After the initial excitement caused by George Clarke‘s YouTube posting of an excerpt of footage found behind the scenes in Charlie Chaplin’s 1928 film The Circus showing an old woman apparently using a modern-day mobile phone, many think the explanation is that she was, in fact, using an early type of electrical hearing-aid. But can this really be the answer?
First, here’s George Clarke’s YouTube video (3,154,354 hits and counting at this point). It’s 8:27 long:
This is a still I lifted from my PC screen with my iPhone, showing the old woman holding something to her ear and speaking animatedly into it. It can be seen on the video that just after this point she behaves as though responding to something said to her, stops walking as though shocked or surprised, turns a little to her left and interjects with some words of her own. This is why George thinks she is using some kind of communication device that would not have existed in the 1920s. It certainly cannot be a mobile phone. (Nor can she be listening to a transistor radio — again, such devices did not exist.)
The first explanation which seemed to make sense to some was that she was using a hearing-aid — the Western Electric Model 34A “Audiphone” Carbon Hearing Aid. Manufactured in 1925, it measured 7¾ inches by 4 inches by 1½ inches and weighed just under two pounds.
Photo: Audiphone Hearing Aid. Credit: hearingaaidmuseum.com
As soon as this surfaced on the web, lots of posts to George’s YouTube page offered this as the obvious explanation. QED … except … it can be seen that the large black box is connected to a wire with an earpiece, and it is the earpiece that delivers the sound into the ear — the large black box is the microphone. So if the woman is using an Audiphone, she is holding the microphone to her ear. Why would she be doing this? Some speculate that she was “testing” her appliance. This could be an explanation — but there’s a problem with it.
This is me holding a piece of paper cut roughly to the Audiphone’s dimensions (7¾” x 4″). It can be seen that it is much longer than the device the woman is holding — her lips are clearly visible, whereas mine are obscured. (The piece of paper is actually slightly wider than 4″ at the bottom — but the length is exactly correct.) The Audiphone’s dimensions and weight would have made it more similar to the older mobile phones of the late 80s/early 90s (often described as “housebricks” because of their unwieldy size), rather than today’s slimline versions, which is what the old woman seems to be holding. So — even if she was talking into the wrong end of the microphone part while erroneously holding it to her ear (if this is what she’s doing, it would make sense for her to put the circular molded part to her ear, thinking the sound would come out of it, and because the wire trails out of the bottom — and if she was holding it upside-down to speak into the microphone, the trailing wire would then be inconveniently coming out of the top by her ear — if she was “testing it”, wouldn’t it be easier to simply hold the unit squarely in front of her mouth, with the earpiece stuffed into one of her ears?), I don’t think the Audiphone fits the bill for an adequate explanation.
Next to surface on the web as an explanation for what she’s holding came some images from the Siemens archive — their 1924 “patent for a compact, pocket sized carbon microphone/amplifier device suitable for pocket instruments.” The picture on the right is enlarged from the original at their site.
Photo: Examples of Siemens hearing instruments. Credit: hearing.siemens.com
It can be seen that the man is holding something to his ear in a fashion similar to the old woman in the film, and I’ve enlarged this picture to make clearer exactly what it is. I assume the picture was once used to advertise one of Siemens’ devices — so it is showing, I believe, the man and the young girl using the same instrument — a long and rather thin device shaped rather like an old telephone handset. But though the man’s fingers are curled in a similar way to the old woman’s fingers, the device is nothing like what the old woman in the film is holding. The archive does not provide dimensions or an explanation of how the devices worked — it simply says “For a while, the carbon amplifier patented by Siemens played a major role in hearing aid technology and significantly raised the volume of hearing aids. The electrical energy controlled by the carbon microphone was not fed to the receiver directly. It first drove the diaphragm of an electromagnetic system connected to a carbon-granule chamber. Current was transmitted across this chamber from the vibrating diaphragm electrode to the fixed electrode plate. The amplified current produced mechanical vibrations in the electromagnetic hearing diaphragm that were then transmitted to the ear as sound” — but while many on the web have seen this picture and, because of the way the man’s fingers curl, have assumed this must be the answer to the conundrum, I’m far from convinced.
Two more Siemens instruments are shown above (again, enlarged from the original pictures at the Siemens site). The first is a box similar to that of the Western Electric Audiphone and the second appears to be a device built into a carry-case the size of a small handbag. Without dimensions, it’s not possible to compare the box with the Audiphone and without a more detailed technical explanation it would be unwise to speculate as to how they worked in practice (where’s the earpiece for the box in the first picture? Are the hand-held devices shown in the first Siemens picture above both microphones and earpieces?)
Applying the principle of Occam’s Razor, it is easy to accept that the old woman in the film is probably using some kind of hearing device, based on what we now know of the kind of hearing instruments around in 1928 — it’s certainly easier than accepting she’s a time-traveller! — but still there are questions arising out of all of this:
The old woman is definitely talking into the device and seems to be conducting a two-way conversation. Whether it is real or imagined (e.g. the old woman is slightly mad and talking to herself) is not clear.
If it is one end of a hearing instrument, who is on the other end, and where are they? It is most definitely not a radio transmitting device (they didn’t exist in such a miniaturized form in 1928). The earpiece at the other end would have to be attached to her box by a wire, and there is no person walking nearby, or indeed a trailing connecting wire, to be seen in the film. It’s possible — if we assume she’s “testing” the appliance — she’s got the earpiece in her right ear while holding the other end of the device up to her left ear. But still, the nature of her reactions as the section of film cross-fades into another scene seems to indicate she’s hearing something unexpected and reacting to it in some slight agitation — just as one would if conversing on a mobile phone today.
If it is a hearing instrument, it does not appear to be either a Western Electric Audiphone or any of the Siemens devices so far postulated as explanations. Are there others, not yet uncovered on the web but languishing in some museum somewhere, that might provide the explanation?
I’m not saying she’s a time traveller. I’m not saying she must be using a mobile phone. (With no mobile networks in existence in those days, who could she be talking to?) I’m just asking: if she’s not holding a hearing instrument of the kind described above … then — assuming the film excerpt is not hoaxed — what is she holding?