Sunday, January 08, 2006

Anvil Firing

I first became aware of the activity of anvil firing about three years ago at Battlebots in San Francisco. One of the builders ( I think it was Robert Lawrence who built Mechavore,) told me about an activity that takes place out in the desert where in participants take an anvil, set it atop a black powder charge and set it off. The explosion is plenty powerful, powerful enough to send the anvil way high into the air. Pointless to some, perhaps, but it sounded plenty cool to me.

Please send comments with information on what you know about anvil firing and where and when anvil firings will occur this year. Thanks!

A week or so ago, I was talking about anvil firing to one of my blacksmithing friends, and she thought she had heard of the practice but wasn't really sure what it was all about. I looked it up and it appears this is some sort of primitive pioneer pyrotechnic display; something that prospectors, miners, and other outdoorsy types did for fun on the 4th of July.:

First, some history
From the Idaho Statesman:

In early Idaho the Fourth of July was celebrated with enthusiasm. Holiday events began the night before, as this Statesman account of 1875 tells us: "After ten o'clock Saturday night the noise of gunpowder rose on the midnight air. To be sure, the great Fourth was near, and to the young, noise and happiness, patriotic enthusiasm, and Chinese crackers are synonymous and convertible terms. If they wish one day of the year, or even two days, to sit up all night so as to usher in the day with noises, to accompany themselves with fire and flame, concussion and reverberations, and lager beer, and to wind up with weariness, blisters, and colic — why 'tis the Fourth of July and a free country." The story concludes with "Long may the eagle wave and the stars and stripes float o'er the land of the free."

Anvil-firing on the Fourth was a pleasant pastime common on the Idaho frontier, but virtually unknown today. Here is the recipe: Move one large anvil out of the blacksmith shop to open ground. Pile as much black powder on top of it as you can, attached to a length of fuse. Place another anvil upside down on top of the powder. Light the fuse and run like hell. The clang of the steel, coupled with the explosion is said to have made a most satisfactory sound. In 1891, at the little town of Van Wyck, Idaho, a place now under Cascade Reservoir, "The sound of anvil firing resounded from the grove at the foot of West Range, wakening the sleeping echoes which went vibrating across the valley, rousing its silent population into activity and a realization that the Glorious Fourth was at hand."
Now, the Science of Anvil Firing:
From what I can piece together, here is a typical Anvil Firing Procedure
  1. First, two big, forged steel (not cast iron) anvils are procured. Then one is placed atop the other with the two anvil tops together. This means that one anvil is right side up and the other anvil is upside down. I’ve heard the top anvil referred to as" the flyer" and the bottom as the base.
  2. In the top of most anvils, there is apparently a cavity or hole .
  3. The anvil wrangler places some small grain size, fast acting black powder in the exposed cavity.
  4. A fuse is inserted into the cavity, and the flyer placed on top.
  5. Light fuse. All run away. A good anvil fire-er can send anvils up 100 feet or more.

Now the disclaimer
This is merely a general description of the pastime. This is all hearsay, I’ve never fired one myself, and can't vouch for it's accuracy. So I don’t recommend anyone try it based on general descriptions such as this. Warning, do not try it at home, because, well, it seems kind of dangerous. Beside blowing yourself up with explosives, the black powder could cause shrapnel, and you could get hit on the head by a quickly falling anvil, just like in cartoons.

Speaking of cartoons in which characters get hit in the head by anvils, this article is really quite amusing: Watch out for Falling Anvils by Cal Meachan:
Excerpt: In the movie "Who Framed Roger Rabbit," when Eddie the human detective and Jessica the cartoon character emerge from the alley onto the street you can see a street sign behind them - "Watch out for falling anvils."

It's funny, of course, but I have to ask why? We've been conditioned by cartoons - especially all those Road Runner cartoons - to think of a falling anvil as something that hits the villain on the head. It's the instrument of his comeuppance. Of course anvils don't fall from the sky, except in cartoons. (BG: or in Idaho on July4th) The joke in Roger Rabbit is funny because it evokes the memory of a situation that only exists in cartoons where falling anvils are a danger. They're dropping from the sky all the time in cartoons. . .

Red means Updated post