Mounted on the wall behind the front desk in the Royal Hotel is an odd devise that attracts attention and puzzled stares from guests. “What exactly is that?” is frequently the question from curious guests. This contraption stirred my curiosity as well – I needed to find out exactly what it was and why it was behind the front desk.
First, let me do my best to describe the oddity. Measuring just over two feet long, 9 inches wide and 5 inches deep, the rectangular shaped oak box has a brass bell mounted at the top, in the centre. Just below the bell is a glass covered middle section. This glass door covers five rows of numbers from 1 to 15, with a metal arrow beside each number. Below the glass door are the same numbers, 1 through 15, a wooden button corresponding to each number. On the bottom of the oak box is a single wooden knob. Inside the glass section I found the manufacturer name inscribed “Cope and Son”, a large Vancouver electrical manufacturing company at the time.
It did not take long to discover that the odd looking oak contraption is called a “magnetic needle annunciator” and was frequently used in hotels and Victorian mansions. Invented sometime around 1870 and mounted behind the desk in a hotel (or in the kitchen of a Victorian home) before the use of telephones, the unit was used for quests (or the lady of the manor) to call for service. A button would have been located in each guest room. Pushing the button would immediately activate the magnetic lever on the annunciator and a clock-like hand would move to indicate which room required service. A bell connected to the wire would ring on the devise at the same time, alerting hotel staff. Once the guest was taken care of, staff would re-set the annunciator by pulling the wood button located at the bottom. Re-setting the unit would return the needle to the neutral position and the devise would be ready for the next guest’s request.
So, next time you are in downtown Chilliwack, drop by to see the annunciator (no, it is no longer in use) behind the front desk and also take a look at an early photo of the Royal Hotel front lobby (you can see the annunciator in the photo).