When I was little, I saw that it was possible to make windmill-driven generators. I figured this would be pretty neat, so I made a tower, and topped it with a pivoting arrangement of an electric motor serving as a generator and bearing, along with a set of blades cut out of cans, and a tail fin to make it point into the wind.

I took it outside to give it a spin, and it spun around nicely, and even pointed into the wind, but didn't spin enough to generate any measurable electricity. I played with the blade pitch, curvature, and washout, to no avail.

From time to time, I'd haul it out into the yard and try again, whenever it seemed like a windy day.

One day, I saw a lot of wind, so I eagerly grabbed it and ran outside to see if I could make some electricity. Sure enough, it started to dimly light a flashlight bulb! Success! Then one of the blades got bent straight back by the wind! The whole spinning rig commenced to wobbling wildly, and one by one, all of the blades got bent straight back. I was there in the yard, trying to straighten the blades and think of a way to reinforce them without taking too much time when my mom showed up at the door, yelling "You get inside right now! Don't you know there's a hurricane!"


When I worked at the particle beam lab, we had a large electron injector about the size and weight of a locomotive. It had a large Marx high voltage generator in the back, which lived in a dumpster-sized tank of high voltage transformer oil, open on top. In order to position it for various experiments, it could be floated on air pads pressurized by compressed air, and pushed around by hydraulic cylinders.

One day, the hydraulic system failed, but it needed to be moved. The researcher figured we could fire up the air pads, making it essentially frictionless, and round up some physics grad students to simply push it into position.

We got everybody lined up along the back of the thing, turned on the air pads, and we started pushing. It didn't seem to budge, as it was quite heavy, so everybody kept pushing, not realizing that we were continuing to accelerate this huge mass (it's physics!). After a while, its motion was perceptible, so we stopped pushing. It crept across the equipment bay at a stately pace, until it hit the stops and ... stopped. The thousands of gallons of transformer oil, however, didn't. In a giant, slow motion slosh, the transformer oil started to pour over the front. Then it got sucked into the air pads, became atomized, and formed a thin, strange-smelling fog and making everything slippery.

That's when folks suddenly remembered that the exotic high voltage transformer oil was distinctly unhealthy, as well as capable of dissolving all sorts of rubber and plastic compounds - such as the soles of our shoes. We all got out of there, massively chagrined.



November 2013

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