The Science of X-Ray Specs and Sea Monkeys
These products advertised in the back of comic books promised improbable feats of science.
by Brian Dunning
October 20, 2015
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They filled our youthful years with eager anticipation, these crazy-sounding products advertised in the back of comic books. They promised results too good to be true, but as kids we knew that if they were being advertised, they must do what they say. That was good enough proof for us. And so we stared at the ads, and longed for the magical products they offered, and pondered whether to spend that hard-earned dollar.
Interestingly, a lot of these products fed on our native human desire for superpowers, the same strategy that so many of today's sham products rely on. Today people crave a "boosted" immune system or insist on believing that we can continue living beyond the grave (attractive superpowers to be sure), and yesteryear's marketers accordingly offered amazing martial arts powers, the world's deadliest fighting secrets, effortless muscular builds, and glasses to see through clothes. Offering to superpower a generation of kids who read comic books about superheroes (not inconsequentially) proved a lucrative prospect. Many of the products produced by this craze have lingered in the backs of our minds, and tempted us to wonder whether they really did what they claimed. Some seemed like staggering triumphs of science or technology. Let's take a look at some of the most memorable, and see if they lived up to their tantalizing promise:
Ventrilo Voice Thrower: 25¢
This was one of the first advertised products I saw in comic books that provoked a real sense of scientific wonder. The drawing in the ad always showed a mischievous little boy standing off to one side, while a man marveled at his suitcase that seemed to have cries of help coming from inside it. How could such a thing possibly function? It seemed a technological marvel: the ability to make your voice seem to come from any arbitrary location you chose.
What you received had nothing to do with "throwing" your voice, but it was still an interesting device. It's called a swazzle, most notably used by some voice actors, and back in the day by Punch & Judy puppeteers for the voice of Mr. Punch. It consists of two small metal squares bound by a ribbon, and when held by the tongue in the back of the mouth, it produces a kazoo-like sound when blown through. With a bit of practice, you can speak in a kind of Donald Duck-ish character voice. How the marketers decided this could be sold as a "voice throwing" device eludes me; because a voice disguising device would be just as attractive to kids, and a lot more honest.
Incidentally, swazzles are extreme choking hazards, even for careful adults. Just the thing to sell to children.
7 Foot Tall Monster Ghost: $1
"Scary and Life Size", the ad said "Make him obey your commands, even when you are secretly hiding as far as 100 feet away." Radio controlled planes and cars were certainly around, but good ones cost hundreds of dollars, and this one was only $1! How could that be? But ads can't lie. What was the technology that made this monster "Rise, Jump, Dart, Float in Air" and obey commands from a great distance? Want to take a guess?
A tiny 100-foot spool of fishing line! The monster consisted of a white balloon with a small cartoon skull printed on it and a white trash bag, along with some instructions suggesting a way you might cut the trash bag and attach it to the balloon to reach the desired length. No helium was included, of course, so yanking the balloon and attached trash bag along the ground from 100 feet away was as cunning as this remote control setup was going to get. Sadly, the technology to obey commands and dart through the air had not been cracked for the price of $1.
Count Dante’s World’s Deadliest Fighting Secrets: 25¢
"Count Dante" may be already known to Skeptoid listeners from the episode on bullshido, dubious martial arts claims. John Keehan, aka Count Dante, was one of the original bullshido pitchmen. The ads suggested that with these secrets, one could become all powerful over one's schoolmates: undefeatable in playground scraps, and an object of wonder and awe.
The ads said Count Dante defeated the world's top masters in judo, boxing, wrestling, kung-fu, karate, and aikido. Sure whatever skill was superior to all of these put together must be amazing. They also said he was crowned "the world's deadliest fighting arts champion and master" by the World Federation of Fighting Arts.
Buyers would indeed receive Keehan's pamphlet, with deadly fighting secrets such as "binding, crushing, ripping, stomping, tapping, poking, gouging, and tearing." It describes masterful techniques as classy as going after the gentleman's area and poking out eyeballs. Did you really need to buy the pamphlet to know that these are ways to win a fight? They probably are not the playground superpowers you were hoping for, though.
What is the World Federation of Fighting Arts, you might ask? I don't know, but I do know I couldn't find any reference to it outside of Count Dante's advertisements.
Silent Dog Whistle: $1
"This whistle can't be heard by human ears, but Rover can hear it half a mile away." Silent dog whistles are a real thing, so there was no special reason to be skeptical of this ad. What you received if you bought one was, indeed, a real silent dog whistle. But the effectiveness of these whistles needs to be qualified.
Depending on the breed, dogs can hear an octave or two higher than humans, some perhaps two and a half. Dog whistles, many of which are adjustable with a screw, can go into this range. But they're not completely silent to humans. All whistles produce harmonics and you will hear a faint high-pitched sound. But will dogs react? Well, they're no more or less apt to react to these than they are to any other whistle. Any given dog can certainly be trained to react to a whistle, no matter the frequency; but without such training, dogs tend to ignore these whistles the same way dogs (and people) ignore any other background noises in which they have no special interest.
Electronic Lie & Love Detector: $5.95
Surely a high-priced item like this must be based on sound science, right? Well, the device you'd receive appears to have been a genuine, though obviously very cheap, battery powered galvanometer, essentially the same thing as a Scientology E-meter. If you can get one in the back of a comic book for $6, that gives you a pretty good idea of how advanced Scientology is.
The idea is that two people would each hold one of the leads, and if the needle moves, you might decide whether that means they love each other or not. A device to measure galvanic skin response is indeed one of the components of a polygraph lie detector, but we now know that lie detectors are of little value in determining whether a person is lying (see the full Skeptoid episode on lie detection to learn more). Although there has been some scholarly debate over whether galvanic skin resistance can indeed tell us anything useful about a person, it would have to be the same person holding both leads. And at the Electronic Lie & Love Detector's price point, we can assume that the circuitry in this device was not NASA grade, and it's a safe bet this device could not really tell you whether your friends are lying or in love.
X-Ray Specs: $1
"AMAZING X-RAY VISION INSTANTLY!" said the ad. Let's all be honest for a minute and stop pretending that any one of us actually wanted to use X-Ray Specs for any purpose other than seeing people naked. Nobody cared about seeing the "yolk of an egg" or "the lead in a pencil" like the ad trumpeted. Could such a thing be possible with a mere set of eyeglasses? We wondered whether some lens had been developed that could filter out the wavelengths of clothing or skin or muscle or whatever, and let us actually see what lies beyond.
What you actually got did not, of course, allow you to see your friends naked or see through walls; however they did produce an interesting effect, one good for perhaps three seconds of entertainment. They were plastic glasses with solid cardboard lenses (upon which a groovy red spiral was printed, because, you know, X-rays), and in the middle of each lens was a hole, and in this hole was embedded an actual bird feather. Why? The idea was that when each eye is looking through a diffractive feather, an interesting visual pattern would be produced. And so it is; just not all that interesting, and certainly not "naked people" interesting.
This best known of all comic book products turns out to be the most scientifically interesting. It probably also holds the record among these products for irony: Sea-Monkeys have become the iconic poster child for products that don't live up to their advertising; and yet in reality, they're probably the best of all the products we've discussed here. True, they don't very well resemble the cartoon characters shown in the ad, but they are real, living shrimp that will entertain you as well as any aquarium fish.
The fascinating thing about Sea-Monkeys — and they are still sold today, so get your Christmas list in order — is that the animals are sold in a dormant state called anoxybiosis (they're not freeze dried, as some people think — freeze drying would kill them). Sea-Monkeys are a specially cross-bred strain of Artemia brine shrimp. The embryos are placed in an oxygen-free environment, to which their metabolism reacts by slowing to an undetectable rate. So long as no oxygen reaches them, Sea-Monkeys could theoretically survive for decades. Or if they're badly packaged, you might get a dead batch. But if all's well, when the embryos are placed in oxygenated water, their biochemical energy engines should gradually restart and they will hatch and grow normally.
One thing about this text in the ad, though:
SO EAGER TO PLEASE, THEY CAN EVEN BE TRAINED
Yeah, not so much. However they can still impress with one bit of instinctive behavior. They will follow a laser pointer around like a cat, and that's cool.
But taken as a whole, the comic book products were pretty disappointing. To thousands of kids who spent their hard-earned dollars, they were an early lesson in skepticism, learned the hard way. If something seems to good to be true, it probably is. When a new claim appears to violate known science, it should be seen as a red flag. Just rely on your science literacy, and wield it generously to temper your native desire for superpowers.
By Brian Dunning
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Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "The Science of X-Ray Specs and Sea Monkeys." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
20 Oct 2015. Web.
24 Sep 2017. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4489>
References & Further Reading
Adelson, R. "The Polygraph In Doubt." Monitor on Psychology. 1 Jan. 2004, Volume 35, Number 7: 71.
Coile, D., Bonham, M. Why Do Dogs Like Balls? More than 200 Canine Quirks, Curiosities, and Conundrums Revealed. New York: Sterling Publishing Co., 2008. 116.
Coombs, R. "My Swazzle." Punchman's Tips. Chris Somerville, 19 Mar. 2008. Web. 10 Oct. 2015. <http://www.punchandjudy.com/swazzlecoombs.htm>
Demarais, K. Mail-Order Mysteries: Real Stuff from Old Comic Book Ads! San Rafael: Insight Editions, 2011.
Kovalchik, K. "11 Shameless Comic Book Ads That Cost Us Our Allowance Money." Mental Floss. Felix Dennis, 10 Feb. 2013. Web. 10 Oct. 2015. <http://mentalfloss.com/article/30420/11-shameless-comic-book-ads-cost-us-our-allowance-money>
Staff. "What are Sea-Monkeys?" Live Science. Purch, 11 May 2012. Web. 7 Oct. 2015. <http://www.livescience.com/33907-sea-monkeys.html>
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