Hamburgers, anyone?

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 charcoal-lighting

"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,
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 a refund."

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.

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
of us to ponder this summer as we sit outside, chewing our hamburgers,
every now and then glancing in the direction of West Lafayette, Indiana,
looking for a mushroom cloud.

>From John Nunley's "Funny Bone"

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This message was sent on 27 Sep 1996