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The Kid Who Kept the Future in his Pocket: Teal Photon


Back in the late 1970’s, we boys went on camping trips. Among many of our bizarre adventures, one year we saw the future. The future was owned by a kid named Steve. And it was the most beautiful thing we’d ever seen.

When Steve showed it to us, he hushed us first, made us know it was a government secret and swear on national honor we’d never reveal it. He took a trim flat box, about the size of a bill-fold out of his shirt pocket. He opened it with a flourish. We stood in awe. It had a strip of solar cells along the top. Photovoltaics. It’s name? It too was magical, like a great spaceship or a superhero: The Teal Photon, one of the first solar-powered pocket calculators.

As soon as Steve folded open its leatherette carrying case, as soon as the sun hit it, it turned on. And then we did all the magical and silly things that pre-teens nerds did in the era before Internet viral videos: we played number games and did that thing where you enter a string of numbers then read them upside-down. The basics? 0.7734 (hello) and of special interest was 58008 (boobs), 5318008 (boobies) and 55378008 (boobless) and if you were mad at an adult you said “well 1,134,209, yeah!” (Go2hell) being able to say any of these made you a magician. A mathemagician. And all that from a little sunlight. The Teal Photon didn’t even have an off-on switch.

The part that was the future was twofold. First, for goodness sake a calculator that fit in your pocket! Before this time, calculators were great, but not pocket sized and they had bright red or green numbers. After this time they were compact, and, the new ones all had liquid crystal displays… Grey numbers on a pale screen. Over the decades they became more and more sophisticated. You could say that the smartphone is the descendant of the first handheld calculators. Second, it was solar-powered. And cheap. Not like candy bar cheap. But birthday or Christmas present cheap, sure. No battery. Just sunlight. A magical, beautiful, tiny computer powered by sunlight.

We were on the lookout for cheap power sources. 1979. We were just coming out of the energy embargo, new speed limits and mileage controls… We wanted to help the world be Green. We dreamed of solar homes and dome homes and moon colonies. 35 years later, solar power is now a real option for the average homeowner.

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