BILTONG dryers, pulse jets and soccer brawls: just do it (June 2010 issue)

BILTONG dryers, pulse jets and soccer brawls: just do it (June 2010 issue)
Date:20 May 2010 Tags:, , , , ,

Popular Mechanics readers love doing things for themselves. They’re the sort of people who weld stuff for fun, get excited about new apps for their cellphones, use old washing machine motors to power their lawnmowers, and become extremely embarrassed when they have to call out a technician to fix their computer.

That’s not to say they’re techno nerds who never venture far from their garages or workstations. What makes these people special is their willingness to learn, to acquire new skills, to embrace change rather than feel threatened by it. People like Grant Immelman, who holds down a perfectly good day job but gets really excited when he tackles DIY projects from scratch.

Drawing on a fair amount of experience with tools, a dollop of lateral thinking and a good understanding of How Things Work, he built our affordable biltong dryer in less than half a day (see page 86).

Then there’s the gang (and we use the term advisedly) from New York’s Madagascar Institute – a bunch of mechanical pranksters who delight in loud bangs and far-out machines that defy logic. Would you believe a carousel powered by a fire-spewing pulse jet? Founder Chris Hackett, interestingly scarred by a dozen years of scrapes and explosions, believes anything is possible, explaining his philosophy thus: “Let’s say you want to make a death-dealing machine or recreation of the Hindenberg disaster. You have your crazy idea, and everything you need to make it a reality is here – skills, tools, people to work with. The only thing stopping your idea from becoming reality is your own lazy ass.”


A few weeks ago, I found an old black-and-white photograph dating back to my junior school days, a time when soccer ruled and disputes were generally settled by wrestling bouts or threats of vengeance from older siblings. It was a group shot of the B team, with me grinning in the front row – hair fashionably short, nose shamelessly freckled, knees bearing the evidence of several vicious encounters in the goal mouth.

Not visible in the picture were a fair number of bruises attributable to fights on the field, most of them resulting from slights to my honour (that is, people kicking me on the shins and calling me names while I was trying to score). Sadly, my entire soccer career – I think it lasted two or three years – remained unencumbered by anything resembling rules. I ventured offside whenever I saw a gap, handled the ball with abandon and sucker-punched my opponents when they made me mad, which was most of the time.

But that’s as far as it went. I never once hugged a teammate, faked an injury or expressed an interest in marrying a perky model named Traci with an attention span not dissimilar to that of a pebble. Nor did I contemplate moving to a rival team for the price of a small jetliner. In other words, the soccer credentials of PM’s editor are pretty dodgy.

That acknowledged, as South Africa gears up (and pays up) for the Sporting Event That Shall Not Be Named, we are happy to provide a backgrounder on the physics that enables top players to perform apparent miracles – often without realising how they did it. We’ve included one mildly frightening equation in the article, but for the most part it’s harmless and actually quite interesting.

Former Liverpool manager Bill Shankly once said: “Football is not about life or death. It is more important than that.” He makes a good point: as kick-off approaches, we find the most unlikely people being caught up in the excitement, some of them going so far as to buy a vuvuzela – a cultural weapon used to devastating effect at parties in the house next door to mine.

Enjoy, and if you must blow your horn, please do so inside the stadium.

– Alan Duggan (

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