Lafayette Degausser

The Degausser

One of the things I’ve found to be helpful in dealing with grief is telling stories about the shared past and objects left behind. We found this old degausser while cleaning out my mom’s house after her recent passing and it reminded me of a story from my childhood.

It was a big deal in our family when my parents purchased their first color television. This would have been when I was a kid sometime in the late 1960s to early 1970s. Color TVs had been available for several years by then and a lot of TV programming had migrated to color.

1960s TV store
A 1960s TV and radio store. (Courtesy Karl-Otto Strandberg, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

My parents saved up for a while to get that color TV. I know that because my mom told me so—quite loudly—when I broke it.

You see, I was a geek from my earliest years and I still am now. I have always been fascinated by electronics, mechanical devices, science, and how things work in general. That led to my child self watching a TV show with a scientific demonstration of how a TV worked.

The show’s host explained that a TV fired a beam of electrons inside of the picture tube where it would light up the phosphor coating on the inside surface of the screen. Varying the electricity running through coils of wire created an electromagnetic field that directed the electron beam across the screen to build the picture that we see.

To demonstrate how a magnetic field could guide the beam, the host moved a magnet near the front of a TV screen so we viewers could see how the picture was warped as the beam was pulled toward the magnet. Cool!

I just had to try it for myself, of course. So I went and got a big ol’ magnet and stuck it up next to our new color TV’s screen. It worked! I played with warping the picture for quite some time and it was sublime.

A TV image being warped by a large magnet.
A TV image being warped by a large magnet. (Courtesy Alejandro Garcia, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Unfortunately, when I finished and took the magnet away, the picture stayed permanently warped. It also had a black spot somewhat off center, as if a small black hole lived on our TV screen, sucking the picture into itself.

What happened next is a bit of a blur, perhaps because my mind has blocked out some deep trauma, but my older sister tells me there was much angst and a good deal of yelling.

After that, my dad called the TV repair man. You see, in those days, you could call and someone would come to your home and fix your TV or radio right there if the problem wasn’t too bad. For more complex problems beyond simply swapping out a tube or two, the TV would be taken back to the shop, repaired, and later brought back to your home.

I don’t think I ever knew the man’s name—he was always “the TV repair man” to me. I loved to watch him work and he would let me do so and would often answer my questions and teach me things. He went above and beyond while providing excellent service.

The TV repair man knew exactly what to do. He sold my dad the degausser in the picture above. Then he gave us all instructions and a demonstration of how to use it.

You plug in it, press the button, and wave it in circles in front of the TV screen while gradually moving away from the screen.

Vintage catalog advertisement for a TV degaussing coil.
I found our degausser in a 1968 Lafayette catalog where it was advertised as a “color TV purifier”. We took advantage of that convenient clip for having it on the back of our TV set so it was handy to use.

It was a miracle! The picture was back to its unwarped, full-color glory. The TV repair man explained that the degausser reset the magnetic field of the TV back to the default. He also explained that it wouldn’t last indefinately so we would have to repeat this remedy now and then, as needed.

And that’s exactly what happened. We had to degauss the TV every couple of weeks when the picture started warping—then only every couple of months—then maybe once or twice a year after that.

For me, I remember that after the original scolding there was acknowledgment that I had not acted with malice but had simply tried to duplicate an experiment that I had seen. There was science. There was learning. There was grace.

My mom kept a lot of stuff so it’s no surprise that she held onto that degausser all those years after it outlived its usefulness. I have to wonder if she ever ran across it and grinned like I did when finding it, or maybe at least gave a good eye roll and thought of me.

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