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Just Cool

What do Oceanside pier, Empire State Building have in common? This iconic device

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A coin-operated binocular awaits quarters on the Oceanside pier.
(Phil Diehl)

Have you seen the shiny, steel, coin-operated binoculars on the Oceanside pier?

If not, there’s still time. All six of the 300-pound, view-enhancing optical devices will be there at least another year.

The city recently renewed its contract with Tower Optical Co. Inc., of South Norwalk, Conn., the same company that has operated and maintained the binoculars on the pier since they were installed in the 1980s.

“They should keep them around,” said Wesley Riano, a tourist visiting the pier with his girlfriend, Paola Lastiri. They each popped a quarter in one of the machines for a look.

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“Just to see what we could see,” he said, after a two-minute gaze down the coast toward Carlsbad.

The 10-power optics in the binoculars are surprisingly clear. Distant ships appear close, along with the individuals on deck. The devices swivel in any direction and are mounted on a rock-solid pedestal that keeps the view steady, unlike the shaky view through hand-held binoculars, and the base has steps to ease access for children and the vertically challenged.

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Wesley Riano and Paola Lastiri take turns looking through binoculars on the Oceanside pier.
(Phil Diehl)

Oceanside has two of the distinctive, art-deco-styled machines at the base of the pier and four more at the first “hammerhead,” which is one of the wider areas of the pier. The city gets half of the income from the machines, and its share is about $2,700 annually.

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Tower Optical also has its devices at scenic viewpoints in San Diego, Orange County, San Francisco and elsewhere across the United States. The most heavily used ones are in New York City on the observation decks at the “Top of the Rock” on Rockefeller Center and at the Empire State Building, where they have been in service since the 1950s.

“We have around 2,500 machines out,” said Greg Rising by phone from the company’s office in Connecticut.

“We also do a lot of private homes,” Rising said. “A guy in La Jolla has a machine. He’s right across from the beach, and he has it on his deck.”

Every set of coin-operated binoculars is the same, and every set is leased, not sold. People sometimes offer to buy them, but Tower never sells their machines.

“We do one thing, and we try to keep it simple,” Rising said.

The machines have had essentially the same durable, weather-proof design since the first ones were built in the 1930s, he said.

“The guys who started the company did it as sort of a side job,” Rising said. “My family got into it because my grandfather owned a machine shop. He was doing work for them.”

The original owners had financial troubles and began paying some of their debts in company stock, Rising said. His family eventually acquired all the stock and took over the business in the 1940s.

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Once a year, someone from the Connecticut factory comes out to inspect and overhaul the West Coast machines.

“Basically, every machine gets torn down,” Rising said. “Any parts that are worn will be repaired or replaced. Everything is re-lubricated and painted.

“They hold up pretty good,” he said. “They are built to be outside all the time. It’s pretty rare that we have any issue related to weather.”

Vandalism and theft are rare because the binoculars are in such public places.

“If you have a location where there are always a lot of people around, or usually someone around, you’re less likely to have problems there than at a place at the end of the road,” he said.

Between the annual maintenance overhauls, Tower has a local representative who comes down periodically from north of Los Angeles to collect the coins, check the machines and make minor repairs, if needed.

“His grandparents used to do it,” Rising said. “They made an arrangement with my grandfather, and now we are dealing with his grandson. He was telling me how he’s training his daughter to do it, and she loves it ... there’s a long history.”

Technology has ushered in new competition, as digital and high-tech scenic viewers are offered by other companies. But that’s not much of a problem for Tower Optical, largely because of the distinctive look and long history of its product.

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“Generally, people that want our machine, they want our machine,” Rising said.


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