If you have kids in the house, then somewhere in that house you no doubt run a small side business warehousing batteries. Depending on how many kids and toys you have, you may actually own more batteries than some third-world countries. I know for a fact that I own more AAs than Bangladesh.
In the good old days of my youth, my toys took only one size battery. The 9-Volt. It had opposite terminals on top and you had to plug it into the vinyl-coated contacts at the end of two thin red and white wires stuffed into the battery compartment of your walkie-talkie or radio-controlled race car. When you took the old battery out it was always a gamble on whether you would rip those wires right out of the toy, because the used 9-Volt always managed to weld itself to the contacts. You could check to make sure the old battery was really dead by putting the contacts on your tongue. Everyone who has ever done it remembers vividly the first time they put a brand new 9-Volt on their tongue. The cattle prod-like shock across your taste buds and the lingering metallic flavor is unforgettable. Good times!
There were only two other sizes of battery besides the 9-Volt in my youth. The D-cell, which went in standard flashlights, and the gigantic, slightly smaller than a brick, ”lantern battery” with the two cone-shaped spiral spring contacts on top. They went in the molded plastic flashlight with the seven-inch-diameter lens and integral suitcase handle that every family had for camping or emergencies. It was six volts instead of nine, but no one ever thought about putting that one on their tongue! They always seemed to last for a sum total of 8-1/2 minutes in the 300-pound flashlight before it would begin to get dimmer and dimmer. At that point your parents or grandparents would let you turn it on and keep it on so you could stare at the faint glow from the bulb as long as you could to try to pinpoint the exact second that the battery went completely dead. Who needs a Playstation?
I rarely see the 9-Volt or the 18-pound brick nowadays. They have been replaced by approximately eighty-seven other models, shapes and voltages. The clear winner is the AA, which seems to have held the top spot for a long time now. I remember as a bachelor being indignant when I got my fist TV remote that took AAAs. “Why do I need these? The AAs works just fine! Now I have to stock two kinds of small batteries.” Little did I know, that was only the beginning. I got married, had kids, and somewhere along the line, someone brought 13 tons of toys into my home. With the exception of one old-timer wooden train, each and every toy requires batteries. Our portable plastic baby fence takes batteries. We have a wooden puzzle that takes batteries. We have stuffed animals, cribs and bikes that take batteries. And we have books that take batteries. Now come on! The last thing in the world that is supposed to require batteries is a book.
The manufacturers of the battery-operated books and some of the other toys have taken things one step further. In a creepy effort to make their products popular, or at least seem popular, the toys will actually try to get the kid’s attention back if they stop playing with them. When you put them down or stop turning pages for a minute, they call out to the child “Turn the page to hear more” or “Elmo’s lonely, play with me.” Why don’t they just be honest and have the toy say “Excuse me son, sales are down in North America. We would like this product to hold your interest for another three-tenths of a second so your mommy will distinguish it as being special and purchase one for your cousin.”
Until recently, my wife and I had a nice run where we were only stocking AAs, AAAs, C-cells, D-cells, and the occasional 9-Volt. Granted, we have to buy AAs and C's by the pallet pretty much weekly, but at least we only had to inventory five different kinds. That has all changed now. My sons just got their first set of walkie-talkies. Did their super-cool new Transformers Walkie-Talkie set come with 9-Volts like mine did when I was their age? No. They came with calculator batteries. You know the kind. They go in your car’s keychain remote. They look like a dime or a nickel. And they are from Hell.
When you go to the regular battery section at the store it is a straightforward affair. Need AAs, there they are. When you go to the calculator battery section of the store you had better bring some water and a snack, because you’re going to be there for a while. For reasons known only to the battery company engineers, they felt the need to designate them with a letter and a number. C124 or A534. Probably because there are only twenty-six letters in the alphabet, and they anticipated a need for at least three thousand unique sizes. Besides having an almost infinite amount of diameter and thickness combinations, they have cross-references between the model numbers printed in microscopic writing on the packages. It’s like a fun little treasure hunt where you have to find one dime in a pile of two hundred dimes. The D435 is compatible with the A534, the F129, as well as the H245, but not the D534 or the F534.
Just in case it was too simple, the battery companies’ marketing teams went ahead and designated some of them as “medical” and put the universal Red Cross symbol on the package. If I need an H432 for my kid’s toy, and it comes in “medical” and plain, which should I choose? Will the “medical” one last longer, or will it immediately recognize that it is not powering a Life-Alert necklace, and fail to work at all?
The good news is that the calculator batteries come in packs of one, and they cost $9.78 each on average. Our new walkie-talkie set takes four per unit, so if my math is correct, when the batteries run out in both units it should only cost me $3240.87 and six hours of my time cross-referencing in the battery aisle. That is sooooo much better than the forty cents and two minutes it would have taken me if they were AAs.
If you’ll excuse me, I have to go put the folks from Mattel and Duracell on my Christmas card list.
See you soon,
Copyright © 2008 Marc Schmatjen
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