The TV That Cried Help

Imagine Chris van Rossmann’s surprise when, TV remote in hand, he answered urgent banging on the door of his Oregon apartment to discover Air Force authorities, local police officers and a rescue squad ready to assist. Van Rossmann had no idea he was in distress or had been sending an international SOS.

Before we attempt to solve the mystery, let’s sympathize profoundly with this 20-year-old college student. He’s way too young to recall when people understood how home appliances worked. You plugged in the radio. When the tubes warmed, sound came out. The refrigerator, when running, eventually made ice cubes if you poured water into empty trays and didn’t spill en route from the sink.

Much has changed since 1984, when mail came once a day, on paper and on foot. Everything is smaller, faster, more complex now. Every song ever written fits in a small, cordless box. Baffling techno-wizardry infiltrates everything but the toaster.

By the time you grasp one gizmo, it’s been outmoded -- twice. While Van Rossmann innocently watched PBS on his flat-screen TV, a satellite arced overhead in the darkness of space. Satellites do a lot more than we know now. In fact, if we all knew all that satellites know, everyone would have to be killed to keep the secret. One satellite ear listened to the 121.5-MHz frequency reserved for emergencies.


It found one. Don’t even ask how a satellite 100-plus miles up traced an SOS signal to a particular apartment on Jackson Avenue in Corvallis, Ore. It alerted a Virginia Air Force center, which radioed all kinds of Oregonians. That explains the anxious armed crowd at Van Rossmann’s door.

They searched. They tested. They determined that Van Rossmann’s television was calling for help. Turn it off, the signal died. Turn it on, global SOS. Toshiba promised a replacement. The people who we thought understood all this scientific stuff can’t figure how an appliance designed only to receive TV shows could decide to send an international distress code. And then do it. But here’s the scary part. The experts’ sophisticated techno-solution to a regular TV sending false alarms to military satellites in space was to suggest that Van Rossmann unplug it.

Maybe we aren’t so dumb after all.