Watch James May Reassemble an Old Telephone

You probably have at least a passing awareness of James May. He was one of the trio who hosted Top Gear (recently reincarnated as The Grand Tour) and is a bona fide cool car guy. But he has also hosted a variety of interesting, verging on odd, television shows. Perhaps the oddest show, and my favorite, is The Reassembler in which Mr. May, well, reassembles things.

Would you watch a video of a guy reassembling a lawn mower, a mini bike, or an electric guitar? He starts with all the various pieces neatly aligned on a table, then methodically and slowly, very slowly, reassembles everything. It might sound tremendously boring, and to some people, it certainly would be. But I find it fascinating, and strangely soothing.

Maybe it's May's made-for-radio British voice, maybe it's his calm narrative and sprinkling of historical minutia, maybe it's the zen of watching tiny pieces become a working whole. For whatever reason, I find viewing The Reassembler to be deeply satisfying.

For example, consider the program showing May reassembling a GPO Bakelite rotary dial telephone. Anyone old enough to have used a rotary telephone knows that they were built like tanks, or at least were built to last. This one is a triumph of 1950's British engineering; every piece is built with a sense of craftsmanship that seems lacking in today's products. Compared to my smartphone, this dial phone is primitive junk. But it has something my smartphone does not — it has a soul.

After a frenetic CES, with every newest piece of marvelous technology shouting at the top of its lungs, it is calming to see an example of much quieter technology. Also, whereas this 60-year old telephone is still capable of doing its job, I suspect that most of what I saw at CES will be broken and forgotten within a mere decade, if not much sooner.

The Reassembler is a BBC program, so I expect that British readers are already well familiar with it. If you are an American, then the BBC might not be on your telly. Fortunately, a few episodes of The Reassembler are available online. Here's the one in question...

If it's not legal to watch that program in the U.S., then please don't. But don't worry. Vintage rotary phones are still widely available; you can buy your own example here and do your own disassembly and reassembly. It's sad that most modern phone systems can't recognize the dialing pulses from rotary phones; the phones themselves still work just fine. After all, they were built to last.

Tangential's picture

Just in case James May actually reads this - Grizedale is better than Pendle!

John_Werner's picture

Oh how I wish May would have chosen a Dynakit ST-70 since afterwards we could have enjoyed Them's "Baby Please Don't Go" played back through a pair of also timeless AR 3 loudspeakers. Still this is a fun series for those inclined with the collision of a certain time and electro-mechanical gadgets. Thanks for bringing the series to my attention.