Sunday, February 20, 2000

To social historian, ray guns not just toys

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        OXFORD — When he's not teaching American studies at Miami University, Eugene Metcalf travels through cyberspace with intergalactic gunslingers.

        He searches for pop culture treasures — Buck Rogers' 25th Century Liquid Helium Water Pistol, Captain Video's Secret Ray Gun, Atomic Orbiter X and other toy ray guns of the 20th century.

        “Ray guns are more than toys,” he said. “They're all about the frontier. After Buck Rogers introduced America to outer space (in the 1930s), Indians became aliens. You needed guns in space. We took the myth of the frontier and imposed it on the cosmos.”

        Mr. Metcalf has collected 150 ray guns manufactured from the 1930s through the 1960s. They shoot paper, light, water, talcum (“space dust”), bubbles, Ping-Pong balls and balloons.

        “I have a 24-year-old son who thinks I'm nuts and a 2-year-old daughter who loves my ray guns,” he said. “But that's the great thing about being a social historian. You can pursue the silliest things.”

        To some people, ray guns are sculptures. Late last year, fotofolio, an art-book publishing house in New York City, published Ray Gun, written by Mr. Metcalf and collector Frank Maresca.

        “The book company's owners discovered Gene's collection through friends in New York,” said Sue Lawton, a company spokeswoman.

        “The book appeals to both collectors and science-fiction fans. Science fiction is the second-most popular thing in e-commerce.”

        America manufactured the early ray guns in metal. Japan jumped into the market in the 1950s with colorful lithographed tin guns. America and other countries turned to plastic guns in the '50s and '60s. These days, most ray guns are made in China.

        “Ray guns are visually stunning,” Mr. Metcalf said. “I'm just knocked out by them, even though they never existed in reality.”

        Thousands of ray guns lurk inside old trunks and attics. He found one at a yard sale for $4. The more collectible ones, he said, bring about $2,000 in original boxes.

        So many ray guns, so little time.

        Eugene Metcalf's Web site is “I get 40-50 e-mails a day from people all over the world,” he said. The site features links to related Internet sites. Mr. Metcalf's book is available through area bookstores.


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- To social historian, ray guns not just toys