Images from the November 1922 issue of Popular Science.

From the archives: This talking gadget from the 1920s measured water levels


On the occasion of our 150th anniversary, we return to Popular science stories (successful and unsuccessful) that have helped define scientific progress, understanding and innovation – with an added hint of modern context. Explore Notable sites and check out all our annual reports here.

Water level changes: the float sways, pulls the cord, raises the shoulder, moves the needle, the needle hovers over the disc; the caller calls, the switch-operator connects, the electrical relay responds, the sound box starts, the phonograph rotates, the dial contacts the needle, the recorded voice announces the numbers etched into precisely located grooves. Result? Remote reading of the water level in the tank.

Rube Goldberg would be proud!

Then again when Popular science published “Talking Machine Phones Height of Water in Reservoir” in November 1922, Rube Goldberg just made a name for himself, and this device was a new device at the forefront of telemetry – and a small window into a future world full of sensors. Although the short piece does not identify potential customers, water companies would likely save time and money when calling the local tank for water readings versus dispatch technicians. Or maybe the idle Vanderbilt or Rockefeller might find it amusing from afar to watch the water levels of their rural swimming pools.

A century later, sensor networks have come a long way. Smart litter boxes, for example, monitor your furry cat’s production; dog lovers can check in their barking companions; edible sensors will tell you if he described taking his medication; slide a snoring detector under your pillow to settle the snoring debate once and for all; save your nose by watching your baby’s bowel movements; save your nose twice by following your own movements; get rid of guesswork when buying food using the refrigerator; WiFi water sensor detects leaks before they get out of hand; or, if so, send your robo-mop out of the office.

“The talking machine makes a phone call with the water level in the tank” (November 1922)

By combining a telephone and a phonograph, the English company has perfected a new device that automatically announces either the words or code signals of the water level in a remote pond or reservoir.

When searching for water level information, the recorder can be “started” or connected to any existing telephone or telegraph circuit. After installation, the new device consists of a phonograph mechanism with a telephone transmitter replacing the baffle. The electric motor drives the recording table and the relays, acting through the levers, stop and start the machine and lift the needle from the recording.

Recording needle for float control

The recording disc contains 200 concentric grooves, each groove is a record of vocals of a certain height of water. By moving the float, which rests on the water, the tone arm, baffle and recording needle move laterally into position with the disc so as to provide correct reading when the needle comes into contact with the disc. .

To make this contact, the needle box automatically lowers when the disc mechanism rotates and rises above the disc again when the mechanism stops.

The device is connected in the usual way to the nearest telephone exchange and is assigned a regular subscriber number. When the interviewer searches for water level information, he asks Central for this number. As soon as the instrument phone rings, the hand immediately drops to a record that makes three turns, and the voice announces the exact water level over the telephone line. Short “speeches” on a record range from “empty” to “one, double zero,” expressing each digit of a digit, such as “seven two” and “seven two halves.” Just by ringing the phone, the mechanism activates, transmits the spoken information and closes the answering machine.

In a code signal type mechanism, the grooves on the board contain different combinations of dots that represent changing water heights.

Some texts have been adapted to meet current standards and style.





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