Vakkotaur (vakkotaur) wrote,

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It's Not 1972 Anymore

Not like we didn't know that, but this was brought home to me in a very effective manner, though one that might not make sense to others without some explanation.

Back in 1972 if you wanted a typical (as seen nowadays) red dot laser you needed to get a Helium-Neon laser tube which was not cheap then. A very quick web search shows that a low end 'HeNe' tube today is about $60. And as with most tube gear, a high voltage power supply was needed to make the thing work. While one can find such things nowadays for about $20, back then it was not the case. My father had managed to buy a "replacement" laser tube and used a fancy (so it seemed then) toroidal transformer and power transistors (solid state has made a lot of progress since then, if you hadn't noticed... often power devices still used tubes then.) and with those built a power supply for the tube that could run off of 12 Volts DC. This made it "portable" or at least transportable. It could be used in a car.

The night it was finished enough to be used that way, my mother was in the hospital either expecting or having given birth to my sister. My father was visiting her while I was at home or more likely at my grandparent's house. Luckily it was a foggy night and he told her he'd have it on for a bit before he left the parking lot. With the fog, the beam was visible and my mother saw it out the hospital room window.

As there were no laser pointers, this thing was unique, or at least was so in our area. This led to various shenanigans with it. Aiming it at the sign that indicates a stop light ahead made the red circle in the image of the stoplight look lit up like a real stoplight. Tracing the beam quickly along the prismatic bricks of a bar must've looked at least somewhat light emergency (police, fire) lights inside and got folks to come out to look around.

At the A&W root beer stand (a drive-in eatery back then) the laser was once positioned in my father's lap, held low so it could not be seen from other vehicles. Then the spot was projected on the sun visor or headliner of the adjacent vehicle. When the odd red dot was noticed the driver tried to point at it to his passenger (we assume husband & wife) but as he pointed, Pa would shift the dot a bit and the pointing finger followed, but the shift reversed and for a bit it was sort of a game of tag to try to point at the curious dot. My mother had to hold herself back some to let the beam pass and also had to suppress laughter at this little game.

Now, most of these things I did not witness myself, or do not recall, but I heard of them years after the fact. One thing I do recall is a big (well to me, I was 5 years old, everything was kinda big to me) pickup, I think the license plate indicate Montana but I am unsure, parked opposite us at the root beer stand. A map went up in the truck. The laser was quickly brought to bear and the mysterious red dot shown through the map and was scanned around just a bit. *FWIP!* That map came down faster than one might imagine and the people in the truck looked around for... whatever that was.

I don't know how long this reign of peculiar red dot event went on, but eventually the laser tube leaked (give the pressures involved, air got in to it) and the fun was over. The tube was not replaced. It was expensive and the fun had been had.

For years I pondered rigging up something similar, and for a while I even had at least a laser tube and power supply (by then, the mid-late 1980s, such things could be found used & inexpensive at hamfests) though I never rigged it all up to be portable or transportable.

Laser diodes (and diode lasers) had been around for some time, but they were infra-red and thus while useful in some application, not useful for visual pointing or amusement. And then technical progress brought about visible light laser diodes, which were expensive - at first. But like other solid state devices, progress meant rapid cost deflation and soon pocket laser pointers made into boardrooms, then classrooms, and eventually got to where you could buy one off of a peg at Shopko or K-Mart.

And as that happened, more people experienced the red dot and grew to know what it was. The joke didn't work anymore as the mystery was gone. Now it was "Alright, who's playing with a %^$@ laser pointer?" rather than "What the hell was that?"

But it's 2014 and the ultimate progression has occurred. A few days ago I bought a combination LED flashlight (there's that progress again - early LEDs were rather dim) and laser pointer - batteries included - at a dollar store. While it's 2014 and not 2012, one inflation calculating site had data up to 2012. Assuming the dollar hadn't declined much in value in the last couple years (not entirely true) today's dollar is roughly equal to about 18 cents in 1972. And for that "18 cents" of 1972[1] I have a smaller, less power hungry, more capable, and truly portable (it could hang on a keyring) device.

So, it's really not 1972 anymore.

[1] Alright, with sales tax it might be up to a whole quarter.

Tags: 1972, father, humor, laser, progress
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