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Surveillance tags (Public Radio Commentary)

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(For radio stations: Bill's public radio work can be licensed via PRX).

As a boy, Arthur Minasy used to shoplift. He stole marbles, erasers, pencils and Spalding tennis balls. He recalls that he and his friends would "kind of drop them in our knickers." All this would be unremarkable if Minasy hadn't grown up to create a multi-billion dollar industry that helps prevent theft.

In the early 1960s, tired of working as an electrical engineer for someone else, Minasy decided to start his own business. In his own words he "looked around to see what kind of industry I could possibly get into where there was something clever to be done." He noted that devices used by police to fight crime were very low tech. So he thought "that would be the place for me to carve a little niche."

The first thing he invented was something called the Vaicom, that's short for "variable image compositor." Its a machine that uses slides and a mirror so a witness can create, without an artist, a person's likeness.

But Minasy found selling to police departments a slow business. There was just too much bureaucracy. He felt he'd have an easier selling job if he turned to those most acquainted with thieves. So, he went to where the the thieves hung out: Stores.

To reach this market he invented the surveillance tags we still see today. Others had tried before him by loading tags, for example, with small amounts of radioactive material, which would be detected by a geiger counter at the store's exit. But, reasonably, the government prohibited such a use of radioactivity. Minasy succeeded because he used a very simple approach. He crafted a plastic tag embedded with a metal coil, which was really a small antenna that responded to radio frequencies. Then he built a portal to surround a doorway which set off an alarm.

With one hundred thousand dollars of his own money he built a demonstration model into a metal brief case. The briefcase contained a miniature portal, through which he'd pass a surveillance tag which set off an irritating ringing sound. A message flashed on the lid of the briefcase: "Stop! Have inventory control tag removed at cashier's desk." He made his first sale to a Manhattan Department Store, doing nine thousand dollars worth of business in the first year. Soon enough sales of the device took off, spawning a three billion dollar industry.

Although its a sad commentary on our society, surveillance tags are now used all over the world: They've been attached to everything from clothing to Parmesan cheese to hunks of salami to negotiable bonds on Wall Street. So completely did Minasy's surveillance tag become part of our culture that in 1991, it was officially accepted into the permanent collection of the Smithsonian.

Copyright 2002 William S. Hammack Enterprises