How a 1934 movie is making American airports safer
By Andrew D. Smith
http://www.JewishWorldReview.com | (MCT) If American airports have become safer after the Sept. 11 attacks, travelers owe some thanks to the 1934 movie "Treasure Island."
That picture set Charles Garrett on a lifelong quest for treasure, a quest that led him to invent his own metal detector and build the thriving Garland, Texas, factory that now supplies airports, schools, bars and, of course, treasure hunters worldwide.
Surging demand since the terrorist attacks in 2001 has the 120 employees at Garrett Electronics overflowing their 30,000-square-foot building, so the company plans a 45,000-square-foot expansion with room for another 120 employees.
Garrett, who lives in Garland and describes a Cadillac as "fancy," never expected such success. He rejoices, though, in the growing appreciation for his product.
"You can hardly imagine what metal detectors can do," he said. "Right now, at the Dallas Zoo, they use metal detectors on their penguins. Yep, penguins.
"People throw coins into the penguin tank, and the penguins eat them because they're attracted to shiny things.
"Trouble is, coins can kill penguins, so the zoo scans the penguins every day. Metal detectors see through penguin as easily as dirt."
Garrett grew up in the East Texas town of Lufkin, and buried treasure always beckoned. Howard Carter had excavated King Tut's tomb, National Geographic ran frequent treasure stories, and Garrett's father told tales of the bank robber Jesse James, who was rumored to have stashed loot in river caves near Lufkin.
"Treasure Island" cinched the deal. The 70-year-old memory still excites Garrett.
"There's this one scene, when they first see the treasure," he said, his eyes bulging, his outstretched hands tense. "It's more spectacular than you could have imagined. It is every boy's dream."
Garrett left boyhood long ago, but his younger self lives on inside his 74-year-old body. Egyptian busts decorate his office with gold. Mementos of Jesse James adorn the Garrett Electronics museum, a small room stuffed with treasures found by Garrett products.
Antique binoculars, Indian arrows, Civil War pistols, rare coins and German army helmets all greet museum visitors. There's even a spherical bell built for Roman pets. Aside from 1,800 years of tarnish, it looks exactly like modern pet bells.
The bell, like many other exhibits, was discovered by one "C. Garrett."
"When I saw the treasure in that movie, something inside me clicked," he said. "I didn't consciously know I'd spend my life seeking treasure around the world, but I knew it deep down."
Modern metal detectors still operate much like their earliest ancestors from the late 19th century. A power source sends a current through wire coils and creates a mild electromagnetic field. Metal, which conducts electricity, distorts the field. Nonconductive materials do not.
These constants aside, detection technology has developed tremendously since Garrett founded his company in 1964.
His first machine could "see" a coin only 5 inches into the earth. Current models can detect a coin 12 inches deep. They can also tell a soda can from a belt buckle, distinguish among coins and reveal, within an inch or two, a treasure's depth.
A quarter might be worth a 2-inch dig but not a 9-inch dig. A gold coin, however, probably would justify a foot of spadework.
The coin example may reinforce a myth about metal detection - that it draws only nerdy coin hunters - but Garrett sales show otherwise. Aging change-hounds share the pursuit with other eccentric types.
One breed of treasure hunter buys metal detectors, advertises retrieval services and then charges a fee to help people find wedding rings and other missing valuables.
Relic hunters use metal detectors to scan battlefields, Roman ruins and other historical sites.
Treasure hunters seek valuable artifacts such as sunken pirate booty. (Garrett makes a submersible metal detector.)
Competitive hunters, another distinct type, join clubs that seed hunting grounds and award prizes to those who find the most "treasure" in a set period.
And then there are the gold and silver hunters. Modern prospecting may sound quixotic, but big scores still happen. Garrett says he discovered a million-dollar silver vein in an old Mexican mine. One of his customers found a 61-pound gold nugget in Australia. (The original was bought by the Golden Nugget casino in Las Vegas. A replica sits in the Garrett museum.)
All those customer types add up to robust sales: 4,000 units a month for the most popular of Garrett's eight hobby lines.
Garrett's security business, which contributes 60 percent of revenue, moves more than 5,000 hand wands a month, and that number has been growing more than 15 percent a year.
With prices ranging from $180 for the cheapest hobby model to $6,000 for the walk-through flagship, those sales generate big revenues for Garrett and his wife, Eleanor, who still own the company but do not disclose profits.
Garrett says he has all the financial treasure he'll ever need, but it's not the sort that interests him. He likes the hidden kind.
"A lot of people believe that all of the good treasures have been found, but they're wrong," Garrett said. "There's treasure everywhere.
"There are places in Europe where you can't help but find Roman coins. There are American battlefields littered with Civil War relics. And then there's Mexico, where the people have never trusted banks. A lot of people there hid fortunes and died before digging them up. They're all still out there, waiting to be found."
Garrett's heart clearly lies more with treasure hunting than security, a business line that grew from a 1982 Boy Scout convention.
The Garretts were demonstrating handheld metal detectors at the convention when they captivated Dave Loveless, a Scoutmaster and FBI agent who figured that metal detectors could improve crime scene analysis.
One year later, when Loveless was planning security for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, he recommended Garrett products.
At the time, Garrett made no walk-through detectors, but company engineers whipped up a prototype, flew it to Los Angeles and won a contract for 60 walk-through machines and hundreds of metal-detecting wands.
From that start, Garrett's security division has grown rapidly. It supplies all of the hand wands and a third of the walk-through machines in America's airports, the company says.
"My guess is that the market will keep on growing," Garrett said. "The technology keeps getting better, which opens up new uses, and people are thinking more creatively about metal detection. If people can find a need to use metal detectors on penguins, I figure there's no end to what they'll think up."
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© 2006, The Dallas Morning News Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services