It’s easy, sometimes, to forget that gizmos don’t have to be elaborate, expensive things with embedded application software and 45 different world-shinking, life-simplifying, William Gibson-thought-of-this-in-1985 functions. Not that there’s anything wrong with those; I love a good gee-whiz electronic gadget as much as the next guy. The very idea that a person can just look up, say, the span of years in which the F-4 Phantom II was in production (1958-1981) anywhere, at any time, without having to wait for the library to open still catches me short with amazement sometimes.
But these are dark times, and not all of us can afford to pursue the latest word in ultracompact personal electronic backup brains or super-high-resolution home theater gear with umpteen-watt wireless Dolby surround speakers. What’s a gizmo lover to do when all the buzzworthy gizmos are out of reach?
Some people find some smaller bit of technology to focus their addiction on. My mother, for instance, has a curious fixation with USB flash drives. She has dozens of them, more than she’ll ever have any actual need for. White ones, black ones, pink ones, ones with store logos on them, ones with clever rotating covers, even one that looks like an old-fashioned Eberhard Faber Pink Pearl eraser. (She doesn’t have one of the ones that look like a severed USB cable yet, but she knows of them and wants one very much.) Whenever we’re out shopping, if we go anywhere that sells flash drives, she’ll leave with at least one. It’s like a compulsion.
But I don’t sneer at that, because I’ve carried on my own minor-tech-widget love affair for years. In my case, it’s not flash drives. It’s flashlights.
I love flashlights. Always have. When I was a kid, one of my happiest moments was the day when my grandfather bought me one of my very own – the classic Rayovac two-C-cell model with the chrome tube and red plastic cap. By modern standards these were deeply sad flashlights, so incredibly primitive that you would probably be better off setting something nearby on fire, but for a five-year-old this was big-time grown-up stuff. Every household I knew of had at least one of that very same model tucked away in a closet someplace, stashed against the inevitable day when the electricity went out and the head of the household would grab the flashlight decisively from its resting place (and discover that the crappy carbon-zinc 1970s batteries had corroded with disuse and the light didn’t work, but hey, it was the best we had).
As I grew up, flashlight technology matured as well. When I was in middle school the one to have was a two-C model (Eveready, I think, or possibly Energizer) with a body and cap covered in thick rubber molded in such a way as to bear an eerie resemblance to the outside of an old-fashioned pineapple hand grenade. This was doubly impressive at the time because it had a push button to turn it on instead of the old-fashioned sliding switch, and the button was in the butt end of the flashlight rather than up on the barrel. This was seriously high-tech personal equipment in 1984. There was also a Duracell model that rather cutely emulated the battery brand’s color scheme, with a black body and copper-colored cap, but it didn’t seem quite as badass as the black rubber one. That thing was like something you’d imagine SWAT cops carried.
In my high school years, the Mag-Lite® revolution arrived in my part of the world, and before long that was the only flashlight any self-respecting individual would have. I have quite a few of them to this day. I’ve had a single-AAA Solitaire on my keyring for at least 20 years (I just replaced it with a new one a few weeks ago) and I’ve owned several of the classic two-AA model, including one specially printed with the logo of a company I once worked for, commissioned as a reward for everybody on the project I was part of to commemorate a man-hours-without-serious-accident safety milestone. I’ve still got one of their whopping fat two-D ones, the kind the cops in this neck of the woods carry in lieu of truncheons, in the trunk of my car for emergencies.
Lately, I’ve found my attention turning to flashlights that do more than just shine a beam of light. The coming of the cheap white LED has made these more common, as the bulk of the light’s body no longer needs to be taken up with big fat alkaline batteries. Such things are a good way to scratch the techno-itch, at least around here; they tend to show up in impulse-purchase displays in hardware stores and general stores, standing on end in cardboard display cases next to the registers.
My current favorite is this little item, shown with a TiVo Glo remote for scale:
One of the local hardware stores had a big cardboard display of these, along with similar displays of all sorts of little home repair gadgets, on a table by the registers last year during the Christmas run-up, with a big sign advising the customer that all the things on the table made great stocking stuffers. For added cheese points, the display for these lights cheerfully cashed in on their resemblance to items seen on a popular television show by announcing, CSI:FLASHLIGHT.
This light’s secondary function is an unnervingly powerful laser pointer that’s built into the center of the circular LED array. By “unnervingly powerful” I don’t mean it’s one of those green lasers you’ve read about idiots trying to blind airline pilots with, but still, from my front porch at night I can quite clearly see the red dot on the steeple of the Congregational church down on the corner, a good 300 yards away.
Not the best picture, but you get the idea.
My most recent acquisition, picked up from a local discount store (they used to have them at the NAPA auto-parts stores in the area as well), rejoices in the brand name “TEC Light”.
One entertaining thing about the TEC Light is that it looks like it ought to have a couple of AA batteries in it, but it doesn’t. It’s got four lithium button batteries way down in the tail end of the barrel. The rest of it’s just hollow space – but it needs to be, because it’s got something I think is pretty nifty tucked away inside it:
It’s a telescopic magnet with a gooseneck segment at the end, suitable for retrieving small ferrous objects from hard-to-reach places. (This is presumably why they sold them at NAPA stores. Magnets-on-a-stick are very popular with auto mechanics, because when you’re working in a car’s engine bay you’re forever dropping bolts and whatnot down into the bowels of the machine, and having a flashlight at the other end of the magnet pole is nice, because it’s usually dark down there.) I used mine to fish a broken bit out of my garbage disposal earlier today. That doesn’t make the disposal work any better, but at least the big metal chunk doesn’t fly around inside it making terrifying noises when it runs.
I’m always on the lookout for new flashlights with interesting quirks – second functions, interesting forms, anything that sets them apart. Okay, it’s not “hey, I got the new Ultraphone with direct neural spam filter,” but for the gadgeteer on a budget, flashlight lust is comparatively easy to manage.