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291660.  Thu Mar 06, 2008 5:39 pm Reply with quote

Anyone heard of alleged super-fire retardant Starlite?
A virtually indestructible plastic compound created by British inventor Maurice Ward. There is little information about it beyond the contents of a 1993 Jane's International Defence Review article and episodes of British TV series Tomorrow's World and QED from around the same time. ...

Ward originally worked as a hairdresser and ... apparently discovered Starlite by accident when he was playing around with different mixtures of chemicals. He will say nothing about its composition other than that all 21 ingredients are available from one's local supermarket and can be mixed in a blender. ...

Starlite is an insulator, capable of withstanding huge temperatures. Exactly how huge is unclear. Various sources quote figures from 2,700 degrees celsius to 10,000, to an absurd 28,000 +/- ("eight times higher than that at which diamonds melt"). ...

One of the demonstrations of the material on Tommorrow's World involved coating an chicken's egg with Starlite, then heating it for several minutes with an oxyacetylene welding torch. After this, Ward picked the egg straight up with bare hands, cracked it open on the tabletop and poured out the contents - still raw. QED showed an attempt to burn through a piece of the material with a laser, which ended with a ruined laser and an undamaged piece of Starlite. ...

The possibilities for a material like this are staggering. A great deal of insulation currently used could be replaced with a coating of Starlite. It has been speculated that simply painting the inside walls of a house with paint impregnated with particles of Starlite would have a greater insulating effect than any loft insulation or cavity wall insulation currently in use. Reentry insulation for spacecraft could come from Starlite, as well as the obvious military applications - protecting vehicles from the heat of close range explosions and even nuclear detonations (at least, to a greater extent than they would be protected currently). Impregnating fabric with it would be just as useful for fire-fighters as it would be for soldiers.

One of the most interesting aspects of this is that all the corporations Ward initially approached about demonstating his invention replied to his enquiries with a standard "thankyou for your letter, however" brush-off. After the performance of the material had been demonstrated on television many of them, undoubtedly now feeling rather stupid, conducted internal investigations to find out why Ward had been dismissed out of hand. One company, the large chemical conglomerate ICI, included research into its own patent-making department. The research found a roughly inverse relationship between the number of scientific qualifications a chemist had, and the number of patents he or she had contributed to. Those with the most qualifications generally contributed to the fewest patents. In fact, the employee who had contributed to the most of ICI's patents had no scientific qualifications at all!

291680.  Thu Mar 06, 2008 6:24 pm Reply with quote

New on me, certainly.

Have some more pyromanic bits and bobs.

Sources of fuel for illuminatory purposes have included, alongside the better known wax and tallow and suchlike, a couple of sea birds. The fulmar can be made to regurgitate a liquid from its beak which can be used to fuel oil lamps ("when disturbed", the book says, although it doesn;t advise as to how one disturbs a fulmar). The stormy petrel is so incredibly oily that Shetland Islanders used its corpse as a lamp by the simple expedient of shoving a wick down its throat.

S: At Day's Close, A. Roger Ekirch.

291685.  Thu Mar 06, 2008 6:33 pm Reply with quote

Peat has ever been a popular thing to set fire to, once it has been left to dry out sufficiently. One Edward Ward reported in his book A Journey to Scotland in 1699 that "in some parts where turf [i.e. peat] is plentiful, they build up little cabbins thereof... without a stick of timber in it; when the house is dry enough to burn, it serves them for fuel and they move to another."

S: As above.

291686.  Thu Mar 06, 2008 6:40 pm Reply with quote

And faeces have been used to fuel many a fire; the proper technique, it seems, is to make little cakes of poo and straw or sawdust, and leave them to dry out before use. They give, it is alleged, more heat when burned than wood does. A Celia Fiennes of Peterborough reported in 1698 that "the country people use little else", and somebody in Lincolnshire (it doesn't give a date, and I've yet to follow up the reference) was sufficiently struck by the extent to which "dithes", as the poo/straw cakes were known thereabouts, to remark that "the cows shit fire".

S: As above.

291773.  Fri Mar 07, 2008 4:27 am Reply with quote

Flash wrote:
Anyone heard of alleged super-fire retardant Starlite?

Not before today. More information about it on this site:

Includes a description of Ward's lack of desire for commercial exploitation, as well as another inventor, Canadian Troy Hurtubise, who has, apparently, also created a heat proof substance and also refuses to allow it to be commercially exploited.

Maurice Ward has his own website though it contains no useful information.

Troy Hurtubise sounds like a pretty odd character from his Wikipedia entry. Apart from an obsession with bears, he's apparently demonstrated his "firepaste" on himself by placing a thin mask of the material over his face and then aiming a blowtorch at it. He's also revealed that one of the secret ingredients for it is Diet Coke.

291839.  Fri Mar 07, 2008 5:47 am Reply with quote

Flash, you'll be unsurprised to hear that I was already familiar with this story. However the only factoid that I can add to your post is that Maurice Ward's only previous chemical experience was as a forklift truck driver at an ICI warehouse.

s: Far Out, Mark Pilkington

291931.  Fri Mar 07, 2008 7:20 am Reply with quote

Ive been wondering - following a query from a reader of my FT column - whether the smoke signals we see in Western films ever existed; was it really possible to send sophisticated messages by flapping a blanket over a bonfire?

I know Flash has some thoughts on this, so I thought Id just stick it up here to see if anyone had any info.

291942.  Fri Mar 07, 2008 7:29 am Reply with quote

My understanding of that one is that First Nations / Native American people did use smoke signals, but in a rather more limited way than is portrayed in the movies.

One lump of smoke for "much treasure, come at once", and two lumps of smoke for "under attack, come even more quickly than that" was I think about as sophisticated as it got. I've a feeling the ancient Chinese did something of the kind as well - I'll look a couple of things up a bit later.

291982.  Fri Mar 07, 2008 8:30 am Reply with quote

Yes, that's my understanding too. It would be a good topic to explore, I think.

"Come quickly, my teepee is on fire" is presumably one message you might want to send.

291994.  Fri Mar 07, 2008 8:42 am Reply with quote

"I'm trying to put it out with my blanket but it seems to be making it worse!"

292122.  Fri Mar 07, 2008 11:32 am Reply with quote

The Straight Dope article on Jungle Drums has this:
Some Native American tribes did use smoke signals, particularly on the plains or in the southwest, where the sky was usually clear and the view unobstructed. But the message was pretty basic. An army captain in the 1860s writes: "Apache smoke signals are of various kinds, each one significant of a particular object. A sudden puff, rising from the mountain heights . . . indicates the presence of a strange party upon the plain below. If these puffs are rapidly repeated they are a warning that the strangers are well armed and numerous. If a steady smoke is maintained for some time, the object is to collect the scattered bands of savages at some designated point, with hostile intention, should it be practicable." Other means of signaling included fires (at night), gesticulating with blankets, or reflecting the sun off mirrors.

292126.  Fri Mar 07, 2008 11:36 am Reply with quote

Whatever the Injuns did, the Cardinals use smoke signals when electing a Pope:
Once all of the ballots have been opened, the final post-scrutiny phase begins. The Scrutineers add up all of the votes, and the Revisers check the ballots and the names on the Scrutineers' lists to ensure that no error was made. The ballots are then all burnt by the Scrutineers with the assistance of the Secretary of the College and the Masters of Ceremonies. If the first scrutiny held in any given morning or afternoon does not result in an election, the cardinals proceed to the next scrutiny immediately; the papers from both scrutinies are burnt together at the end of the second scrutiny. The colour of the smoke signals the results to the people assembled in St Peter's Square. Dark smoke signals that the ballot did not result in an election, while white smoke signals that a new Pope was chosen. Originally, damp straw was added to the fire to create dark smoke; since 1958 chemicals have been used, and since 2005 bells ring after a successful election in case the white smoke is not unambiguously white.


292876.  Sun Mar 09, 2008 11:59 am Reply with quote

An earlier fire retardant than Starlite, if perhaps a trifle less effective, was to bury the stomach of a black hen, an egg laid on Maundy Thursday and a shirt soaked in the menstrual blood of a virgin, all bound with wax beneath one's threshold. This was supposed, in early modern Swabia. to prevent the place from burning down, although I confess I'm not wholly sure as to why.

S: At Day's Close.

Molly Cule
293366.  Mon Mar 10, 2008 1:19 pm Reply with quote

The Olympic Torch is always lit by the light of the sun reflected off a parabolic mirror.

First time it was run from Olympia by relay was the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. It was part of an attempt to turn the games into the glorification of the 3rd Riech.

Interesting methods of transportation include by Native American canoe, by camel, by Concorde, underwater by divers near the Great Barrier Reef and by radio in 1976 the fire was turned into a radio signal transmitted from Athens to Ottowa, where it triggered a laser beam to re-light the flame.
s - Olympic Museum Laussane

294055.  Tue Mar 11, 2008 12:08 pm Reply with quote

Linking to the parabolic mirror which supposedly set fire to Greek ships. More on that later.

Mean time, Arron has followed up on the question of why candles go out when you blow them - apparently it's the sudden drop in temperature. How those funny ones which re-light themselves work needs checking next.


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