box, with a full reel of cable, which made it even more of a bargain. It had two relatively simple faults; the first one was the cable, which was open circuit. This turned out to be a broken joint on one of the jack plugs, and took about two minutes to fix. The other fault was a dicky electrolytic capacitor. This is very common on 60’s electronic devices and rather than mess around trying to find which one(s) are responsible I replaced them all with modern components for the simple reason that if they haven’t gone yet, they will eventually. Since there were only three of them to contend with this was another quick and easy job.  Apart from that all the two units needed was a quick clean up and it was working, and looking almost as good as new.

 

What Happened To It?

Looking back through my collection of old electronics mags (Practical Wireless & Practical Electronics etc.), basic 2-station intercoms like this made regular appearances in the small ads from the mid 1960s, for the best part of ten years. They didn’t suddenly disappear, though, and they continue to this day in the shape of baby monitors and door entry systems, though nowadays often without the connecting cables. However, for simple two-way communications they were somewhat overshadowed by cheap walkie-talkies, which by that time were coming out of the woodwork. On paper at least, to a budding young electronic enthusiast walkie-talkies seemed a lot more exciting though the vast majority of them had a range of around 20 metres, or around as far as you could shout…

 

You probably won’t be surprised to learn that collecting old intercoms is a fairly specialised hobby. There is a clear overlap into the much more lively telephone collecting market, though, where elegant vintage brass and bakelite models, and wacky looking designs, can command quite respectable prices on ebay. On the other hand cheap little mass-produced plastic jobbies like the Hero Handy Phone are never going to excite much interest or investment potential but like all 60’s electronic gadgets, good examples, especially if they come with their original box, will have some value to collectors of late 20th century ephemera and if he price is right, a really clean one might even make you a few bob one day.  


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen                1966

Original Price         47/6 (£2.37)

Value Today           £10 (0715)

Features                  2-transistor (2SB221), push-pull audio amplifier, ‘call’ master/sub function, push-to-talk button, volume on/off thumbwheel, 2 x 55mm speakers, folding stand, 2.5mm mono jack sockets, 18 metres (approx 60 feet) connecting cable

Power req.                    9V PP3 battery

Dimensions:                  111 x 33 x 68mm (both units)

Weight:                         133g (Master) 110g (Sub)

Made (assembled) in:    Japan

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):  7


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