Friday, February 13, 2009

The Fire Piston

Doesn't look like much, but it's actually way cool ->
(click on picture to see it work)

The fire piston is a clever little device for starting a fire when you're say, in the woods and don't want to use a match. Basically, it's a small, handmade piston and cylinder. You place some easy to ignite tinder in a cavity in the end of the piston and smack the piston down inside the closed cylinder. The air inside heats up and viola! the tinder ignites.

Sounds simple, and it is, but actually making one took more time and care than I expected. I used a number of different materials for the piston and found that I could make a working piston out of either hardwood or hard plastic. The tricky part was making a good seal, and making the cylinder end air tight.

The fire piston demonstrates the ideas of 19th century scientists Rudolph Clausius, James Joule, and Julius Meyer. Basically, it shows the relationship between work and heat. Work and heat are the same thing, said those scientists, which was in contrast to the then current notion that heat was a "thing," a mysterious quantity called phlogiston or caloric. Nope, said Clausius, heat is simply the what happens when you do mechanical work in a closed system.

See a movie of my fire piston in action at

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

The Maker President

As a maker and rational risk taker, I was thrilled to hear President Obama say this in his inaugural address:
In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of short-cuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted - for those who prefer leisure over work, or
seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things - some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labour, who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.

We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology's wonders to raise health care's quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age. All this we can do. And all this we will do.

Making, like charity, begins at home. Go out and make something cool today. For ideas, visit: