Thursday, December 18, 2008

Water Casts

Those who have read my blog recently are aware of my enjoyment of Victorian age English magazines. One magazine in particular, Pearson's, has caught my interest. While researching bartitsu for an upcoming book, I found that a fascinating article on photographing "water casts."

This is nothing more than taking a picture of a man throwing a bucket of water using a fast shutter speed. But the author, a Victorian/Edwardian age Englishman named Archie Williams has taken some great photos using the premiere photographic equipment available in 1901.

Wrote Williams, "My attention was first drawn to the artistic possibilities latent in a bucketful of water by the manner in which a thatcher damped a pile of straw to make it tough and supple enought for his purpose. With a quick turn of the writst he projected a thin seminciruclar film which covered several square feet, glistening like the sun and suggesting many beautiful forms."

I'm not sure my Nikon D-90 with all of it's metering and digital features could do much better than this Victorian photographer.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Homemade Windmills Across America, ca.1900

Much time on my part has been spent in the sub-basement annex of the University of Minnesota library. That's where they keep the old, old, pre-1900 copies of magazines.

I've been doing research on Bartitsu, a rare hybrid martial art, combining ju-jitsu and boxing and was developed by a Victorian Brit named E. W. Barton Wright. Down there in the stacks, among the crumbling pages, are some of the most interesting reading I've come across.

These magazines are so interesting, I could spend hours (and I have) reading through them when I should be doing something else.

Some days, I can't get enough of those crumbling magazines from America and Britain printed in about 1900. Subject matter? It's all over the board: self defense articles, the habits or African and Asian animals, many, many article on prison life for some reason (and it sounds awful!) and a fair amount on travel to exotic places which back then were actually quite exotic and hard to get to, making magazine accounts about the only way for the average person to get to Asia or Africa.

I came across an account of "Windmills of America." It's interesting to see the home-made designs of windmills made by frontier and homesteading farmers out of the materials available to them. Some of these designs are incredibly complex and they certainly show an ability to design and fabricate mechanisms with I imagine, only rudimentary tools.

Are they efficient? Well, that might be another story. But here they are, rickety looking and wonderful.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Cold Days, Warm Flamethrower

Cold days, warm flamethrower.
Instructions on how to make your own are part of Absinthe and Flamethrowers, coming to all bookstores in June 2009
Posted by Picasa

Friday, December 12, 2008

Absinthe and Flamethrowers Cover

Hot off the press: Here's the cover of my new book, Absinthe and Flamethrowers which will come out in June, 2009. The bold red cover and interesting artistic lettering will make it standout among other books on the bookstore shelves.

Drop me a line using the form on if you're interested in being notified when it's on sale.
Posted by Picasa

How to Make a Pole Aerial Photography set up

Make Magazine issue 16, with the cool Spy vs Spy cover, features my how-to article on how to make a pole mounted camera (aka Mast Aerial Photography) by using hobby servo motors and a standard painter's extension pole.

This project isn't terribly hard, requiring only about a half day or so to complete, not including getting the materials.

Pole aerial photography is fun and practical and provides a way to get incredible aerial photographs without ever leaving terra firma.

We liked this project so much that we decided to show how to make in one of the initial episodes of Make:Television, the nationally televised program coming to public television in January 2009.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Developments in High Explosives

The first atomic bombs, of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki variety, worked by basically crashing one piece of highly enriched uranium into another piece in order to start a chain reaction. To do that, I read that US government scientists built specially shaped blocks of explosive. The explosives were cut into precise hexagon and pentagon shapes.

When detonated, the uranium went exactly where it was supposed to go, and ka-boom! But, it's much harder to do than it sounds because of the difficulty in shaping High Explosive charges precisely.

The explosives were machined into shapes like this: -->

I don't think the world needs easier ways to cast high explosives into precise shapes, but the scientists at Los Alamos just announced precisely that: an easy to use, low melting point high explosive that can easily cast into precise shapes.

ScienceDaily (Oct. 14, 2008) — Since the discovery of nitroglycerin in 1846, the nitrate ester group of compounds has been known for its explosive properties. A whole series of other nitrate esters have been subsequently put to use as explosives and fuels.

A research team led by David E. Chavez at Los Alamos National Laboratory (USA) has now developed a novel tetranitrate ester. The compound has a particularly interesting characteristic profile: it is solid at room temperature, is a highly powerful explosive, and can be melt-cast into the desired shape.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

The Blowing Things Up Holiday Gift Guide

If you're looking for gift ideas with high energy appeal, the list below may be just the ticket. I think almost every garage tinkerer desperately wants at least some of these items, whether they know it now or not.

1. Interested in pyrotechnics? There are many fine books available, and some not so fine ones. If you're interested in learning how to make fountains, rockets, roman candles, shells, etc, there are two I've found to be excellent.

The first is Introductory Practical Pyrotechnics by Tom Perigrin. I bought it from American Fireworks News ( . It's not inexpensive, but it's clear and fairly well written. The second is the Dictionary and Manual of Fireworks by George Washington Weingart. It's a much older book and doesn't provide step by step instructions like Perigrins book, but it's a fine supplement to it.

2. When I wrote my first book, Backyard Ballistics, I wasn't sure anybody would like it. I'm pleased to say that people do enjoy it. Over 200,000 copies sold and still going strong! Spud guns, dry cleaner bag balloons, and carbide cannons and such are what makes Makers great. Check it out.

3. Servo motors and radio transmitter. I have so many projects where I need to move something remotely. Recently, I wrote in Make Magazine issue 16 about a pole mounted camera, where the camera is mounted way up on a 20 foot long pole. How to trip the shutter? A servo motor of course. Servo's are great for robot control as well as their standard use controlling throttles and control surfaces on RC vehicles. (If you get a servo and radio for tinkering, use ground frequencies only.)

4. Serious makers and builders really must know something about "physical computing, " that is, sensing and controlling the non-digital, non-virtual world, with computers. The way most makers to that is through microcomputers. I've looked at several. The Make Controller, available from has a lot of inputs and outputs including connections to servo motors!. Less expensive and therefore extremely popular is the Arduino. The Arduino is cheap, has several analog and digital inputs and outputs, and is programmable in a C like language. There's also the Basic Stamp, also cheap, but is programmable in Basic for dinosaurs like me. Available at

5. Any electronic project requires soldering. Soldering isn't hard (well, too hard) if you have the right tools. This means a good iron and a great work holder. The best work holder I've found is made by Panavise. Panavise's standard #301 vise coupled with the #312 base mount/part tray, and the #315 circuit board holder is the ticket. Simple to use, it allows pieces to be positioned comfortably and securely. It's what serious electronics people use. Thanks to John Edgar Park at Make TV for turning me on to this.

6. I think my book Whoosh Boom Splat is way cool. Plans include a tee-shirt cannon, a steam cannon, and a nifty clothespin shooter that shoots lighted matches. Of course, I may be biased.

7. One of my favorite tools is a taser. Okay, that probably seems weird, but making a spark is often pretty important. Whenever you want to ignite something (say the propellant in a potato cannon, or a gas stream in a flamethrower) a taser works pretty darn well. Much easier than rigging an ignition coil, a taser makes sparks available anywhere, anytime. And, if the bad guys attack, you're ready for that as well. One of the least expensive, but highest voltage ones I've seen is here at Amazon

8. Anybody who makes anything should know about Make Magazine. (I'm a contributing editor there.) Four gigantic issues a year, each chocked full of information on how to make the greatest stuff in the world. See more at and if you agree, go ahead and subscribe.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Yellow Fever Vaccinations and Travel Medicine Clinics

Sad but true, the health care system in the US does not work well. One must be a vigilant consumer of health care services.

Later this month, I'm going to the coast of French Guiana. Circumstances dictate that I am required to get a yellow fever vaccination. According to the US Government's CDC website, there is a "low incidence of yellow fever in South America, generally a few hundred reported cases per year."

Strange it may seem but I need to get a yellow fever shot in order to spend a less than a day on a continent of 371,000,000 inhabitants which reports perhaps 400 yellow fever cases per year. It seems to me that I have a much better chance of being struck by lightning, coming under pirate attack or dying by getting hit on the head by a falling coconut.

But rules are rules, so a yellow fever shot I must get. I have very high deductible health insurance and since I've managed being run over by a truck so far this year, I must bear the full cost of vaccination.

I called my doctor who told me that I must go to a clinic that specializes in "travel medicine" since my doctor, (who is a fine physician,) doesn't handle tropical infectious diseases. Fine, I'll call around.

Travel Medicine Clinic A: $120 for the shot, plus $250 for a "consultation." I simply cannot imagine the need for a consultation about something like this. It seems absurd.

Travel Medicine Clinic B: $275 for the shot and a 15 minute consultation with "travel clinic" doctor.

I finally found that the city of St. Paul public health department has a nurse that will vaccinate me if I bring in a doctor's prescription and give them $100 cash money. Much better, but I have better uses for $100.

"Travel Medicine clinics" sound like a blatant marketing ploy, another example of a desperate and broken health care system.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Worlds Fastest Indian?

I've got an upcoming article in Make Magazine about Speed Week, a gathering of fast cars and faster drivers that happens once a year on the salt flats on the Nevada - Utah border. The salt is smooth and goes on for miles. It a perfect place to see how fast your car can really go.

The vehicles (cars and motor cycles) there don't race against each other and not against the clock either. They are simply trying see how fast they can go. And they do go fast.

What's most interesting to me is the incredible amounts of horsepower, and therefore speed that these guys get out of their cars. There are vehicles with 2-liter engines that go over 200 mph. How do they do that? By using fuels that have more energy in them than gasoline or diesel, boosting the pressure of the intake air with a blower, optimizing the engine tuning for speed (at the expense of say, gas mileage,) and streamlining the car body.

I spoke at length with Gary Calvert, a member of the Muckleshoot Indian tribe from Washington State. Really a knowledgeable guy -- he built his vehicle from the wheels up, taking a wing mounted fuel tank from a military airplane (it's large and aerodynamic) adding a Japanese car's V6 and turning it into a really (really) fast car. It burns fuel (nitromethane) and has an enormous turbo charger that radically increases the amount of air going into the pistons which does good things for horsepower.

This car, called a belly tanker, screams across the salt flats.

I sat in it for a while to get the feeling of driving a vehicle like that. I'd sure like to build one myself.

Monday, December 01, 2008

The Barrage Garage DVD!

Two Years in the Making: The Barrage Garage DVD
THE GARAGE WARRIOR’S ULTIMATE VIDEO GUIDE TO ALL THINGS THAT GO BOOM is available for purchase. The Garage Barrage video contains four of my favorite scientific projects. They may be a bit edgy, but I believe they're safe (follow the directions and use your common sense.) Of course, you never really know do you?

But if you are like me, you understand that a bit (just a bit) of danger and excitement is the salt and cayenne pepper in the stew of life. They make things interesting. Of course, if you use too much, they ruin it. so, it's a balance.

And this video is all about projects that fit into a good balance -- danger, excitement, science, fun.
The video was a collaboration between me and a group of professional video producers and writers. I really like it, and I hope you do too.

The projects include making smoke bombs (go here to see the entire project for free!), the Night Lighter 36 Taser-Powered Potato Cannon, a small jet engine (a jam jar jet), and the world famous Mentos Fountain. We've put our own twist on all of these projects to make them easy to do and spectacular to watch.

Plus, there Amanda and Nicole ;)