This page contains a sampling of some of the crazy gadgets I've widgeted together over the years. I purposely did not include some of the more dangerous ones, like the contact explosive that turned out to be so unstable it didn't need contact to explode. NOTE: This page is not intended to encourage anyone to repeat these or similar projects. Some are hazardous and should not be attempted by anyone.
(Click on main site to browse 70 other topics ranging from exotic kaleidoscope designs to the strange world of lucid dreaming.)
Every grandparent has taped a couple of boxes together for his grandson to play in as an imaginary spaceship. My latest project takes this simple idea to an insane level.
I covered six 28 x 28 x 56-inch boxed with red and white contact paper and connected them, after a little sculpting to create the proper effect, to create a 30-foot long spaceship that's large enough for myself and several grandchildren to crawl around inside. The interior walls have over a dozen dials with moveable pointers for navigation, life support, and engine function as well as ten electric lights, a console with a moving track. Whoever's driving has to steer a course around planets, comets, and stars. In the rear is an engine with sequentially flashing colored lights to simulate warp drive.
How did the grandchildren like it? It got me five hours of uninterrupted smiling the first day and it's the first thing they want to play in whenever they come over... well worth the week it took to put together. Happily, it folds up into a 6-inch thick stack that's easy to store and goes up in less than half an hour.
While in a fit of militaristic frenzy, I dreamed up the terror weapon pictured above. It uses two 4-foot lengths of 4-inch diameter plastic pipe, one "Y" union, and a gas-powered blower to fire a stream of colored plastic balls. At maximum power this cannon fired 10 balls per second at a range of 70 feet. The real terror in this terror weapon wasn't from the balls, which were too soft and light to hurt anyone even if struck in the face, but that the thing was so ridiculous that one was in danger of laughing oneself to death.
When I was in high school I got an idea of how to build a small, hand held flame thrower. I whipped one together and was surprised at how well it worked... too well, actually. What I failed to realize is that it had two levels of operation and while showing it to my best friend it suddenly skipped from the low mode (shown above) to the high mode with the flames jumping out six feet. Since my friend was standing in front of it at the time and almost got incinerated you can imagine that he got even more excited about the gun's increased performance than me.
Many years later I'd mellowed to much safer, but no less ambitious, projects. The dome I constructed out of PVC tubing and industrial strength bubble wrap over the family swimming pool to keep it warm in winter is one example. It worked great until a rare desert snowfall collapsed it.
In fourth grade I became interested in the Japanese art of origami (paper folding) and in a frenzy of youthful enthusiasm began experimenting with huge versions made by taping together newspapers to make enormous sheets of paper up to 15 x 15 feet. The image above shows a reproduction of one of my efforts back then, a paper box large enough for an adult to climb inside. That's my daughter next to it holding a conventional sized folded paper box.
As an avid gardener I was faced with the dilemma of gardeners all over the world: not enough space in the back yard. To maximize what space I had, I decided to eliminate walkways by building concrete rails over which a beam would ride. I'd lay down on a cart that rolled left and right over this beam and pulled on ropes to move the beam back and forth over the garden. This let me work the entire area of the garden without having to waste space on walkways and also made it so I wouldn't have to walk on the soil, compacting it. Odd thing: my neighbors began building their fences higher around my backyard after they saw this. I wonder why?
In junior high school my best friend came over one day with a box that had two wires hanging out of it. He explained that it was a radio he'd built that used a human body as an antenna. He told me to grasp the two wires in my hands and squeeze while he turned the radio on. Trusting innocent that I was, I did so and when he threw the switch jumped ten feet straight up as 30,000 volts blasted through me. What he'd really made was a shock coil. (This sort of thing was considered fun back in the simple days of my youth before we had video games to play with.) After my teeth stopped rattling I decided I had to make one for myself. It was a beauty that was even bigger, generating a 50,000 volt shock. What's insane about this project was that before I could enjoy zapping other people I had to have my friend zap me with it so I would have first hand knowledge of the agony I was about to inflict on them.
(The shock coil worked great by the way... until I tried it on the captain of the school's wrestling team.)
In a similar vein of curiosity about all things electrical, a few years later I decided to attempt building something I'd always wanted: a giant Van De Graff static electric generator. I did it but shortly afterward my hair started falling out. I wonder if there was a connection?
Least you think developing new methods of electromagnetic destruction was my only hobby, I also became interested in the idea of professional gambling. I am not a gambler by nature but was curious about how hard a way it would be to earn a living at it. After studying many texts on the subject I decided the game with the best odds in favor of the player was blackjack. The card counting techniques where easy to learn so I played over 1,000 games following typical Las Vegas rules and plotted my projected winnings. The result: Yes, you can win at blackjack but the earnings were no more than a typical job and assuming that you don't have an innate talent for numbers, is very hard, slow work. Getting an engineering degree and a 9-to-5 job pays much better and is a lot easier.
This one's more weird than insane. During my telescope-building phase I constructed a seven-inch unobstructed telescope using an off-axis paraboloidal mirror. While such scopes are extremely rare, that hardly qualifies it for this page. What does is the mount created for it. I had the idea of simply resting the telescope on a surface that would conform to the shape of the telescope's skids so that the scope would be held in whatever position it was placed without the necessity of locking clamps or complicated counterweight systems. The solution was in the bed, which consisted of two sheets of plastic with a thick layer of Crisco (the baking fat) between them. It worked, as far as the telescope was concerned. The problem was that walking on it was like walking on ice covered with oil.
This kite might not seem to qualify as an insane project because while its 8-foot diameter makes it large it's not remarkably so; the fact that it was built on a modified umbrella frame so it could easily collapse is interesting but not amazing; and the 17-point bridle was an expert bit of kite-construction but hardly unique. What makes this kite worthy of being on this page was the cloth cover. It consisted of 215 separate pieces sewed together. This task took over forty hours. The result is stunning, like a stained-glass window floating in the sky.
I built this train out of an old electric car for my grandsons. Instead of a track it runs between a pair of guide rails.
This was an experiment to see in which formula for oatmeal a particular type of worm would grow best. Personally I didn't think this was much of an insane project, but my wife certainly thought so.
So... what else would you expect to happen when you dump 30 pounds of dry ice into a tub of boiling water?
When my son was 2 years old, his grandfather built a motorized carousel for him to ride. Twenty-five years later, my son had a son and the baby's great grandfather and I decided to continue the tradition by building a new carousel. The motor and gear system were scavenged from a cement mixer. The table rotates at 4.5 rpm. The cars have battery powered consoles with steering wheels and lots of buttons that make noise when pressed. Each car also has an old-fashioned squeeze horn.
I've always been fascinated with radio controlled cars. But, I never liked the fact that you couldn't see from the car's point of view. Then one day, while I was walking through the tool section at KMart, I saw a small surveillance TV camera and monitor for only $99 and I realized it was the solution to my problem. I got one and mounted it on an RC car. Now when I send the car out, I watch the monitor and it seems like I'm inside the car. Great! The TV camera also has a audio transmitter so by adding a walky-talky set to receive, I can drive the car up to someone and talk with them. This thing is seriously neat.
Soap bubbles are okay, but they can be hard to see and if the wind isn't right, they fall and break. I solved these problems by feeding an automatic bubble machine a mixture of smoke from a smoke machine and helium from a party-balloon kit from Walmart. The smoke makes the bubbles look like glistening pearls and the helium can be adjusted to make the bubbles float or rise.
This is Wilbur, a 14-foot tall ghost. I made him out of white, disposable plastic tablecloths. He's inflated with a fan in the back. The air exits through his arms which bend and wave. Wilbur never fails to make kids, and adults, smile when I set him up on Halloween.
This poor old photo is the only picture I have of the "Tiki," a thirteen-foot long trimaran sailboat with a square-rigged sail. The blob in front of the sail is my best friend, Gary Cozakos (The same guy that almost got toasted with a flame thrower I built back in high school.). I built the boat when I was in high school. Why is this an insane project? Because everything, including the mast but not the sails and ropes, was made out of cardboard. This picture was taken at Santa Monica Beach in Southern California using a Polaroid camera.
This is a motorized binocular chair. The rider sits behind the round star chart holder and looks through two eyepieces. Toggle switches on the armrests control motors that tilt the chair back, rotate it left and right, move the binoculars back and forth and up and down. The chair even had a heating system to keep the rider warm in cold weather.
A kite I made with a 44-foot wingspan.
This the magnetoplasmadynamic thruster I designed and build while I worked at the Air Force Rocket Propulsion Laboratory at Edwards AFB in California. This type of rocket engine uses electric and magnetic fields to accelerate a plasma (extremely hot gas) to produce thrust. It's advantage is that it uses much less fuel than conventional engines. This type of thruster is probably the closest thing we have right now to the impulse engines on the starship Enterprise of Star Trek fame. This isn't really an insane project like the others, but I thought some of you might enjoy seeing it anyway.
This has to be considered a case of extreme gardening. One fall I got the idea to triple-dig my vegetable garden. (Triple-digging involves digging down three shovel-depths - about 3 feet - and turning the soil so that the dirt that was on the bottom is now on the top. It's the ultimate thing you can do to improve a garden.) At each level I rototilled soil conditioners, fertilizer, and huge amounts of shredded leaves into the soil. The next year the plants seemed to explode out of the ground. The price for this was that all that digging almost did me in. The garden is 60-feet long, 36-feet wide, and 40-inches deep. At a conservative estimate of 100 pounds per square foot, that comes out to 600,000 pounds, or 300 tons, of dirt. It took me six weeks. Ugh.
Before all that digging, I spent a month collecting leaves to improve the soil texture. This is the gizmo that enabled me to collect over 7,000 pounds of shredded leaves. It's a pull-cart with a gas-powered vacuum shredder mounted on it. In one step it vacuums, shreds, and bags the leaves. It's nine-feet tall and as you can imagine, I get quite a few odd looks from the neighbors.
This goes all the way back to third grade. I had the idea of building a model of Boulder Damn out of playing cards. Don't ask me why. It took five decks and four hours to make. I think I needed quite a bit of therapy after this.
In forth grade I graduated to toothpick sculptures. This one was 18-inches high and had several hundred toothpicks in it. Again, more therapy followed.
Twenty years later I still hadn't changed much. You know these little plastic rockets that you fill with water, pump up, then release and the water shoots out pushing the rocket up? This is a giant version. It didn't work very well but in as much as I tried using it on an Air Force Base, it attracted a lot of attention from the security police.
And my most insane project of all is...
...would you believe my website THIS AND THAT , of which this is just one page?
It is, without a doubt the project I've spent the most time and effort on. In eight short years it's grown from a small site to showcase a couple of stories I wrote to a 450-page monster that's visited by over 1,000,000 people a year, and that number's doubling every ten months. Who would have ever thought a hobby could have grown to such proportions or popularity?
That's all! Or rather, that's a small sampling of the many hundreds of projects I've noodled together over the years. I hope you enjoyed them.
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