IJMC - Global Thermonuclear Picnic?
Nope, it's not WarGames, the Web Site (betchya could find one in less
than five minutes...), just another Dave Barry skit. He's got us
engineers on this one, yipes. How to beat that time? Oh well, I'll think
about it another day. Would you like to play a game? -dave
by Dave Barry
The Boston Globe Magazine - June 25, 1995
Today's culinary topic is: how to light a charcoal fire. Everybody loves a
backyard barbecue. For some reason, food just seems to taste better when
it has been cooked outdoors, where flies can lay eggs on it. But there's
nothing worse than trying to set fire to a pile of balky charcoal.
The average back-yard chef, wishing to cook hamburgers, tries to ignite the
charcoal via the squirt, light, and wait method, wherein you squirt lighter
fluid on a pile of briquettes, light the pile, then wait until they have
turned a uniform gray color. When I say "they have turned a uniform
gray color," I am referring to the hamburgers. The briquettes will remain
as cold and lifeless as Leonard Nimoy. The backyard chef will keep this up
- squirting, lighting, waiting; squirting, lighting, waiting - until the
bacterial level in the side dishes has reached the point where the potato
salad rises up from its bowl, Bloblike, and attempts to mate with the corn.
This is the signal that it's time to order Chinese food.
The problem is that modern charcoal, manufactured under strict consumer
safety guidelines, is one of the least-flammable substances on Earth. On
more than one occasion, quick-thinking individuals have extinguished a raging
house fire by throwing charcoal on it. Your back-yard chef would be just as
successful trying to ignite a pile of rocks.
Is there a solution? Yes. There happens to be a technique that is
guaranteed to get your charcoal burning very, very quickly, although you
should not attempt this technique unless you meet the following criterion:
You are a complete idiot.
I found out about this technique from alert reader George Rasko, who sent me a
letter describing something he came across on the World Wide Web, a computer
network that you should definitely learn more about, because as you read these
words, your 11-year-old is downloading pornography from it.
By hooking into the World Wide Web, you can look at a variety of
electronic "pages," consisting of documents, pictures, and videos created
by people all over the world. One of these is a guy named (really) George
Goble, a computer person in the Purdue University engineering department.
Each year, 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
"We started by blowing the charcoal with a hair dryer," Goble told me in 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 know 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 an
acetylene torch. Then Goble started using compressed pure oxygen, which caused
the charcoal to burn much faster, because as you recall from chemistry class,
fire is essentially the rapid combination of oxygen with the cosine to form the
Tigris and Euphrates rivers (or something along those lines).
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
zero 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 Gobel's
World Wide Web page (the address is http://ghg.ecn.purdue.edu/), 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
in stores) onto a grill containing 60 pounds of charcoal and a lit
cigarette 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 be 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
Looking at Goble's video and photos, I became, as an American, all choked 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 producing guys who can be
ready to barbecue in less time than it takes for guys in less-advanced
nations, such as France, to spit.