The Grandfather of the Potato Cannon

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Waldo  Lonsbury SemonWaldo  Lonsbury Semon

Waldo Lonsbury Semon

Ten years ago today, Waldo Semon died. He was 101 years old. I never met Waldo, but I, like GeekDads worldwide, owe him a debt of gratitude. Here’s why.

By far, the most popular parent-child project in my book, Backyard Ballistics, is the potato cannon project. And, I can see why. It’s easy to understand, cheap to build, and the results are spectacular. So, this begs the question: who first invented it?

I’ve tried to figure it out, without a lot of success. Perhaps another GeekDad knows the answer. But I do know who invented the hard, white, Poly-Vinyl-Chloride plastic used to build most spud guns.

It was invented in 1926 by a scientist named Waldo Semon. At the time, Semon was a young research scientist working for the BF Goodrich Company in Akron, Ohio.

Shortly after the end of World War I, Goodrich determined that a low cost, high performance rubber substitute was a product with enormous economic potential. Since Semon was one their best scientists, company management instructed him to begin work to find a better behaved, less expensive type of man-made rubber.

During extensive research, Semon came upon the work of earlier scientists who had developed a substance called the “Oil of Dutch Chemists.” Another chemist, he found, created a gas called vinyl chloride from the Dutch Oil. He felt the stuff had potential and so, he started experimenting with vinyl polymers (polymers are organic substances with very large molecules). Purportedly, Semon endured several lab explosions and rather dicey near misses. Finally, his chemical experimentation yielded a hot powder that when cooled, turned into a flexible but tough gel. This was the first ever batch of PVC or poly-vinyl-chloride. The rest is spud gun history.

Interestingly, Semon took the more pleasure out of another invention that was far less well known – polymer based bubble gum. “It looked just like ordinary gum, except that it would blow these great big bubbles,” he once said. However, it was never marketed because B.F. Goodrich thought that nobody would buy it. (Normal bubble gum was invented in 1928 by Walter Diemer, an accountant at the Fleer Chewing Gum Company in Philadelphia.)

Potato cannons and their relations have been built from steel or aluminum pipe, or other types of plastic, or even reinforced fabric tubing. But PVC is the most popular. And so, the quiet, dedicated corporate scientist, Waldo Lonsbury Semon, the inventor of PVC can rightfully be considered “the Father of the Spud Gun.”

Bill Gurstelle loves his guest blogging stint on GeekDad. His new book Absinthe and Flamethrowers: Projects and Ruminations on the Art of Living Dangerously is on sale here!

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