A Small Device
The mystery behind a "What Is It" item can be compounded by using artistic trickery when presenting it. This includes using methods such as showing a photograph taken at an obscure angle, showing only a portion of the item, and, finally, showing a part of the item that does not play a role in helping to identify it. The aim is to confound the reader so that there will be much mental anguish, so to speak. It becomes more of a cerebral exercise than a game with rewards. And frankly, that is a good thing.
One of the best sources for "What Is It" items is rediscovered technology from the past — items that inevitably make us say "I can't believe they did it like that". Nowhere are there more candidates to be found than in the everyday trades still practiced today. Almost every carpenter has a special jig or fixture, as do most riggers, electricians, welders and, for that matter, all tradespeople. There is always a shortcut that can make a simple job easier while still adhering to the code, if one is in place. Strangely, this shortcut may vary according to region; in this case, North America.
Samuel Morse is credited with the popularization of the telegraph in the 1840s. By the early 1880s, Thomas Edison had successfully developed the electric light bulb and the transmission of electrical power using a grid system. They shared one thing, the copper wire that allowed the signal to be transmitted. As wire does not come in an endless roll, a method had to be developed for joining wire and allowing branch circuits to be tailed off from the main supply. Early electrical splices were patterned after the Western Union splices, which were soldered and wrapped in black sticky tape. This was friction tape, a cloth-backed cotton tape impregnated with a rubber- or tar-based covering. It was the choice for wrapping hockey sticks in the '50s and '60s, as it seemed to have properties that kept the puck on the stick, or so we thought. In fact, a similar cloth tape is made today and sold exclusively for athletic use.
When we first spotted this tool, we thought it was used in a gunsmith application or, at a stretch, perhaps a plumbing one. The gimbaled action of the small cup meant that it was to be used in a specific manner, and the seller was firm in his explanation. In an electrical installation, it was used to dip the twisted wires overhead prior to the final covering of the joint. It appears that the electrician made all the joints in the boxes or otherwise went around and dipped the overhead joints in the molten solder or lead and then followed up with a covering, be it tape or a wire-nut device.
A word about electricity: it's extremely dangerous. Any wiring alterations should always be performed by a licensed electrician, and the final result inspected by your local electrical authority.
D.S. Orr has been a collector, user and student of woodworking
and metalworking tools and practices for more than 40 years.
Recently retired, he has devoted even more time to these endeavors.