WASHINGTON — Wondering how to make holiday gift-buying seem less like a search-and-rescue mission? The Pentagon may be able to provide the answer.
The billions of dollars President Ronald Reagan pumped into the Pentagon budget during the 1980s not only produced an awesome war machine, but spun off some cool grown-up toys. High-tech devices developed by the military have become hot retail items for outdoor enthusiasts and weekend athletes.
On the list: golf clubs using aerospace-grade titanium; compasses that use satellite technology; and Navy-developed sonar systems that tell fishermen exactly where to place their hooks.
The influx of Pentagon gadgetry has much to do with the new world order that followed the Cold War. Once the Soviet Union crumbled, Congress began paring the defense budget and contractors had to devise new markets for products.
The Pentagon also relaxed some classification standards, and once-secretive high-tech materials became available for use in nondefense products.
“It’s true that a lot of this would have been impossible before the Soviet Union changed,” said Jack Gifford, professor of marketing at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. “A lot of it is just changing times and opportunities.”
The Orvis Co., the Manchester, Vt., maker of rods coveted by fly fishers worldwide, sells a line of “Trident” fly rods named after the Navy’s nuclear-powered submarines.
The enemy of every fly fisher to wade into a mountain stream is a cast that drops the fly unnaturally to the water’s surface. To limit vibration along the line, the $500 fly rods incorporate the same vibration- and sound-dampening materials found between the inner and outer skins of the Trident vessel.
In catalogs and magazine advertisements, Orvis displays its Trident rods against a picture of a surfacing submarine. The ad says: “Only the Pentagon knows what makes Trident rods so powerful.”
Actually, Orvis is willing to divulge some of its rod-making secrets.
“The material is inside the handle of the fly rod,” said Orvis spokesman Ryan Shadrin. “It’s a polymer that was developed to avoid detection from sonar. It eliminates vibration and allows for a longer, more accurate cast.”
Sonar, developed in part to hunt for submarines, has become the friend of many a fisherman frustrated with worm and bobber.
The technology long has enabled boat captains to spot schools of fish. But updated monitors now show how broad each school is, how big the fish are, how many fish are there, and which way they’re headed.
Prices range from $100 for a limited, handheld unit to thousands of dollars for a sophisticated system.
The Global Positioning System, or GPS, is becoming popular with hikers and hunters who fear getting lost in the woods. The device, which gives an exact fix on location in latitude and longitude, was at first far more complicated than a compass and map. Recent upgrades have made GPS easier to use and cheaper. The units cost $200 to $1,000.
A useful partner to the GPS is a pair of night-vision binoculars, used by Army helicopter pilots in the Persian Gulf war as they tried to steer clear of sand dunes. The binoculars can magnify available light up to 35,000 times, making it possible to see deer scamper up a hill or find your tent after your fire has gone out. They cost $200 to several thousand dollars.
In the golfing world, titanium drivers are among sporting-goods retailers’ most popular items. Titanium clubs of the past have carried such names as “The Howitzer” and “War Bird.” The newest industry standard is Callaway Golf’s line of “Big Bertha” titanium drivers. Because of the metal’s light weight, these drivers can offer a larger club face, increasing the chances the golfer will accurately hit the ball.
Burton Lieberman, a professor of applied mathematics and physics at Polytechnic University in Brooklyn, N.Y., said the titanium craze in golf is “all about power” and a bigger sweet spot.
“Players can swing harder without losing much accuracy. The guy who plays golf once a week – who can’t practice five times a week – now has an extra margin of error,” said Lieberman, a consultant with the United States Golf Association.
Titanium is the metal of choice for late-model fighter planes, such as the Lockheed F-22, because of its lightweight characteristics. It’s not exclusive to the United States. One Moscow manufacturer, Toski, produces a titanium club named “The Czar” at a plant once used to make parts for MiG fighters.
Nor have bicycle makers missed the benefits of the lightweight metal. Titanium bikes, called “Ti” bikes, are lighter and faster than their steel counterparts. They’re the rage on the European professional tour and are sought after by amateur American cyclists.
Litespeed Titanium, of Ooltewah, Tenn., says its bikes are made of “certified aerospace grade titanium tubing,” and sell for $1,125 to $4,800.
By Michael D. Towle, INQUIRER WASHINGTON BUREAU
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