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Gamewell & other Fire Alarm Boxes => Restorations of Gamewell & other fire alarm boxes => Topic started by: \\-olff on July 10, 2015, 08:01:42 PM

Title: Horni Signal restoration
Post by: \\-olff on July 10, 2015, 08:01:42 PM
Some time ago I purchased a so called "professionally restored" Horni Signal mechanism/inner box from a guy who bought it at an estate sale that way.

I have started reversing that so called "professional restoration" which had included sandblasting, electro static repainting using  a very heavy amount of super high gloss paint, replacing original machine screws with screws that are too long.
I started by removing and discarding the numerous brass flat washers used  to partially compensate for the excess screw length, and really  restoring the two small door rivets that had been drilled out and discarded to dissasemble for that sandblasting/painting. The two rivets had been replaced with smaller round head screws and self threading nuts, they were so loose the door wobbled up and down easily.
The sand cast brass hinges and screw heads were also polished.

The coils on the mechanism may be ruined due to all the OIL someone soaked the mechanism with, they used so much oil there are still a couple of drips, the mechanism itself is all oily, and the whole thing reeks of oil.
The local bell inside shows obvious signs of having had a mechanical tool used on it to remove the nickel plating to shine the brass base metal. There are scores and scratches in the metal from this "restoration" almost as though sandpaper or a wire wheel on a grinder was used,  I have not decided how to deal with that just yet.

To begin with, this is what one of these boxes should normally look like as-found condition:


Here's a view of the box I have:

under the red arrow, all of the hinge screws had flat washers under them, shown removed in the photo back to the correct assembly.
The blue arrow points to the  handle which originally had a tapered steel pin in it, this was removed and replaced with a cut off flat head nail so the previous owner could remove the lever for painting, the steel pin will be replaced when I determine the correct size.

The raised letters are so clogged with this gloss paint it's unreadable.

I found exact replacement rivets for the door hinges, and they are nice and snug. Cut to length and ends flattened enough to hold them in place the small door operates smooth and snug now instead of loose and wobbly. The contact engages properly now as well when the door is shut.

The near plastic-like electro static paint was sanded and the box  has been primed in this photo which also shows the replaced rivets:


All of the too long screws were replaced with the correct length screws and the incorrect flat washers eliminated.

I have to remove the brass mechanism and a couple of wires to prime and prime the inside of the door next, then it will be just about ready to paint.

I have not tested the coils yet but they are soaked with oil so i would be surprised if they work at all.
Title: Re: Horni Signal restoration
Post by: \\-olff on July 11, 2015, 07:30:23 PM
Now that the box is painted with a much less glossy paint, and the brass painted as it was originally,  I am working on the mechanism.
Title: Re: Horni Signal restoration
Post by: \\-olff on July 11, 2015, 11:11:02 PM

This is pretty complicated and all the gears have to go back in their same relative positions, but if the mainspring needed to be replaced this would have to be disassembled like this to even get to the sping barrel and remove it. most of the older Gamewell mechanism were much easier to replace broken mainsprings on as they were mounted on the outside of the face plate.

Some of the many parts initially cleaned. I don't know what the names of these parts were, there are a lot of cross-references of many of the parts to clocks since the earliest fire alarm mechanism was in fact designed by a clock maker. The one part of the 4 shown that does have a cross-reference to clocks is obviously the anchor escapement which is modified, rather than having a connection to a pendulum it has a pair of adjustable weights on it's cross-shaft that controls the speed just like a pendulum but it's much faster.
Title: Re: Horni Signal restoration
Post by: \\-olff on July 12, 2015, 07:28:11 PM
I have the Horni Signal mechanism pretty well cleaned up, corrosion removed and ready to re-assemble.Most of the parts are shown in one photo, there are several additional parts such as the contacts, wires, code wheel and activator lever bearing not shown as they need to be cleaned up yet and this unit is missing the code wheel to begin with.
 Fortunately I have a second mechanism that is a slightly newer and intact that I can visually refer to for specific details photos can miss.this is the ideal way to work on something complex like this where there's so many small parts and all of the gears are specifically phased in relation to one another all the way back to the mainspring.
 What I mean by phased is several of the gears have steel pins on them which either come to rest against a stop, or activate some other part as it passes a certain point.
  The coil armature is one of these, if the current is lost the coils are not energized and the armature swings down due to the counterweight, one of the gears with a steel pin comes around during the cycle and attempts to movethe armature back into activated position where it remains closed IF power was restored. If power was restored the telegraph signal is transmitted by the code wheel as the contacts will be closed, if not, then no signal is transmitted and the mechanism continues for another cycle to re-try.
 Power can be lost if another fire alarm box is transmitting at the same time on the same circuit, or if someone left the door open by accident. This style mechanism is called "non interfering" as its designed to not interfere with the signal from another box on the same circuit.
 As long as the mainspring has mechanical power it will continue cycling several times attempting to restore the armature and contacts and transmit the signal until the spring runs down. Most of these will try for about 5 to 6 or even more cycles before that happens.
 The armature alone is shown in one of the pictures, although it's adjustable counterweight  behind it is not easy to see due to the angle.
 This was all the result of the genius of Dr. William Channing,  Moses Farmer, and John N. Gamewell- the latter was a postmaster and telegraph agent  who purchased the rights from Channing and Farmer in the 1850s and built up a huge company.
 Moses farmer  received his schooling at Phillips Academy and Dartmouth College. He was a pioneer telegraph operator. He constructed and maintained the telegraph lines of Massachusetts. He later became a superintendent of a telegraph company. Farmer investigated multiple telegraphy. He successfully demonstrated duplex telegraphy between New York and Philadelphia in 1856.
 In 1847, Farmer constructed and exhibited in public what he called “an electro-magnetic locomotive, and with forty-eight pint cup cells of Grove nitric acid battery drew a little car carrying two passengers on a track a foot and a half wide". Farmer later fabricated a process for electroplating aluminum. At Boston in 1851, he constructed an electric fire-alarm service. He invented several forms of the incandescent electric light.
 They invented the idea and installed a number of boxes and a system, but it was Gamewell who really took the whole thing off.
 In 1859 he purchased all of the patents and launched his career in the Fire Alarm Telegraph field devoting his entire business life to its introduction and improvement, holding numerous patents and owning at least a 95% share of the national market as late as 1910.
 Here's a really amazing thing about how an employee saved Gamewells' patents during the civil War:
 His business venture was cut short from 1861 to 1865 during the Civil War.  As a southerner, Gamewell had returned to South Carolina and the U.S. Government confiscated all his patents on the Fire Alarm Telegraph system and proceeded to sell them at public auction.  An employee, John Kennard of Boston, went to Washington prepared to pay $20,000 for the patents.  He bought them for the meager sum of $80.00 and returned them to Gamewell after the war. Shortly after the wars’ end, Gamewell again actively pursued the business under the name “American Fire Alarm Telegraph, John N. Gamewell & Company, Proprietor”.
leaving this assembly at this stage for now while I attend a few other things I need to get done today.
Title: Re: Horni Signal restoration
Post by: \\-olff on July 13, 2015, 02:38:18 AM
After some tedious and painstakingly slow work ,and going back and removing a part or two I have it assembled and believe I have the gears properly phased but I haven't tested it yet. The hardest part to get back in was the face plate since it has a peculiar fit under the activator lever, the problem was it has to angle downwards to get it under that while simultaneously slipping over the long code wheel pivot and at the same time the activator lever has to clear the mainspring case and it's pivots have to go into the holes while the spring loaded stop pawl has to be engaged into the side of the mainspring barrel where there is a slot for it to slide into.
I wound up taking the brass block the coils screw to back out to gain more room for the activator lever to be manipulated.
It probably took about  a half hour of fooling with it to finally get the faceplate and activator lever into loose position, and then slipping the pivots of the gears into their holes in the faceplate.
I'm sure the factory had a well thought-out specific  written assembly procedure and a worker could put one of these together very quickly, trouble is all these decades later after the company shut down in 1945 the procedure is completely lost so it's doing it blind by guesswork.
If I had half a dozen of these and didn't mind sort of expending one of them for trial and error assembly and re-assembly over and over in different order- a best assembly procedure
could be worked out and written down as well as video recorded. I did not disassemble the mainspring case, it wasn't necessary but if it was it looks like it would be a real chore.
Title: Re: Horni Signal restoration
Post by: \\-olff on September 22, 2015, 11:39:46 PM

I found a source ( for reproduction cloth covered wiring, now I can finish restoring the Horni Signal fire box by replacing the old rotted wiring with new OEM style wire. Horni soldered on crimp on style connectors, these are still available today though the modern ones have a plastic insulating sleeve on them, they can be removed like I did to the one in picture and they are perfect OEM style replacements for weakened, corroded, rotted wiring and connectors.

I've said before about restoring antiques by retaining the original parts whenever possible, and using OEM type replacements for any that can't be restored, one "part" that fits this is the old cloth covered wiring which many ill informed replace with modern vinyl/PVC wiring, this not only looks bad but it's a poor, sloppy lazy mans'  way to do it.
 I have to replace some original wiring in at least one fire alarm box as the wiring is falling apart and some of the connectors are ready to break off it, especiall inside behind the bell and telegraph board. There are however sources for restoration wiring that is extremely close to the original cloth covered wiring, a look at some of the wires in this Horni Signal box matched up with some new cloth covered wire in a coil below it in the split screen photo below shows how perfectly the match is!
 What's more, the wire is only $1.35 a foot with free shipping from Vintage wire and supply of Amherst Ohio.
I did some more work on this Horni Signal unit I bought earlier in the summer, the one I completely dismantled the mechanism on, now I am to where I'm putting the new replacement cloth covered wiring in. The crack in the black bakelite meter holder has been fixed, the broken terminal on the back of the meter resoldered in place.
 The tapper bell needs work yet to clean up corrosion dirt and grease, there's also one wire loom hold-down screw missing and I need to cut the ends of the two wires and solder on their connectors yet but it's almost done.
 The two dark connectors on the black bakelite correspond with the brass contact on the small lower door, they are actually  silver plated since that is a critical electrical connection.

This pretty much finishes the restoration up on this with having finished soldering the connectors for the new wires and put the last pieces back together.
The tapper bell is in and it functions, need to connect DC to the box and see if the meter, telegraph key and bell work work together as they are supposed to. This is the one that came with it's movement so saturated with oil you could smell it even closed up, even the DC coils were saturated with oil to the point oil was actually dripping and the coating of oil all over the movement had attracted grit, dirt etc.

This was also the same  box that had been "restored" by the previous owner who had replaced original screws with new ones, added mysterious brass flat washers where there never were any, some of the replacement screws were too long, and then he stripped the original paint off and powder coat painted it with a super high gloss paint,  and polished brass that was never meant to be.
It would not surprise me if he removed the usual nickel plating on the tapper bell just to have another item to polish the brass on, it has an appearance as though a wire wheel was used to do it, what are people like that thinking??
I'll leave the bell as it is unpolished, it will tarnish more, the only option is to get it re-nickel plated or polish it, either way that would not look right on this now- the replating would look too new and I'm not 100% certain this particular one was plated or not, I have seen them plated but they may not have plated every one of them.

The paint he used was almost impossible to get off, I wound up sanding the gloss off, removing the  paint clogging up  the small name lettering on the bottom of the door, priming it and repainting it in a much more appropriate paint.

Due to all the oil and grit stuck to the oil I also wound up deciding to completely dismantle the movement to clean it, I wasn't even 100% sure I could get all those parts back together again, it was definitely a seat of the pants kind of project.

I didn't try doing anything with the coils, I have a movement with no case that I got for parts and it had two good dry coils so I just swopped them out, once a coil of wire gets that much oil on it you can be sure it's soaked the cloth insulation and everything and would be ruined.

You really have to wonder about people who would squirt that much oil on something like this, it was like he was oiling up a chainsaw chain!
The movements in these don't need any more oil than a clock gets.

Title: Re: Horni Signal restoration
Post by: \\-olff on October 24, 2015, 12:14:20 AM
I'm a happy camper now! I blipped through the category I monitor on Ebay earlier today, nothing, and then a half hour ago I checked the newly listed again and bingo what a find! I bet the seller didn't have his page up an hour and luckily for me he had not only a reasonable price but it was "buy now" instead of sitting there for a week to 10 days as an auction.
 He had a FDNY Horni Signal inner box, but this one is 100% COMPLETE, with the glass and the code wheel, and as a bonus it's in "unmessed with"  "unscrewed up" original condition!
 Just hope it arrives in the mail without the glass getting broken... they are no longer made of course and no one sells just the glass by itself  if they even have one.
 The number on it reveals it came from one of the light post mounted O'Brien type boxes that is at 115th ave 133rd st in Queens NY The O'Brien box is still there, but it has the electronic Police/Fire faceplate on it.
 I grabbed it so fast the usual collector dudes who alert their fellow collectors on the fire related forums did not see it, when that happens a bidding war on auction items is sure to ensue, running the price way up as several people all vie for the item, that's why I like the "buy now" if someone has a reasonable price, in this case it was $270 but just last week some other guy listed a similar box that has no glass, no code wheel and he had a crazy price of $995 on it!
  I wrote to tell him in so many words that he was insane, he wrote back that there is a "make offer" on it too, so I offered him $300 citing the missing glass and code wheel, he wrote back saying he would take $495 for it and I wrote back and said $300 was as high as I would go on that, and now a week later this one comes up for $270 WITH the glass and code wheel!
 Now I have an inner box for one of my 2 O'Brien boxes that don't have one, so this one will make one of those 100% complete.
Horni Signal Box 5241, my second unit-  arrived  in perfect condition and the glass survived intact!
 I'm going to have to look into how something like the glass could be replicated, I'm betting it couldn't be made in glass without a huge outlay and a large minimum order to some custom glass company.  I'm thinking a possible idea is casting them in a crystal clear resin, not the ideal replacement for missing glass but better than having nothing, besides it helps keep the movement clean since it seals that up nicely. Horni Signal was only in business about 20 years- 1926-1946 so these all date to that period making them at least 70 years old but since Horni got a large contract for these to supply NYC in 1930 with 1,025 units,  I suspect all them were made that year, possibly a few replacements for those damaged by cars, and maybe a few additional units later on.

I decided to see if I could open up the little Weston Electric ammeter in this that isn't working. Here's some pictures of the process, but in the end I wasn't able to repair it. I found it has two coils, one tested working, the other not working, so once i narrowed it to the one coil I unwound the copper wire from that coil, I counted 188 turns,   replacement wire will need to be the same diameter and number of turns.
 I experimented with some fine wire from an old hard drive and it was too thick, so I'll have to measure the old wire and buy a spool of that size wire. It is incredibly thin wire about the diameter of a hair and it has to be soldered to the other coil's wire and a terminal. These were custom face plates made by Weston Electric for Horni Signal with their name on them, and likely they were custom made for Horni with the 150 miliamp capacity, so the upshot is one is not likely to simply find a replacement, Weston made hundreds of styles of gages, and they made ammeters and voltmeters for motorcycles and cars' dashboards, but these work in a different much higher current range of amps and they would of course have a different face plate.
 The Horni gage was designed to work in around the 100 ma range, that's only 1/10th of one amp, whereas a motorcycle gage might be working in 2-5 amps ranges.
 This all means finding a working exact replacement on Ebay or whatever is extremely unlikely, and from what I've found so far- there's almost no one who repairs these any more, the only reference I found to a guy who used to repair such meters- I saw a $300 repair price connected to!
 So it looks like this will be a fix it myself project, not especially difficult but the 188 turns of wire have to go on snug, neatly, and compact- the needle's post sits right between the two coils which means it can't touch stray/loose wire.
 For now I swopped another I have which works, into the box this one is from which is 100% complete, so this one at least is fully restored/working.
It took about an hour I guess, but both coils are rewound with new wire and soldered coil to coil and lead wires to terminals, the multi-tester shows there is continuity between the two terminals across both coils, and there is no accidental unwanted electrical short between either terminal and the metal case itself, so it would seem now when I re-assemble the meter it should work unless there's something about the original coil makeup I don't know about that is critical that didn't happen with the re-coiling.

I took apart the Weston ammeter to look at why it still doesn't work, I think part of it might be because the coil I rewired yesterday has the new wire a little higher up on the plastic form than the other one has, so the tiny steel plate that fits over them doesn't quite seat flat, it might also be electrically shorting the circuit out as it's in contact with the wire that way too. So I decided to remove all the wire off the coil form I did yesterday, and also renew the other coil with new wire too even though it tests unbroken, namely because the wire is so fragile- especially the lead-ends which get soldered, that I fear messing with cleaning them and resoldering them again one will just break off, or the old insulation coating which is 80 years old will not hold up, so it's better to just renew both taking care to avoid winding the wire up the forms too high, and re-assemble.
 Worst that can happen is it still doesn't work!

One photo shows the gage was no longer functioning on the street and the wire by the yellow arrow was moved from the terminal at the blue arrow to by-pass the gage and cut it out of the circuit probably when the fire box was in serice on the street as a quick repair.

Title: Re: Horni Signal restoration
Post by: \\-olff on October 24, 2015, 12:18:54 AM
Amazingly there's a Weston ammeter the same model as this on Ebay, but it's faceplate and electrical capacity is different, amazingly they want $159 for this, I bought the entire fire alarm box for about that much!