Gem-o-rama 2017

There were many rumors that Gem-o-rama was done after the 75th year, but seeing a flyer for year #76 got my hopes up for attending in 2017 again with Kirk.  But, the work schedule wasn’t looking like it was going to cooperate so I had written off going this year.

The week before Kirk calls me and says he still wants to go, but on a compressed schedule.  I was able to take a day off of work last minute and we were locked in for another road trip and gem collecting extravaganza.  I’ll detail the road trip in other blog posts (it was a lot of driving–thank you Kirk–and a ton of fun).  But this article will talk about the event itself.

We learned a lot at last year’s field trips and so we had a strategy going into this year.  For the mud trip, I was focused on Hanksite complete crystals and/or clusters.  I ended up leaving a lot of crystals that I found, many were probably nice, but it was nice having mostly great ones to clean this year instead of a bunch of so-so ones–the strategy paid off!

Cleaning these does take some effort.  This year we bought a couple more liters of brine from the store for cleaning which was needed.  We both brought dental picks and a variety of firmness and size of brushes which also sped up the cleaning process.  We brought newspaper to wrap the crystals in, and zip-lock baggies to seal in the moisture for the drive back home.  I brought paper towels which was a mistake as it stuck to the crystals if they fully dried, so newspaper next time for sure.  For cleaning, a bucket is too big except if you find a monster cluster, so we brought hard plastic throw-away containers from the grocery store which conserved brine and make it easier to access.

Hanksite Cluster

This is the El Grande Hanksite cluster I found. Notice the white residue all over it, that has to be scraped off with a dental pick. Each facet will require a full cleaning. It sits like this in the cabinet waiting for a more ambitious weekend (which it will take, probably 15-20 hours)!

Hanksite Cluster

The medium Hanksite cluster from the mud dig. Every face had to be scraped which took about 4 hours, and really sore hands and wrists. It was worth it!

Instead of spending a bunch of time cleaning at the site of the mud dig, we just did a quick scrub, especially on the clusters, which left more time for digging.  Note there were more people this year than before, and it took longer to drive to the mud site, so less time actually searching for crystals.  After the mud field trip we got back in line in Trona, ate lunch, and then a much deeper cleaning of the crystals.  The goal is to get most of the mud off of the crystals.  We then wrapped them while they were wet and sealed them in zip-lock containers.  This helps considerably to have them still moist after the road trip home for the final cleanup.  If the crystals dry up, then you’ll need to scrape every face to get the top layer of dried hanksite off, which is more effort.

Hanksite Cluster

The second field trip on Saturday was the blow-hole trip.  We learned last year that the hanksite crystals were neat from this dig as there were basically three types we want, all double-terminated.  Barrels with flat ends, one side flat and the other side pointed, and both sides pointed.  But, the hanksites from this dig are not as big or cool typically as the mud dig.  My focus was to find Sulfohalites, interesting Borax, Halite cubes and clusters; also potentially hanksites if they were awesome.

Watching the demo of blowing crystals out of the ground was cool; but this year I decided to just focus on collecting as much as possible.  Again, even though we were in what we thought was a good place in line, we ended up going out of the way to the blow hole spot and it ate some time out of our collecting–but what are you gonna do?  We dug in an area that was about 3-5 inches deep of crystals that had piled up.  Once sitting in the right direction to get the best sun reflections off the crystals (and out of the shade of the body and hat) we were able to make quick work of sifting through the crystals.  I had a small 2-gallon bucket and just tossed the crystals in there; except for the small ones I put in individual 3×3 inch baggies that I brought.  This was to ensure the little crystals, or nice ones, didn’t get damaged in the bucket.

This was the last field trip for the day so I didn’t spend any time cleaning crystals at the field trip site.  After dinner, we drank a beer, chatted and cleaned into the night.  I wrapped the wet crystals in wet paper towels and put them in zip-lock baggies once cleaned.  Some that were fully cleaned I applied mineral oil to with a brush.  Eventually all crystals except the Halite plates would get mineral oil since we live in a very dry climate.

Sulfohalite with Phantom

Sulfohalite octahedron with phantom!

Hanksite with Phantom

Small Sulfohalite octahedron with phantom!

Sulfohalite octahedron cluster

Sulfohalite octahedron cluster

Sulfohalite octahedron cluster

Sulfohalite octahedron cluster

Variety of sulfohalites

Variety of sulfohalites

Halite cubes

Halite cubes with sulfohalite crystal

Borax crystal with hanksite

Borax crystal with hanksite

Borax crystal

Borax crystal. These turn white no matter what I do with them at home due to oxidation

Borax crystal

Borax crystal

 

Borax crystal

Borax crystal with sulfohalites, it was fairly common to find these together

Borax

Borax crystal

The final field trip was on the salt lakes on Sunday morning.  We learned last year that the crystals grown on shelves, typically where there is running brine or on the edge of brine pools.  Right away we were finding larger plates but with small crystals.  I was digging in the pools and Kirk found a spot (right where everyone was walking by to get further out into the lakes) digging in the ditch at the edge of the lake.  This ended up being the best spot and I joined him after a while.  We pulled out so many cool plates of medium sized pink halite clusters from this area.  We just feel along the edge of the ditch and you could feel the cube crystals with your fingers, then carefully extract the plates by either pulling up, or using a pick and breaking the plate in the size you want.  The one problem was, we didn’t have enough space in the car to bring a ton of plates home, so we ended up giving many away to passers by–which in itself was a lot of fun!

Halite plate Halite plate Halite plate Halite plate Halite plate Halite plate Halite plate

For the trip home, I discovered last year that if you pack them in your salty clothes (you get pretty wet digging) they make the trip well.  I packed them in a 5 gallon bucket on top of my zip-lock baggies of other crystals from the previous digs.  I also brought a couple of beach towels this year to wrap the plates in.  The dealers there utilize either produce boxes or hard plastic storage boxes you get at the hardware store.  These come out clean, so just a rinse in the ditch and leave them out to dry is all that is needed before you wrap them in cloth.  I only had a couple break apart on the way home, having them secured in the bucket was safe.  I do not use mineral oil on the halite plates but do use it for the other crystals.

Again, a wonderful trip filled with fun!  This time Kirk’s boys got to join us.  Hopefully there will be many more Gem-o-rama trips in the future!

 

Vintage Phonographic Toys

Originally published in the Iron Feather Journal 2016 by Dave Alexander.

If you are a Millennial then you are at least two generations too old to remember most of these toys, but for those born in the 1950’s through 1980’s you will probably remember many of these toys during your formative years.  What you may not realize is that these toys made their sounds, unlike today via computer chips, through a mechanical means using built in records and phonographs!

The phonograph-based toy started in the late 1950’s when the fastest growing toy company, Mattel, started to produce dolls that interact with their owners.  Barbie was a huge seller for Mattel but it lacked interaction which left a lot to the girl’s imagination.  The Chatty series of dolls solved this problem and started a new era of dolls.  In 1959 the idea of pulling a string on your doll would and having her speak one of 11 phrases at random to you was ingenious!  Later models towards the mid-1960s would speak 18 different phrases.  This was accomplished by dropping a needle on a small 3 inch record in random locations—the player was installed in the doll’s abdomen and was a wonder of engineering at the time.  These dolls was an instant success and their underlying phonograph technology was used over and over in many toys by Mattel and other companies through the 1980s.

In 1963, after many successful years with the various Chatty dolls, Mattel introduced Charmin’ Chatty.  This doll was a bit different than the others because the records were interchangeable through a slot on the doll’s side.  The 3 inch records were double-sided, so you had twice as many phrases per record.  Records and clothing were sold as accessories, including the ultra-collectable “Let’s Talk ‘n Travel in Foreign Lands” which included a cute “travel” outfit accompanied by 4 records speaking in 7 different languages—instantly giving the doll and her owner world culture!  Since the phonograph played random tracks when the string was pulled, Mattel released the “Chatty Games” accessories.  Each box included two games; with 4 total games where a random move was spoken by Charmin’ Chatty, kids could play up to 8 different games with their dolls.  In 1965 Mattel discontinued production of these dolls, but continued to innovate with their phonograph-based interactive toys.

Chatty Games, this one includes “At The Fair” and “Skate N Slide”

Chatty Games "Animal Roundup" and "Animal Friends"

This Chatty Games includes “Animal Roundup” and “Animal Friends” board games

Here is Chatty at the Fair game. The reverse side has the Skate N Slide game. Each game set comes with records to insert into the doll, all board game pieces and reversible board.

Chatty brochure

From the brochure, with instructions on how to change records, and details all the different fun you can have with Chatty including what needs come out of the piggy bank.

After the success with the Chatty dolls, in 1965 Mattel created the See‘N Say toys line of toys providing similar interaction with the toy, but this time the child had control over which audio track would play using a dial.  The kid would point the arrow at a picture and pull the string, and the phonograph player would have its needle dropped on the specific track based on the slot the dial was placed.  It was the same mechanism inside the toy as the previous Chatty dolls, but with a user chosen groove instead of a random groove on the record.  The initial toys were the Bee Says toy that spoke the alphabet and the Farmer Says toy that spoke farm/animal sounds.  After the success of these, new variations were produced, the only difference was the sticker on the toy showing the available choices, and the phonograph record within; a clever way to sell new variations in the brand using the same manufacturing line!  These toys continued popularity into the 90s where the phonographs were replaced by digital sound reproduction.

Of course, all this success didn’t go unnoticed, and other toy manufacturers joined in the dream of huge profits with their own mechanical phonograph-based toys.  In 1964 General Electric joined in with a toy television with a record player on top.  Inserted filmstrips were backlit to project 16mm images onto the toy television screen while the record provided audio.  Picturesound programs were sold individually including a filmstrip with 15 films and a 4 minute record.  At fixed intervals on the record the filmstrip would mechanically be moved to provide the next image in the story.

Meanwhile, Mattel was not done with their line of dolls and in 1971 Cynthia My Best Friend was built based on the Charmin’ Chatty technology except the doll was much smaller.  She played 2 inch interchangeable records that were inserted in her side.  To repeat their successful business model, Cynthia fashion kits were sold each with a new record full of phrases.

In addition to dolls, Mattel produced two different interactive phone toys.  Alongside the See’N Say toys, 1965 saw the Mattel-o-Phone with interchangeable 4 inch records.  Kids could have conversations with their dolls (or just by themselves) with this phone, which sported many popular cartoon characters and dolls of the day that would talk to you.  Later, their 1971 Fun Phone Alphabet Phone toy was aimed at education, teaching kids using sporting colorful 2 ½ inch picture discs with the alphabet and other important things for young kids to learn over the phone.  By this time, Mattel had the mechanical phonograph dialed in and they were using it in all sorts of ways to add interactive speech long before computer chips would take over!

In 1970 Ohio Art produced the “World’s Smallest Record Player” called the Mighty Tiny.  This small coffin looking player opened up and the kid would insert a 2 inch plastic record.  Upon closing the toy the needle on the top of the player would track on the record and would reproduce its sound through the small internal speaker powered by AA batteries.  Records came in 4-packs grouped by music styles, which included “Foreign”, “Rock’n Roll”, “Country and Western”, “Novelty”, etc.  Of course they encouraged people to “collect them all”.

Mattel continued the interactive experience with Live Drive in 1970.  This toy has a steering wheel and gear shifter and was aimed to allow the driver to imagine driving.  To help that imagination, there are cardboard backdrops attached to the “windshield” area for the visuals and records for the audio.  The experiences include Racecar, Submarine, Spaceship, Airplane, Fire Engine, and Speedboat.  “You can drive ‘em all!!”  The battery operated interchangeable record player is very similar to the Instant Replay player mentioned below; probably the same one given they were released the same year.

Mattel Live Drive Box Mattel Live Drive Box

In 1977 Mattel released the ABC Monday Night Football game.  The game came with a football field and some plastic accessories to aid in gameplay; the main component was a record player with 2.5 inch discs, some single sided, some grooved on both sides.  These discs had different offensive, defensive and penalty called plays that were recorded by the original ABC Monday Night Football commentators.  Using the random needle dropping technology, the records were perfect for a football game!

ABC Monday Night Football

Disney got in the action and produced the Mickey Mouse World Series Baseball Game in 1984.  They used a special “Trick-Track” process that dropped the needle on one of 15 tracks of a 6 inch flexi-disc record.  Each track played about 15 seconds of commentators that called the gameplay.  The sleeve’s gatefold was used as the diamond, and small punch-out discs were used by each player to mark their progress and score.  You’d play for 9 innings, or however long it would keep your attention!

Sports trading cards have been popular for a long time, and Mattel decided to use their phonograph toy technology to make sports cards interactive.  In 1971 they released the Instant Reply toy, which played small 2.5 inch records that had different players talking to you.  Most records were single sided with a sticker of the athlete on the front side, but there are highly collectible double-sided cardboard picture discs available as well.  The proprietary record player was battery powered with a built-in speaker and used a switch for turning the player on and off.  Discs were sold in either 4-packs based on sport, or 8-packs folders with small informational booklets.  It was said the basketball series was the most popular, and the double-sided basketball stars can fetch hundreds of dollars in collector’s circles!

Mattel Instant Replay

In 1989, Topps cards produced the Sports Talk player and cards.  Topps released 164 talking baseball cards for that year’s popular major league athletes, and also included cards for all-time favorite players and important historical baseball events.  The cards were full color with a picture of the athlete on the cover and statistics on the back, just as you’d expect; but additionally there was an embossed plastic record on the back.  Once inserted and closed into the proprietary phonograph player’s transparent plastic window, the record would play and you’d hear the athlete tell you something funny or cool about their career while you looked the front of the card, or re-live important baseball history!Sport Talk

Fisher Price and Yes! companies realized there was a market for read-to-me style books for kids just learnings to read.  They took popular books like Bernstein Bears and television shows like Sesame Street and added embossed 3 inch records to each page.  Their record players would lay on top of the page, registered to the center of the record, then when pressing play, if properly aligned, the needle would drop and the story would be narrated.  The players and books were interchangeable, no clue if this was intentional.

Perhaps the most serious attempt at a record-based educational toy was Mattel’s Teach & Learn Computer in 1981.  The computer was battery powered and contained a slot for the 5 inch record and a generic touch panel.  Overlays and records were purchased separately and the record and touch panel were programmed to work together interacting with the child and hopefully teaching a thing or two in the process.

Mattel Teach and Learn Computer

Finally, my personal favorite was the Cosmic Clash arcade game released in 1982 by Tomy.  This entirely mechanical game provided mechanical visuals based on back-lit cellophane film strips for aliens that you’d shoot, and the rotating back-lit cellophane cylinder laser beam you’d fire, and the op-art style explosions.  The audio was played on the record where the needle was dropped in certain locations based on the sound effects that needed played.  This game was a wonderfully engineered toy providing a home arcade alternative before video games entered the home.

Cosmic Clash Cosmic Clash

The mechanical phonograph record used in toys lasted for well over three decades when they were finally replaced by electronics.  The creative use of phonograph records allowed for interactive toys that were state of the art for the time; captivating children’s hearts and piling up wish lists at the North Pole that were mailed to Santa each year!