Today in Tedium: Hobbies are an interesting bellwether of a person. Not just what hobbies they have but that they can even pursue them in a late-stage capitalist hellhole with millions working two full-time jobs to survive. Covering hobbies has been something of a niche from my very beginning at Tedium when I covered fabulous fan flyers in the American west. Then there was the horse owner in NYC. Then model rocketry. Dedicated hobbyists are impressive in what they know. Such knowledge is only gleaned after an eye-watering amount of study, practice, and dedication. And typically, a hobbyist engages in their hobby knowing full well their knowledge will only be useful to themselves and a few like minded others. From time to time, however, they can help experts sort out frustrating situations. Today’s Tedium is looking at the difference between a hobbyist and an expert. And how experienced hobby metal detectorists tend to be both. — Andrew @ Tedium
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“In the ‘reef’ end of the hobby, my name is pretty well known, as a hobbyist, author, and business owner. I’ve authored a ton of articles and lectured at clubs and events internationally, and at the major hobby conferences (MACNA, etc.) for years. My former company, Unique Corals, is extremely well regarded in the ‘reef’ world. Often, when I’ve given talks around the country, I’ve been occasionally referred to as ’EXPERT reefer Scott Fellman’—YIKES! That’s scary … I cringe at that ‘title’ all the time..It makes me think about what a real ‘expert’ is in the aquarium hobby … and the traits they possess which they won’t just tell you about.”
— Scott Fellman, the “Chief Tannin Officer” at Tannin Aquatics, discussing his reputation among aquarium hobbyists. (Yes, Tannin has some meaning in the aquarium hobby, and no, I don’t know what it is.) Being considered an expert among a group of hobbyists takes time and recognized contributions to the larger community. Being considered an expert by recognized experts means your field is established enough to have experts. Sometimes the only experts happen to be really dedicated hobbyists.
Considering hobbyists and experts as opposites glosses over a lot of nuance
In the summer of 2018, the world was gripped by the story of a youth soccer team that had become trapped in a cave in Thailand. Rising water levels from heavy rainfall meant that the 12 members of the team and one of their coaches couldn’t safely evacuate. Multiple plans were suggested but ultimately, it was an international team of cave divers that managed to save all 13 people. (The exact details are absolutely bonkers and involved drugging the victims then guiding them unconscious through the cramped, underwater passage to safety. I’d recommend “The Rescue” from National Geographic but there’s also a dramatization on Netflix I hear is quite entertaining.)
After the rescue, Rick Stanton, one of the mission organizers and widely considered to be one of the world’s best cave divers, said, “I think I hold great pride in what we did. You could say it’s justification for the dedication I put forward into a ridiculous minority sport that no one ever took seriously.”
The Thai cave rescue helped shed light on the incredible skill and bravery behind cave diving, a field so dangerous that few government rescue, salvage, or diving organizations even attempt it. Thailand’s Navy SEALs added cave diving training following the near tragedy but, in general, elite cave divers are volunteers with significant training incurred at their expense.
Calling cave divers, especially the ones at the heart of the Thai rescue, “hobbyists” feels disingenuous, but considering the niche nature of the field, it is accurate. The U.S. military deployed a search and rescue from Okinawa team to assist in Thailand, with members helping prepare the early chambers of the cave system with medical and rescue equipment. However, they only advanced as far as they could without diving, despite a few members of the contingent being fairly accomplished cave divers in their own right outside of the military. In the end, with full support of an international network of the world’s expert search and rescue organizations, Thai authorities entrusted the mission to a group of volunteers who just happened to be world class in their hobby. No one else had the experience to do it.
Government agencies and militaries routinely have to take the hobbies of its citizens seriously. Especially if those hobbies involve the sky.
After the citing of a suspicious weather balloon over the skies of Alaska in late January 2023, multiple reports of additional balloons followed over the next couple of weeks. One balloon downed by the U.S. military might have belonged to a group of hobbyist balloonists who were conducting atmospheric research. While the military and the hobbyists concede the balloon might be theirs, both acknowledge that confirmation would be impossible unless the balloon were retrieved.
An anonymous member of the Northern Illinois Bottlecap Balloon Brigade told a Politico reporter, “When I heard that [it was a] silver object with a payload attached to it, that could be one of our balloons … Think about it. We know where the balloon was off the coast of Alaska. We know where it was, if all was well. We know that it didn’t wake up that morning. We know [American forces] shot something down, and the thing they described as having shot down is not inconsistent with what we’re flying out there. So, that’s that.”
When hobbyists play in the sky, they are required to create relationships with the military and various government agencies. From model rockets and light aircraft to balloonists and skydivers, aerial hobbies require knowledge of a broad swath of niche regulations allowing the legal participation. Experts on the regulations of a hobby might not have much detailed knowledge of the hobby itself. Hobbyists need a detailed knowledge of the regulations surrounding their field.
Hobbies involving the use of heavily regulated airspace, or are so dangerous that authorities eschew the risk of even training for them, obviously blur the line between expert and hobbyist. But what about a hobby and area of expertise being developed simultaneously?
Stop me if you’ve heard this one … an eccentric industrialist decides to interject their unique “vision” and “brilliance” to offer a solution to a situation they don’t know a GD thing about. You might be thinking about Elon Musk’s cave submarine he designed, built, and shipped to Thailand during the cave rescue. Which was promptly laughed off, much to his consternation.
No, I’m actually talking about Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, who offered to build an innovative device following the assassination of President James Garfield: a metal detector. He also pioneered the relationship between hobbyist metal detectorists and the authorities that might have a use for them.
The price for a Garrett handheld metal detector in 1964. Garrett wasn’t the first company to debut handheld metal detectors for the retail market. His designs would soon become preferred by hobbyists and experts. Like many inventors before him, Charles Garrett was frustrated by the products available on the market that enabled his hobby. Metal detectors made for event and location security would make the company fantastically successful, his dedication to the needs of hobbyists would create a new hobby in its own right.
Metal detectors were accidentally discovered … a couple of times
President James Garfield was shot in the back by an assassin on July 2nd, 1881. Though the assassination was successful, Garfield didn’t die right away. He passed away on September 12th. In the subsequent three and a half months, the President’s plight gripped the nation and much of the world. Famed inventor Alexander Graham Bell decided to offer his help.
According to a write up of the events from the National Parks Service, “As he followed the daily drama unfolding through the newspapers, Bell was appalled. The president’s physician, Dr. Willard Bliss, was obsessed with probing Garfield’s wound in order to extract the bullet from his body. Bell thought if he could develop a device that could find the bullet, Bliss could remove it more easily. During his earlier work on the telephone, Bell stumbled across what he hoped would be the key to making a metal detecting device. Originally designed to balance the induction field of his telephone to clear up static interference, he noted that bringing metal objects toward the device caused a sound in the telephone receiver.”
Realizing he’d accidentally created a metal detector, Bell and his team were able to create a prototype within “a few days”. Bell took his metal detector to the White House where doctors, amazingly, let him try his device. It didn’t work. Technical issues and limited understanding of the principles behind the technology meant that Bell wasn’t going to save the day. The device did work but wasn’t ready for use in an emergency. Those applications would be the result of another inventor, Dr. Gerhard Fisher.
Like Bell, Fisher had stumbled upon the principles of accurate metal detection while developing a completely separate invention. Radio direction finders are vital for aircraft safety, and Dr. Fisher was the one who figured it out. While developing the tech, pilots noticed that Fisher’s system would result in “errors in their bearings when metal objects intercepted the transmitter; they also experienced interference over certain terrain.”
After extensive research, Fisher realized these “errors” were caused by metal and metal deposits. In 1931, Fisher debuted his Metalloscope, which quickly found use in a number of industries, like mining, timber, and construction. Fisher Research Labs are still a major innovator of metal detectors today.
Early metal detectors were used for large industrial purposes and, as such, tended to be portable in a very technical sense of the word. The handheld versions commonly associated with metal detectors as a hobby for those seeking buried treasure wouldn’t be available until the 1960s. And it would result from the efforts of a third inventor that was frustrated by the quality of retail metal detectors. His side hobby? Treasure hunting.
Charles Garrett enlisted in the US Navy in 1950 and quickly demonstrated a knack for electronics. After his service, he got a degree and began working for Texas Instruments. As a kid, Garrett loved old coins, becoming enamored with the idea of using metal detectors to find them. Garrett debuted his first device in 1964 but his company wasn’t established as the go to for treasure hunters until 1968, when later models ushered in the “Zero Drift Revolution”, eliminating oscillator drift and overcoming searchcoil drift, according to Garrett company history.
Treasure hunting is intimately tied to the modern metal detectorist community. Many find their way to the hobby dreaming of riches while getting light exercise and spending time in nature. Reality is far removed from fortune. But metal detectorists can find themselves in a position to help authorities. It’s just more grim than most would prefer.
The year the Orange County Sheriff’s Office founded its dedicated metal detector unit. Despite obvious utility for things like evidence gathering and search and rescue, metal detectors have had limited use among government agencies and law enforcement. Metal detector expertise is often found in the hands of hobbyists.
A famous scene from The Adventures of Pete & Pete where the father of the Petes uncovers a used vehicle at the beach with a metal detector. Michael Stipe appears in this clip.
Metal detectorists are at an odd sweet spot between expert and hobbyist
The people who spend their time, waving around a metal rod, listening for beeps are an odd bunch. Part archeologist, part treasure hunter, a metal detectorist has to be a complete enthusiast. The patience required is too great for halfway. For every lucky sod that finds $1.6 million in ancient coins, there’s an enthusiastic beginner who quickly comes to view metal detecting as “the world’s worst hobby” in the futile search of finding something of value, or at least interest. A few people stick with it, not just to locate items of intrinsic value. They can also be incredibly valuable to law enforcement.
A 2020 article from the FBI titled “Metal Detectors in Evidence Search and Recovery” notes the value of metal detectors in collecting evidence while attempting to encourage law enforcement agencies to more directly engage with the technology, writing, “Some law enforcement agencies rely on external groups to provide this service, but various concerns about crime scene integrity … can make this practice problematic.” The “some” in that comment is likely doing more work than the Bureau is willing to admit.
While American law enforcement officials likely have access to metal detectors, few departments have the funding available for the number necessary for wide search areas, let alone specialty versions required for underwater operations. The Niagara County Sheriff’s Office acquired an underwater metal detector in 2022 after going without one for years. A handful of well funded departments are adding dedicated detector units though the trend doesn’t seem to be widespread.
Turning to volunteer metal detectorists is a common strategy of resource-strapped departments. Police in the West Midlands in England organized area metal detectorists in 2021 to sweep a local park for knives and other weapons. A hobbyist detector group helped police in Lebanon, Ohio in 2022 find evidence that convicted a man of manslaughter. A member of the group told reporters that while they assist in criminal investigations, their involvement in things like homicide are limited. When they do assist law enforcement, it’s most often game wardens working poaching investigations. That is still really cool.
Metal detectors and the hobbyists that wield them are in a unique position. Metal detectors are common enough to be readily available to anyone with $250 but not needed enough by law enforcement or search and rescue teams to have entire units dedicated for their use. If they need the extra hands, they can just ask the hobbyists. Even if it annoys the FBI.
No one hobby is any more important than another. The little things we do to amuse ourselves with what little spare time we can manage speaks to our individual selves. Some people like leisure, playing video games or streaming binges. Others chose to push themselves with batsh*t crazy endeavors like cave diving or paramotoring. Along the way, expertise is developed as a byproduct of indulging in our curiosity.
Metal detectorists balance a leisure hobby with the greatest dangers being exposure and the mental strain of compulsively indulging in the desire to keep searching. But their skillset is invaluable, and occasionally, let’s an otherwise average person help save the day.
If hobbies are about fulfilling our interests and maybe realizing our dreams, it’s kind of hard to beat “the world’s worst hobby.”
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