|Posted by PM on August 15, 2014 at 2:50 PM|
Mr Marlowe's Museum of Infernal Devices: The Gravity Drop Annunciator
In the Victorian and Edwardian heyday of luxury, no self-respecting lady or gentleman would have been without a retinue of servants to take care of everything from polishing the door-knocker to helping them dress, and even a Phileas Fogg on adventure would not be without his Passepartout. But how, one wonders, did the gentry communicate their desires to the lower orders? For some, by communicating as little as possible. Archibald Primrose, aka the Earl of Rosebery, sometimes known as “Prime Minister” (in office 1894-5), disliked communicating with tradesmen so much that he was reputed, when in need of a new top hat, to simply burst into a hatter’s shop and bellow “hat!”, confident that the exact headgear he desired would be presented to him without further discussion.
However, as monosyllabic shouts are not the soundest foundation for a well-run household, other means of summoning the help were devised. Originally, systems of bell-pulls were used whereby the tugging of a rope in one of the rooms in the family’s section of the house would ring a bell in the servants’ section. This primitive, though effective, method was rendered obsolete by the advent of electricity and the invention of such wonders as the electric annunciator.
Today's example of this class of device is a “Tirrell Gravity Drop Annunciator”, which I presume has nothing to do with using it for summoning murderous genetically-engineered replicant servants of the sort found in Blade Runner.
Rather, Tirrell was the cunning artificer who, in 1888, patented it. The patent papers can be viewed here, here, and here. One notices that the patent was assigned to the “Electric Gas Lighting Company” of Portland, Maine, which sounds like an oxymoron, but apparently their business had something to do with gadgets using electric sparks to light gas jets.
My own specimen of Tirrell’s invention (photo at the top of this article) was made, presumably under licence, by James Hunter of Saint John, New Brunswick. A little research uncovered that around the turn of the last century a fellow by that name was responsible for wiring the elegant Carnegie library in Saint John (now the Saint John Arts Centre) as well as wiring the Intercolonial Railway facilities in the city, and telephone installation in nearby St Andrews, so he must have been a well-known electrical worker. (Mind you, I doubt the annunciator is up to present-day electrical codes, as the wiring appears to be insulated by thread).
To summarize its operation in layman’s terms, the annunciator works by receiving currents of electric fluid, or phlogiston, or some such infernal force, from buttons in various rooms of the house (nursery, parlour, etc.), the galvanic juices shooting at incomprehensible speed to the screw terminals atop the annunciator. Inside, electromechanical contrivances remove a black panel in favour of a white panel beside the appropriate room name, and the bell is rung by an electromagnet, which activates the lackey, chambermaid, or what have you, by Pavlovian Reflex to bring a whisky & soda, a ewer of hot water for the wash stand, a glass of warm milk for the baby, or whatever article is appropriate for the room and time of day, or just their presence to inquire what was wanted. The servant would afterwards pull the knob on the bottom of the annunciator to force a rod inside to re-set all of the black & white panels back to the black setting in preparation for the next summons from the family.
For a glimpse of a typical annunciator in situ (a little later than Edwardian times), see the cover of PG Wodehouse’s novel Pigs Have Wings, where one can be seen immediately above the head of Beach, the butler of Blandings Castle, as he pours glasses of port for himself and guests in his pantry. For whatever reason – probably sheer English perversity – the bell on the Blandings annunciator is on the bottom, which is the reason the cover always reminds me of one of those “what is wrong with this picture” games. That, and the fact that the glasses look far too large for port, and the wine looks more Chianti.
As a literary curiosity for CanLit aficionados, I'll mention that this particular copy of Pigs Have Wings once belonged to writer & playwright Timothy “Tiff” Findley (1930-2002).
In a sense, annunciator systems were a primitive sort of local area network, albeit one-way, allowing communication from many places within a house to one central spot. With the arrival after the First World War of higher taxes, labour-saving devices such as the vacuum cleaner, and the exodus from service into weekly-wage jobs in shops, typing pools, factories, and the like, many of the old annunciators would have become surplus to requirements, and probably ended up either tossed out or, if lucky, sold to antique shops after household renovations.
I’ve yet to settle on the ideal locale for the installation of my Gravity Drop Annunciator. No doubt once my maids, footmen, gardeners, butler, and housekeeper are installed it will become obvious where to place it for maximum convenience and efficiency.
Tinkerers and inventors are invited to propose their own steampunk versions of this essential piece of Victorian/Edwardian household gadgetry.
More about antique annunciators may be found at this blog.
-Paul Marlowe (Steampunk Canada member PM)
Paul Marlowe’s steampunk tendencies began to manifest themselves a couple of years before the word was coined, when he got his first pocket watch. From there, things whirled out of control with sealing wax, fountain pens, curious pipes, and top hats, until at last he ended up fashioning whole steampunk people in fiction. Some of them can be found in his short story collection Ether Frolics, which was short-listed for the 16th annual Danuta Gleed Literary Award, recognizing the best début collection of short fiction by a Canadian author. He also wrote a couple of YA steampunk novels, Sporeville and Knights of the Sea. His website is at www.paulmarlowe.com