The world's worst hobby.

Humiliating myself for fun and profit.
Aug. 18 2003 10:42 AM

Full Metal Racket

The perverse thrill of metal detecting, the world's worst hobby.

Listento Emily Yoffe discuss this topic on NPR's Day to Day.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

I brought my metal detector on our summer vacation—we drove from Washington, D.C., to Maine—hoping to add fun and profit to our holiday. As I packed it in the trunk for the trip home, my normally considerate husband had this to say about my latest pastime: "Now that your metal detecting is over—and believe me IT'S OVER—we will think of it as a hideous family episode, like something out of a Pat Conroy novel, that we must put behind us and never discuss again."

Emily Yoffe Emily Yoffe

Emily Yoffe is a regular Slate contributor. She writes the Dear Prudence column. 

It's true that I had come to think of metal detecting as the world's worst hobby—frustrating, solipsistic, potentially felonious. But I had to admit that each time I turned the power dial on my Bounty Hunter Tracker IV and swung it over new territory, I understood how Bill Bennett must have felt before pulling that $500 slot: This time, baby, I'm going to hit the big score.

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I started metal detecting for the latest episode of Human Guinea Pig, the column in which I do things people are curious about but wish someone else would do for them. But metal detecting was something our family actually did want to do, even without Slate's encouragement. It was my daughter's idea, actually. She requested a metal detector for her 7th birthday—she had seen a TV commercial that promised diamond rings and other amazing treasure. My husband and I thought it was an original choice, and even something—besides sleeping late—that we could all enjoy. After all, what could be more universal than the desire to find and keep a valuable object that doesn't belong to you?

After being completely confused by the detectors offered on the Web, my husband called one of the retailers. He explained that we wanted a detector that would be easy for a 7-year-old to use, but that would be suitable for finding Civil War artifacts, since we live close to some known encampments.

The salesman found this hilarious. "Believe me, you're not going to find any Civil War artifacts. I've been doing this for three years and I've never found anything valuable." (Presumably, after this conversation our salesman enlisted and is now in Iraq leading the search for weapons of mass destruction.) The salesman also said not to worry about getting a metal detector that would be easy for our daughter. "She might go with you once, then she'll get completely bored and not want to do it again." Instead of taking this advice, my husband insisted on purchasing one, so the salesman recommended the $130 Tracker IV. Then, perhaps remembering what line of work he was in, he said, "You'll have fun," which turned out to be the equivalent of saying "bon voyage" to the passengers boarding the Titanic.

You've seen metal detectors in action. They are the long poles with the dinner-plate-sized coil on the bottom held by men with Bermuda shorts and atrophied calves who are scanning the beach looking for jewelry and coins. There are millions of metal detectors out there. Debra Barton of First Texas Products, manufacturer of my Tracker IV, estimates the handful of domestic producers sell a half-million a year. Rosemary Anderson, editor of Western & Eastern Treasures, a magazine for devotees, says the hobby really took off in the '60s when the machines became lighter and easier to use.

Anderson pointed out that people who do it call it a "sport." The industry loves to tout the exercise benefits of metal detecting. But metal detecting would most likely constitute a real workout only for those recently released from solitary confinement. I also learned from Western & Eastern Treasures that people who metal detect are called "metal detectorists." It was gratifying we had our own "ist" like numismatists, philatelists, or contortionists.

The modern history of metal detecting is ignominious. Alexander Graham Bell used an experimental model in 1881 in order to locate the assassin's bullet lodged in President James Garfield. Unfortunately, no one remembered that Garfield was lying on a mattress with newfangled metal coils, causing the machine to emit a continuous whine, resulting in failure to accurately locate the bullet. Garfield's heart gave out when doctors cut into him. (Read more about that here.)

The beep of the metal detector, like the car alarm, the busy signal, and the colicky baby, belongs in the catalog of irritating sounds. The booklet that came with my Tracker IV instructed me to study the different tones emitted by the machine so I would know the kind of metal being indicated. But I could never keep straight whether the chirp that resembled a dying sparrow meant iron or the drone like that of a truck backing up meant copper.

It was time to find Civil War artifacts. The three of us trooped off to a wooded area behind a public school near where I knew Union soldiers had camped. A man who lived a few houses down told me that a workman once asked if he could metal detect on that property and had found belt buckles and eating utensils. The woods were muddy and swarming with mosquitoes. I turned on my Tracker IV and it started emitting chirps and beeps—it sounded like I had discovered a satellite outpost of Fort Knox. But every time I dug I turned up a hole filled with rocks and worms and roots. Occasionally there would be the pop-top of a beer can. As the salesman predicted, within minutes my daughter was begging to be allowed to go to the playground. She and my husband abandoned me to my attempts to contract West Nile virus.

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