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September 18, 2023

The Unexpected Rise and Inevitable Fall of the Gnat

By Dan Mulhollen

The Gnat(™) started out impressively enough. A team of scientists from Japan, Germany, the US, and the UK developed a combination drone/high definition video camera the size of a grain of rice. But a collaboration between a theoretical engineer from Vaduz, Lichtenstein and a mathematician from Matola, Mozambique made the thing truly amazing.

Controlled by a computer, tablet, or smart phone app, all the user had to do was type in a month and year, and the Gnat would send back images from that month and year, approximately.

Mind you, there were several considerations to be taken into account. Optimal performance was only available from late March to mid-October of any given year, that window narrowing due to climate change to late-May to mid-September. Around the year 1600, the images became grainier, a blank screen by 1200 C.E. Controlling the thing, always tricky and requiring practice, became unwieldy after 1500. And the warranty allowed for only one replacement should the unit be damaged or lost. Replacements afterwards were sold at a 20% discount off the usual $599.98 list price.

Advertising for the Gnat was lavish. "Imagine, going back to the neighborhood of your childhood!" boasted an ad showing a stroll down Lake Shore Drive in 1950s Chicago. "Relive cherished memories!" said an ad showing Montreal's Expo '67. "Don't just read history, see it!" suggested a scene of white smoke rising from the Sistine Chapel announcing the selection of Pius X (showing one of the programmers' religious biases.).

The Gnat largely lived up to these claims, although getting in on exact dates and places was a hit-or-miss thing -- the TARDIS Dilemma, as it was jokingly referred to. Also, it was prone to be stepped on, driven over, or swatted -- here, living up to its name. Discount or not, this was an expensive hobby.

Miffed that they were left out of the original research, a team of Russian and Chinese scientists began working on their own "Gnat". They came up with the Mayfly, a $300 device that came with 10 free replacements (a 10-space punch card was included to be mailed in and returned which the new unit.).

But inferior optics plagued the Mayfly, giving more the impression of looking through a window than actually being there. This was addressed by the introduction of add-on filters giving a sepia-tone, high-contrast, or "misty memories" look. News networks often used these filters to make an era either harsher or gentler. Fox gave the 1960s a particularly harsh, unfocused look while making the 1980s look soft and rosy. MSNBC did the opposite.

Both devices contributed to the brief fad of "history porn;" Gnats or Mayflies popping in on people having sex. Long-dead people caught in the act was an innocuous, if creepy, fetish. Finding grandpa in the back seat of a Studebaker with a hooker, Grandma on a park bench embracing her college room mate -- who you always knew as "Aunt" Rosa, or great uncle Harry and great aunt Mildred having an orgy with their entire company softball team was embarrassing, but not sufficient to merit legal action.

Living people left both manufacturers open to lawsuits -- especially when celebrities or politicians were caught with their pants down. If celebrities were bad, and politicians were worse, celebrity/politicians were absolute nightmares.

Like their namesakes, Gnats and Mayflies were both short-lived. Lawsuits forced their makers to cease production. And after the initial fascination wore off, the entire concept was considered a fad. A cartoon of that time showed a young boy finding a Gnat in its protective case while helping to clean his grandfather's attic. "What's this?" the boy asked. His grandfather frowned. "Just put it over there with the View Master and VCR."

Article © Dan Mulhollen. All rights reserved.
Published on 2019-02-18
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