I was fortunate enough to be born with an insatiable curiosity. As a kid growing up in my father’s auto repair shop, I would always be taking things apart to try and deduce how they worked. Having the myriad of tools required to diagnose and fix the technological marvel that is the modern automobile only enhanced that process. I’m sure I simultaneously made my father proud and drove him crazy as some of the things I got my hands on weren’t meant to end up in neatly sorted piles on his office floor.
With the drive to understand came the desire to create. While exploring a dusty corner of the shop during my early teens, I stumbled upon a flint-fired potato cannon an uncle had built years before. I was undeterred when the thing exploded into a hundred pieces on the second firing attempt, though I did learn the importance of hearing and eye protection. Understanding the failure modes of my experiments was also added to the checklist, as having a full set of hands made what I was trying to do just a little bit easier. After several weeks of research online, frequent trips to the local hardware store, and pilfering some tools from my dad, my shiny new PVC potato cannon was ready to fire. I loaded a balled-up rag in the barrel, filled the firing chamber with a blast of brake cleaner, and pulled the trigger on the piezoelectric igniter.
The rag accelerated out of the barrel and fell to the floor 10 feet away, but that was enough to prove to me that the thing worked. The rest of the summer was spent making incremental upgrades to the potato cannon, in between various sports camps and helping out at the auto shop. By the end of the summer I had added multiple ignition sources within the firing chamber, upgraded to a metered propane fuel source and calculated the stoichiometric ratio, and even found someone online who sold me a rifled PVC barrel. All in the pursuit of sending some poor potato further than the last.
I’ve since moved on from my beloved spud gun, but the joys of iterative prototyping have always stuck with me. I like to think that the most important lesson I learned during that wild summer was that significant improvement didn’t always come in leaps, but rather it was the accumulation of small incremental steps that would lead to great things. I constantly try to apply that philosophy not only in my work, but also in my life.