engineers at play

duck (
Sat, 14 Jun 1997 11:26:26 -0400 (EDT)


All I wanted was a frankfurter...

Each year, George Goble and a bunch of other engineers hold a picnic in West
Lafayette, Indiana, at which they cook hamburgers on a big grill. Being
engineers, they began looking for practical ways to speed up the
charcoal-lighting process.

"We started by blowing the charcoal with a hair dryer, " Goble told me
a telephone interview "Then we figured out that it would light faster if
we used a vacuum cleaner."

If you know anything about (1) engineers and (2) guys in general, you
what happened: The purpose of the charcoal-lighting shifted from cooking
hamburgers to seeing how fast they could light the charcoal.

>From the vacuum cleaner, they escalated to using a propane torch, then
acetylene torch. Then Goble started using compressed pure oxygen, which
caused the charcoal to burn much faster.

By this point, Goble was getting pretty good times. But in the world of
competitive charcoal-lighting, "pretty good" does not cut the mustard.
Thus, Goble hit upon the idea of using - get ready - liquid oxygen. This
is the form of oxygen used in rocket engines; it's 295 degrees below
and 600 times as dense as regular oxygen. In terms of releasing energy,
pouring liquid oxygen on charcoal is the equivalent of throwing a live
squirrel into a room containing 50 million Labrador retrievers. On
World Wide Web page (the address is, you can
see actual photographs and a video of Goble using a bucket attached to a
10 foot long wooden handle to dump 3 gallons of liquid oxygen (not sold
stores) onto a grill containing 60 pounds of charcoal and a lit
for ignition.

What follows is the most impressive charcoal-lighting I have ever seen,
featuring a large fireball that, according to Goble, reached 10,000
degrees Fahrenheit. The charcoal was ready for cooking in - this has to
a world record - 3 seconds.

There's also a photo of what happened when Goble used the same technique
on a flimsy $2.88 discount store grill. All that's left is a circle of
charcoal with a few shreds of metal in it. "Basically, the grill
vaporized," said Goble. "We were thinking of returning it to the store
for a refund."

Looking at Goble's video and photos, I became, as an American, all
up with gratitude at the fact that I do not live anywhere near the
engineers' picnic site. But also, I was proud of my country for
guys who can be ready to barbecue in less time than it takes for guys in
less-advanced nations, such as France, to spit.

Will the 3-second barrier ever be broken? Will engineers come up with a
new, more powerful charcoal-lighting technology? It's something for all
us to ponder this summer as we sit outside, chewing our hamburgers,
now and then glancing in the direction of West Layfayette, Indiana,
looking for a mushroom cloud.

****** "His narrative style was like parallel parking on a busy street:
he proceeded in fits and starts, backed up, edged forward, backed up, while
other ideas zoomed past close at hand."

- Melissa Fay Greene