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Technology: an accessory to murder

Alan Hitchcox
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When actor Peter Falk died last year, my wife and I discussed how much we enjoyed watching him in his most famous role — that of LA Police Homicide Lt. Columbo. (I don’t believe his first name was ever revealed on the show.) The character starred in dozens of episodes of a TV mystery series called Columbo, which aired primarily in the 1970s. So we picked up some sets of DVDs and began watching an episode every now and then.
Episodes of Columbo were rarely a whodunit. Most of the time, the viewer saw the murderer prepare and execute the crime. So the mystery was how Columbo would trip up the perpetrator to catch him or her.

One of the strongest themes of the series was that Columbo was a blue-collar detective and a bit awkward. However, the suspects and witnesses he questioned were sophisticated upper-class people.Many of the suspects used technology that was relatively new to the consumer market at the time, and many viewers were seeing these gadgets in use for the first time. For example, one suspect wore an LED digital watch. LED watches never really caught on because you couldn’t see what time it was unless you pushed a button to energize the LEDs. Other state-of-the-art technology included programmable telephone answering machines and fax machines.

But the episode that really struck me was one where a murderer used a VCR to fabricate an alibi to the crime. When asked by Columbo how much the VCR cost, the suspect offered that it ran about $2500. This isn’t all that surprising because most of today’s basic electronic gadgets initially carried very high price tags. So $2500 may not sound all that unusual for an early-generation VCR, but Columbo’s response put it into perspective. He remarked that you could buy a brand new car for that amount.

The bottom end of today’s car prices is probably about $12,000. So if  a new gadget was introduced that would enhance your home entertainment experience, would you pay $12,000 to $15,000 for it? I think most of us would pass, but we’d all agree it would have to be pretty darn good to justify that kind of cash outlay.

Of course, today’s industrial controls have gone through a transformation similar to that of consumer electronics. And the same drivers are probably in place — the most demanding applications required by organizations with deep pockets are the first to employ the latest technological developments. The rest of us have to wait until the new technology becomes widespread enough to drive its price down.

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