Robert (gurdonark) wrote,

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Zebco 33

R.D. Hull came from Rotan, Texas, a small farming and gypsum mining town in the very center of north Texas, which we call, curiously, "west Texas". He made watches for a living. He caught the inventor virus. His earliest inventions did not always fly. Although I am not sure just how his dry-cleaning process, the "tydee" worked, history records that it failed to work sufficiently to make him a rich man.

Mr. Hull loved to fish. But his inventive mind puzzled over the problem of the fishing reel. Fishing reels had a way of backlashing, which, given that reels carry hooks on the end, is a less than optimum solution. Mr. Hull tried to puzzle out how to solve this problem, and eliminate reel backlash from the fishing experience.

His first commercial "backlash-free" reel, the "Lashmaster", failed to click despite fifty thousand dollars of seed money (rather heady financing in the 1930s) and a name which conjures up images of fishing which are, if a bit stark, also rather ebullient. The Lashmaster did not end Mr. Hull's adventures in transforming fishing.

The Zebco website, using the work of a Zebco author of reknown, one Karl T. White, recounts the story of how Mr. Hull got his idea for a fixed-reel as an anti-backlash innovation from a similar reel at a greengrocer's. I personally prefer to believe, however, that Mr. Hull instead dropped a pole onto a kite string reel, or said "bluegill, come here, I want you" while holding a huge ball of wood-encumbered yarn. Fortunately, my preferences in such matters may have a certain poetic license.

I have, from time to time in my career, watched inventions come into being and thrive. I even hold registration as a patent attorney, although, in fact, I do not prosecute patents for a living. I find a heady something I can't quite describe in the idea of the commercially workable new thing. I like the folks at the Half-Bakery, but I find that so often, the half-baked lives and dwell among humankind. So many interesting things, from eBay to the new picture scripted by Neil Gaiman, exist largely because someone took a half-baked notion and baked it into a cake.

So often, such inventions get to market in strange and wonderful ways. Life is much more a carnival midway than any of us imagine, although, unlike a literal carnival midway, the real provides for much better sideshows than the artifice. Imagine, for example, if the Loch Ness Monster were discovered, and could be viewed at an IMAX theater near me.

I, for one, would be glued to the chair, watching it swim--although, admittedly, I am an easy mark, and might be Elmer-glued to a chair for images of narwhale surfacing while the music of the ambient artist Orphax played, gripping true-life cinematic dramas of fire ant societal documentaries, or,if I must be honest, laser shows of shadow bunnies hopping, like Platonic forms of divine rabbits, to the music of Brian Eno singing "King's Lead Hat" (which song title, as is well known, is an anagram for Talking Heads, but, as is less well known, is also an anagram for "A Dang She-kilt").

The discerning reader will therefore understand when I tell the part of the story in which Mr. Hull approaches the Zero Hour Bomb Company to build to build a prototype for a new reel. The Zero Hour Bomb Company apparently helped things, in the words of the beloved SCTV television show, now departed (rest in peace, John Candy), "blow up real good". An oil well, having exhausted primary and secondary production, sometimes apparently benefits from a bit of intoxicating explosion to shake things up a bit. It's a bit analogous to a mid-life crisis, and, indeed, I understand that the yields from the well, though stimulated, never quite return to former levels of production, which thought causes me to resist further extension of this metaphor.

The Zero Hour Bomb Company's business had not been good. What did it have to lose? Nothing, in fact. What profiteth a man to save his bombs but to lose the soul of invention, anyway? There lies the one (and perhaps only) pathway to Hell--the path that looks at a bomb casing and says "I am content". As if transported into a breath of air, to escape the siren's call of Helen of Troy's dynamited song,
the Zero Hour Bomb Company agreed to fabricate the new prototype.

By 1949, the "standard" was in production. It was so easy to use that marketing promotions showed how to cast with it while wearing boxing gloves. The Zero Hour Bomb Company was re-christened to one of my favorite company names of all--the immortal Zebco.
In 1954, the company surpassed itself--the Zebco 33 was born.

We spend so much time in life talking about how things are inevitably difficult or impossibly unteachable or fundamentally unlearnable. In so many things, one is born with a talent, or a gift, ro a blessing, or one, apparently is not. One person writes magazine fiction, another is Hemingway. One person paints all the requirements for a Master's of Fine Arts, while another paints actual masterwork. One person knows all the notes on the horn, while another is the Bird, living them. One lawyer can quote every case but work out a modest career, while another is Clarence Darrow. All things worthwhile take work and skill, but work and skill alone are so often rewarded in a modest way while another's work and skill produce volumes of genius and influence.

Yet I love the Zebco 33 for its labor-saving magnificence. I was raised to believe in the Zebco 33 as the touchstone of all fishing.
It is a moderately inexpensive device. In contrast to, say, the casting reel on a fly rod, it requires fundamentally no skill--a bit of wrist action in one segment, easily learned in five minutes. Fishing is one of those arts at which one must exhibit not only patience but also some talent and hard work to truly master--but the Zebco 33 takes the reel out of the "hard work' equation. This simple device, pioneered in Tulsa, Oklahoma, provided a closed-face, no backlash, fixed-reel spin-casting solution. It became the first reel for millions of fishermen. It became the cherished reel for millions more. It is simple, it is easy to operate, and it saves frustration and hassle. It treats fishing as fun.

I do not wish to enter into the customary bewailing of our consumer culture. For one thing, I secretly enjoy the old Norelco commercials of people who sled on rotary razors when the television special "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" plays. I also know that the creation of a consumer culture has given us the wherewithal to try to really reform the economic inequities, if ever the voices of fair trade and sensible use of technology are truly heard and not drowned out by short-sighted business planning on the right and neo-luddism from the right and left. I believe that technology can prolong life, cure disease, feed the hungry and create workable standards of living, and we are all but in the twilight of eras in which this will occur. All paths to this utopia lead through the land of consumer spending and interdependent economic growth.

But I will bewail th way in which everything in life must be made more difficult and expensive than it actually needs to be. I purchased a recent "Electronic Musician" magazine, which suggested that no home music studio could be built for less than five thousand dollars. In fact, perfectly fun hobby studios can be built with nothing more than a simple PC or Mac and roughly 75 dollars in simple software.
This year's three hundred dollar whizbang bit of software is next year's five dollar "value" software. Freeware and shareware solutions often not only equal commercial products, but sometimes surpass them.

We are all drowned in too many features, too many choices. A good kite costs a dollar, not thirty dollars. One need only have a hundred dollar bike to enjoy a ride, and if one is good at yard sales, a twenty dollar bike. But woe to she who reads a bike magazine and dares to suggest spending less than five hundred dollars. It's no secret at all that trade magazines are financed by ads from people who wish to make trades intricate and expensive. One can spend 300 dollars on a fishing reel--or one can buy a Zebco or even a "lowly" value Shakespeare, and do just fine.

The Zebco 33, therefore, causes a wave of pleasure and nostalgia to rise in me. When I was a child, we thought it was the height of a high-performance fishing reel. After all, it performed admirably in all freshwater conditions. Its silver chassis (now it also comes in gold and platinum) proved the axiom that no invention serves so well as the invention that saves time and expense in the pursuit of graceful endeavor. I sing the closed-reel body, which provides no backlash and costs very little to operate. It lets out string with a button, and reels in with a circular crank.

I am pleased to say that in this instance, the prophet was honored in his own country. Mr. Hull duly got inducted into the Sporting Goods Industry Hall of Fame, putting the name "Hull" in lights with luminaries such as Remington and Spalding. Mr. Hull's sons donated many of his prototypes to the Tulsa Historical Society in 2002, ensuring that the reel tale is preserved for history. Although the Zebco company, oppressed by foreign competition, once closed its American operation, laying off 400 Oklahomans, the company has rebounded under new management and now has 200 employees. Zebco researchers test out new reels, trying to duplicate conditions of salt and sand, in search of the perfect cast.

I do not always use a Zebco 33 any more, just as I do not attend church as often as I should, and I do not always pick up my toys.But it is good to know that the Zebco 33 exists, in the same way that I am pleased about the safety pin, the Volkwagen Beetle, and and those curious little baked goods with the Italianate name which escapes me upon which one can fashion a low-hassle pizza.

Many things are indeed impossible, expensive, unlistenable or unteachable. But not the Zebco 33. It's a reel that leaves time for kite-flying, long hikes and seeing the laser shadow rabbits run to "comfortably numb" instead of "run, rabbit, run". I've discovered in life that many things are so very frustrating and difficult. But not the Zebco 33. I do not love machines, but I love the Zebco 33.

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