The Heirs Of Rube Goldberg

By Peter Carlson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Hey, wouldn't it be cool to make a cannon that can shoot a potato a couple hundred yards?

And wouldn't it be cool to put a motor on a shopping cart and see how fast that sucker can go?

And wouldn't it be really cool to hook up your living room couch to a device that makes it shake whenever there's an explosion on the TV show you're watching?

If your answers to those questions are "yes!" and "awesome!" and "duuuude!" the chances are good that you are:

a) male

b) gloriously immature and

c) a potential reader of Make magazine.

Make is the quarterly publication that tells its readers how to do all those things -- and much, much more!

"Make is a new magazine dedicated to showing how to make technology work for you," editor and publisher Dale Dougherty wrote in the premiere issue, which appeared in February.

Anybody wondering just what Dougherty meant could turn to Page 50 of that issue to find a 33-page article that revealed how to build a gizmo that takes aerial photographs using a disposable camera, a kite, rubber bands, Popsicle sticks, fishing line, a toothpick and Silly Putty.

Silly Putty?

That's right. It's used, believe it or not, in the contraption's timing mechanism.

Make is a magazine for geeks, gearheads, hackers, do-it-yourselfers and other folks who feel an uncontrollable compulsion to take machines apart and use the pieces to do the kind of things the manufacturer's warranty warns that you should never, ever do. That's why Make is one of the few magazines that come with a warning:

"Some of the projects described may not work, may be inconsistent with current laws or user agreements, or may damage or adversely affect some equipment. . . . Use of the instructions and suggestions in Make is at your own risk."

This warning goes on and on, but it neglects to caution readers about one key point: Many of Make's projects are extremely difficult to execute and require a lot of skill and hours of work. The great American word "E-Z" is apparently not in Make's vocabulary.

The current issue, Make No. 3, contains instructions on how to "create spooky haunted house special effects!" These special effects involve lights, motors, fog machines and a scary soundtrack. Sounds like fun, doesn't it?

And maybe it is. But be forewarned: The materials required to create this wild, wacky Halloween hoopla include such common household items as "120VAC solid state relays" and "470-ohm resistors" and a "24-pin DIP (dual inline package) plug with displacement connection."

After you gather up all that stuff -- and more -- all you have to do is follow the six pages of simple directions, which read like this: "Use the multimeter to see which pins on the D-subminiature parallel port connector correspond to which pins on the DIP plug." If you can understand that, you can build something that looks to my untutored eye like the control panel of a nuclear reactor.

In other words, unless you really enjoy fiddling with electronics, you'd probably be better off just putting a sheet over your head and jumping out of the bushes yelling "Boo!"

This issue also includes an article on how to turn used cooking oil into a fuel that can power a diesel engine. Now this is a truly ingenious idea: Americans can use the stuff that clogs our arteries to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. Perfect!

Unfortunately, the process of making a single liter takes six hours over three days. It requires distilled water, lye, vinegar, Heet, Iso-Heet, a metric gram scale, syringes, safety glasses and gloves. And if you make a mistake, you could start a fire or suck up a lungful of poison gas or ruin your car's engine.

Hmmm, maybe I'll stick to the stuff that comes out of the pump.

To tell the truth, Make's "VCR Cat Feeder" doesn't sound like a particularly great idea either. The magazine shows you how to use a video recorder motor, timer and an auger from an old meat grinder to create a machine that will feed your cat once a day when you're away. But I couldn't help thinking , Gee, when I had a cat, I just put the food in a bowl and went away and she ate a little bit every day.

Maybe I just don't have the Make mind-set. For some reason, I have no desire to hook two shaking devices to my couch and attach them to my DVD sound system, as described in Make No. 2, so that my butt will start vibrating during the battle scene at the end of "Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers."

Riding in a motorized shopping cart does sound like fun. But only until you read this comment by a guy who actually did it: "When we took it out for a test-drive, in a semi-choked position, the torque the motor generated was too much and it would flip the cart over."

But I've got to admit that at least one of Make's gizmos is pure genius: the potato cannon. They've updated this classic boy toy so that not only can it shoot potatoes 200 yards but it has a clear barrel so you can see the ignition blast!

Ah, what fun it would be to while away the warm summer evenings sitting out in the back yard with a six-pack of beer, bombarding the neighborhood with flying potatoes. This is the kind of simple human pleasure that makes life worth living.

And the cannon seems pretty easy to construct, at least by Make standards. All you need are a few simple household items: potatoes, a PVC pipe, glue, tape, screws, a can of Right Guard aerosol deodorant and a stun gun.

What? You say you don't have any stun guns around the house? What are you, some kind of wimp?

There's just one problem: "Potato cannons," Make reports, "may not be legal in your area."

No! Say it ain't so! It's an outrage! What ever happened to the Constitution? Doesn't it give us the inalienable right to bear potato cannons?

I'm mad as hell and I'm not gonna take it anymore! They'll get my potato when they pry it from my cold dead fingers!

© 2005 The Washington Post Company