Danger Is My Middle Name

Last week, [Al Williams] wrote up a his experience with a book that provided almost too much detailed information on how to build a DIY x-ray machine for his (then) young soul to bear. He almost had to build it! Where the “almost” is probably both a bummer because he didn’t have an x-ray machine as a kid, but also a great good because it was a super dangerous build, of a typical sort for the 1950s in which it was published.

Part of me really loves the matter-of-factness with which “A Boy’s First Book of Linear Accelerators” tells you how you (yes you!) can build a 500 kV van der Graff generator. But at the same time, modern me does find the lack of safety precautions in many of these mid-century books to be a little bit spooky. Contrast this with modern books where sometimes I get the feeling that the publisher’s legal team won’t let us read about folding paper airplanes for fear of getting cut.

A number of us have built dangerous projects in our lives, and many of us have gotten away with it. Part of the reason that many of us are still here is that we understood the dangers, but I would be lying if I said that I always fully understood them. But thinking about the dangers is still our first and best line of defense. Humility about how well you understand all of the dangers of a certain project is also very healthy – if you go into it keeping an eye out for the unknown unknowns, you’re in better shape.

Safety isn’t avoiding danger, but rather minimizing it. When we publish dangerous hacks, we really try to at least highlight the most important hazards so that you know what to look out for. And over the years, I’ve learned a ton of interesting safety tricks from the comments and fellow hackers alike. My ideal, then, is the spirit of the 1950s x-ray book, which encourages you to get the hack built, but modernized so that it tells you where the dangers lie and how to handle them. If you’re shooting electrons, shouldn’t the book also tell you how to stay out of the way?

75 thoughts on “Danger Is My Middle Name

  1. I remember reading about old book lacking safety warnings. “The Radioactive Boy Scout” tells about a boy in Michigan who caused major incident when he was seeking elements.

    1. he didn’t just seek out the elements, the boy had created a full blown reaction chamber that failed containment. It irradiated his entire neighborhood!

      I was always told, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” The kid took it to a whole new level I dare not go.

  2. Publishing dangerous hacks for experienced adults is one thing. Publishing dangerous hacks for kids “where you tell them how to avoid getting hurt” is another thing entirely.

    Teaching a kid to solder has the total risk of a few burns and the very small possibility that with a great deal of effort and no supervision you could burn the house down. Possible but hard. I learned at 6 or 7. And that was before they were equipped with shutoffs and other safety features.

    Writing a kids book on how to build, say, a Farnsworth Fusor and then warning them to be sure they have adequate shielding strikes me as more than a little irresponsible.

      1. My dad: Nitroglycerin is insanely dangerous. nitrocellulose is much safer.
        Also dad: Don’t tell mom I told you any of this. I’m sworn to secrecy. So don’t rat, our secret. Your mom just don’t get explosives. Don’t judge, everybody has some sort of mental defect.

        To be fair to my dad. I was plenty old enough to be building ‘firecrackers’. I was 12 or 13 before I got caught and he redirected my efforts towards the reloading aisle/away from fuming acids.

    1. You had a good childhood, it seems.
      I can relate to the soldering station thing.

      I had used a Weller TCP-24 at that age.
      It had no realnelectronics, but a simple temperature control and a safety transformer.

      And I burnt myself a couple of times on the hand, too.
      That way, I had learned to cope with pain.

      Anyway, I don’t mean to glorify things.
      Safety measures are generally good, if it’s not wrapping kids into a bubble.

      Wearing a helmet while riding a bike is no sign of weakness or an exaggeration, for example.
      It can make a difference between life and death.

      Many older generations don’t want to realize this, however.
      They think it’s nonsense.

      Likewise, glass wool (esp. older type) and asbestos can ruin our lungs.
      So it’s better to take them serious.

      Then there’s electronics.
      Cheap phone chargers have an 50/60 Hz AC component on the 5v DC side.
      If a teen takes his/her phone into the bath tub, it can be deadly to the heart.

      Then there are other things than can easily catch fire.
      That’s why it’s good that smoke detectors are being required in homes now.

      Same goes for the RCD in the fuse box.
      It’s good that it’s there as a standard now.

      On the other hand, living in a too safe environment can be dangerous.

      If the house is too clean, the immune system doesn’t get properly trained.
      Now, if there’s an unplanned infection, the immune system gets overrun easily.

      Same goes for kids playing outside.
      Back in 20th century, kids played outside and did occasionally get hurt.
      Scratches, a bruise, a strain..

      That wasn’t great, of course, but it was natural. Kids learned to cope with injuries and it was good for their mental development.

      Of course, our parents weren’t completely without worries here.
      A bite by a pet or a strain were worth a visit at the doctor.

      A vaccination against tetanus or diphtheria were to be considered, too.
      Allergies were also a factor. Like if a relative had allergies against a specific type of vaccine.

      But all in all, kids were still allowed to be kids.
      They had the opportunity to learn through their failures and stories of success.

      1. >Wearing a helmet while riding a bike is no sign of weakness or an exaggeration, for example.
        >It can make a difference between life and death.

        The risk is statistically greater for people who walk, so by the same token you should be wearing a walking helmet. If you won’t, why would you wear a cycling helmet either? Double standards?


    2. My father taught me to solder at the age of 3, much to the chagrin of my mother. “He’ll burn himself!” she cried. “Yup,” said dad, “but he’s not gonna disfigure himself and he’ll learn to be more careful after that.” I did not significantly burn myself until age 8, and that was when my dad was teaching me to oxy-acetylene weld. And that was on our “Mighty Mouse” small carnival roller coaster he had acquired from some farmer where it was rusting in the field and we were currently restoring and rebuilding it in the back yard, yet again much to the chagrin of my mother.

  3. I wish modern safety warnings weren’t written by the legal department as they don’t say -how- this can hurt you. Yes it’s obvious to the person replying how a cut off wheel will snap when used in flexible metal, or how a table saw will kickback or grab you, but it’s not obvious to first time diyers. Saying “Using this tool may result in dismemberment or death” doesn’t inform the user how to use said tool without getting hurt.

    1. that’s by design. By including the “hows” they open themselves to litigation because “I got hurt by something not on your list”. By being vague they are being generic and thus are more protected by legal action.

      For example, the phrase “Caution – Contents Hot” doesn’t necessarily describe what the contents are nor how hot they are. The lack of context is by design.

        1. lawyers aren’t the problem.

          Judges are the problem. The expectation was set by weak courts that claim, through action, they will listen to all cases regardless of frivolity. In one hand, the court is obligated to hear every case. In the other, the court is obligated to reject frivolous court cases in the spirit of protecting the public interest and tax payer contributions.

          Just because lil Jimmy took big Jim’s screwdriver and jammed it into his retina doesn’t mean that big Jim can claim ScrewU Inc. liable for not designing a product that cannot be inserted into your retina. The case should be thrown out on the merit the tool was not being used for its intended purpose.

          However in the case of the plaintiff that spilled hot coffee on her crotch, the defendant was indeed at fault considering the temperature of the beverage was nearing 200F when it should have been closer to 100F. The case was to prove the defendant was negligent in protecting the plaintiff from a defective product.

          Intent and culpability are always are the front of every injury claim. Was the product being used for its intended purpose? Is the manufacturer culpable due to a defect in its design that caused unnecessary harm to the consumer? Did the plaintiff take all measurable precautions when handling the product in the appropriate way?

          My point is, Lawyers are paid to protect the interests of their client. Judges don’t need to make a judgement on every case and ultimately can throw them out, but lawyers must represent their clients or risk losing their right to practice.

          IMO I think judges should get yearly scores on their performance that are publicly shared to show how closely their rulings aligned with public interests. So many failing scores would require them to be under performance reviews and possibly criminal investigation by a federal oversight agency. Ultimately leading to termination or imprisonment.

          1. In America a big part of the problem is also the private medical system. When you’re saddled with a bankruptcy-causing hospital bill because someone tipped a scalding beverage onto your most intimate of intimates, you have to sue.

            That’s also how we get those ‘worst aunt in the world’ shock news stories about someone suing their nephew for hugging them too hard.

            No, the lawyers aren’t going to leave a dime on the table if they can help it, but it’s the adversarial system that was set up in the first place that gets them involved.

          2. No. Lawyers are the problem.

            There is no way to avoid the job of a Judge. Someone needs to make judgement calls and decide what happens.

            But Lawyers?
            The ‘mechanical essence’ of what their job does, is to find loopholes and twist words for the benefit of their clients.

            Sometimes that is a good thing. A good lawyer will work for the benefit of their client even if they believe they murdered someone. Sometimes that client is innocent despite what the lawyer believes.

            On the other hand, using loopholes and twisting words so a company can avoid some regulation or responsibility is abhorrent.

            There is a reason being called a [something]Lawyer isn’t a complement.
            It means you are abusing the rules for your own benefit, despite the clear intent of those rules.

          3. Judges nor lawyers are the problem.
            The general population is the problem.
            Being stupid, doing stupid things and then trying to get compensation for something that happened to them by their own stupidity.

        2. “The world needs fewer lawyers.”

          A good friend–and a really good lawyer with a great sense of humor–has the solution for this: have all lab researchers switch from using white rats to using lawyers–instead of the rats–for their research. There are three compelling reasons to implement this change:
          1) there are more lawyers than white rats;
          2) there is no possibility whatever that the researchers will develop any type of emotional attachment to the lawyers;
          3) there are some things that a white rat simply will not do.

          1. Joke is older than the internet.

            The solution is simple, ban lawyers form holding public office.

            Politicians in the USA are mostly lawyers.
            ALL the worst are.
            They write laws to benefit other lawyers.
            It is simple.

    2. I misread you there and wondered who wasn’t a first time dier…

      But yeah, 100% tell me why it’s dangerous so I can work out how to control the risk.

      Some stuff does – I recently picked up some climbing kit and it tells you not to tie carabiners onto straps – because it can give the false impression they’re secure when you’ve actually looped the strap the wrong way and it’s no longer through the carabiner. Helpful.

    3. I’m not suggesting we kill stupid people, but just quit all these ridiculous warning labels and let nature (and Darwin) take it’s course. If that guy wants to make toast in the bathtub, let him try.
      You cannot buy an extension cord now with less than 3 separate warning tags. I bought a new monitor recently. The user manual was one page. The book full of legalese was 67 pages.

      1. I am!

        Did you know you can make an amazing cleaning solution by mixing Bleach and Ammonia?
        It’s great, your going to want a lot, so get the largest containers available.
        Also: Reaction is inhibited by light, so mix in small room.

        Do it now!
        Before bad orange man bans it!

  4. Are Al and Elliot Williams related?
    Or is Elliot simply Al’s alter-ego?
    Or is Al really not A-L but A-i in a hard to discern font?
    And where is their sister?
    Enquiring minds want to know…

    1. Before she start to learn to drive a car, my daughter made many forced landings in an aircraft, flew in loose formation with other aircraft, and deliberately caused it to “depart from controlled flight” at 1000ft AGL.

      That was all.done by instructors showing her the warning signs, and showing how to recover when “eventualities” such as engine failure occurred.

      She still thought I wrapped her in cotton wool, until she saw what other people hadn’t done :)

      Go gliding!

        1. No, it’s a good example. Water can only get so hot, and restaurants should be able to serve coffee made from water that’s just been boiled (because this is how coffee is made). People talk about this case like she was somehow served coffee at 500 celsius or something. It’s nuts. Don’t spill your drink, and if you do, maybe get it off of you before you slow-cook your flesh. Total skill issue on the woman’s part.

          1. How coffee is made depends. If you make a pot of coffee in a normal drip coffee maker, sure, the water goes in at 200 F but by the time all of the water has dripped through the coffee grounds and collected in the pot, it’s more like 150 F. Hot, but not scalding 3rd degree burns hot.

            When you have an “industrial” coffee maker that brews the coffee at 200 F and immediately extrudes it out into a cup without cooling it down, that’s a recipe for disaster.

      1. What are we missing? McDonalds’ coffee hot. Lady spill coffee. Lady get burned. It McDonalds’ fault. Yes… I read that the coffee sold there was hotter than other restaurants. So what? Did you know that residential coffee makers heat the water to ~200°? Recommended temperature to serve coffee is 165-185°. DOUBLE the temperature McDonalds served that coffee. There is ABSOLUTELY no defense for that case.

        Did you see where a mother sued a fireworks manufacturer because her son died launching a firework from the top of his head? Because there wasn’t a warning label on there telling him not to!!!!

        Did you know that someone just sued an AUTO insurance company because she got an STD from a guy while having sex in the car with him?

        1. >DOUBLE the temperature
          Since temperature ratios are only meaningful w/r/t absolute zero, this would make McDonalds coffee cooler than dry ice.

          But setting that pedantry aside, I believe you’re confusing °F and °C.

          1. You are correct. I did see °C on the lawsuit and not the °F. But.. that doesn’t negate the fact that McDonalds coffee is STILL cooler than the temperature of coffee from a home coffee maker. And even more so if you boil water for instant coffee instead.

        2. Bullshit.
          Takeout coffee is hot, so that it’s still hot when you get to destination.

          The original narrative is correct. Lawyers suck. The old bitch spilt coffee on herself and had the nerve to sue.

          1. The burns were horrific, but the lawsuit basically rests on the fact that other places serve lukewarm coffee, when it’s just short of boiling when you make it at home. It’s not a great example.

          2. >when it’s just short of boiling when you make it at home

            No it isn’t. A drip coffee maker does produce boiling water, but once it drips through the grounds it’s no longer anywhere near boiling.

          3. At least you always use the same username, so your asinine comments are easy to ignore. Don’t worry, even if you changed it we’d still know it was you.

  5. In the 1950’s sort of era books the dangers of many of these things are not all that well known technologies have come a very long way very fast, and the dangers that are known are generally readily apparent to anybody with enough comprehension to actually follow the rather sparse details provided to create their own working result. Or they become apparent as they do the research to understand how to turn that scant guide into reality.

    So in many ways you shouldn’t need a ‘this will kill you by x’ warning on these projects (at least at the time) as if you don’t already know x is dangerous you are likely incapable of actually getting to that stage anyway. But that was before the age of highly edited internet video ‘guides’ where folks would have to actually experiment and learn how to use something from the ground level themselves before they could believe they understood it – So they aught to be rather more cautious as they haven’t really got a clue what they are doing yet, or actually go get some instruction to build up their skills than the modern examples.

  6. “When we publish dangerous hacks, we really try to at least highlight the most important hazards so that you know what to look out for.”

    I thought that was “our” (the Commenters) duty!

  7. When I was a kid, my chemistry sets had the ingredients and instructions for creating pyrotechnics. There were corrosive chemicals. There were bunsen burners, glass pipettes to heat and bend… TODAY? Baking soda and vinegar. IF you’re feeling especially reckless 🙄 This “modern” world has been so sanitized, so figuratively bubble wrapped, that there is no longer any chance of real advancement in knowledge. No more learning by doing. Everything is “taught” as fact and you’d better not question it. We used to be a survival-of-the-fittest species. Now we are nothing more than a survival-of-the-weakest species. “Modern” society may save lives in the here and now, but it has not done any favours to the human race in the grand scheme of things. Call me callous. Call me a boomer. Call me anything you want. History will prove me Right.

    1. Gen X here – we had the same thing. If you wanted to know what would happen if you did X, then there was usually only one way to find out. No YouTube videos etc. Yes, modern kids have suffered greatly as a result.

      1. Not to mention the amount of false information on youtube, like “life hack” videos that show you tricks that simply don’t work.

        It’s got the signal to noise ratio of a 10-year-old who found a copy of the Anarchist Cookbook. Come to think of it, it’s exactly the amount that existed before the internet.

      2. It’s not necessary to go that far back in time, I think.
        In early 21th century it was still similar. Bunsen burners, metal coins being dipped into dissolving acid etc.
        The change came in late 2000s/early 2010s, I’d say.
        Roughly in the iPhone and social media era.

  8. “User assumes all risks” generally covers a lot of eventualities.

    As far as the declinist argument that “Things are made softer so nobody learns/does anything anymore” goes, all one has to do is examine the historical records for emergency room admissions (as well as mortality statistics and reports) to understand the horrific maimings/deaths that put a lot of those cautions in place.

    Certainly taking seat belts/airbags out of cars won’t make us better drivers.

    1. >Certainly taking seat belts/airbags out of cars won’t make us better drivers.

      Curiously enough:


      Long story short. Anti-lock brakes have little overall effect on traffic safety, though they tend to increase fatal crashes because people take more risks when they feel safer in a car. Things like electronic slip control systems allow people to drive closer to the limit of losing control without feeling it. Or, like how people in 4WD cars crash in the winter because it gets them going a lot easier when the roads are iced over, but it won’t stop or steer any better.

      In general, when you don’t allow people to get hurt a little bit, they never learn what is a small risk and what is a big risk. You then get people who don’t dare to do anything, and others who will stick a fork in a toaster because “hey what can go wrong?”.

      1. In engineering terms, “You don’t know how strong something is until you see it break.”

        If you’ve never burned a finger, got an electric shock, cut yourself with a knife or broken a bone, how can you know? How should you react?

          1. I went to a driving school where they offered that. Still, I wiped out on a dirt road after I got my license.

            Turns out loose gravel is even more slippery than ice – it’s basically like driving over a bunch of ball bearings.

      2. Inre: 4 wheel drive.
        I had one that that I could select either 2WD or 4WD. In the winter I would drive it in 2WD, if I got stuck then switch it to 4WD to get out.
        And if REALLY stuck there was 4WD Low Range and tire chains .

    2. I’m a fan of survival of the fittest. Culling the weak. I do not believe in evolution as an explanation of our existence, but that doesn’t negate the fact that when it was survival of the fittest, only the strong – mentally and physically – survived to pass on their genes. Now that we protect the weak – again, mentally and physically – at all costs, all we are doing is watering down the species to make humans weak. That is not how evolution, or even nature, works. We are not doing ourselves any favors in the long run for humankind.

      1. Does being banned from Thingiverse imply that you are not the fittest in that environment? Your repellent attitude probably gets you kicked out of other places too. Humans have been caring for each other for millennia. Good day.

        1. “…banned from thingiverse? ” Check again, babe. As for my “repellent attitude,” you are correct. It is repellent to the weak. 🤷‍♂️ Caring for people and protecting idiots from themselves are two different things. I’m sure you are one of the ones who agree that fireworks need warning labels telling idiots not to shoot them off from atop their heads. True story.

          1. Sorry, it’s just that you wrote on your website “Well… Thingiverse has banned me with no explanation.”

            I can think of at least one explanation.

        2. > Sorry, it’s just that you wrote on your website “Well… Thingiverse has banned me with no explanation.”

          Ah… I see. That was years ago and worked out that it was a technical glitch. I just never updated that page. You can go check if you like … rebeltaz is the name.

          >I can think of at least one explanation.

          😱 Oh no… an internet stranger doesn’t like me or my opinion. How on Earth WILL I go on? 🙄

          I didn’t see a reply link to the lower level comments, so… I replied to this one. Deal with it.

          1. You’re still here? Yes, “rebeltaz” pops up a lot, together with “in god we trust”, which is ironic since you stated you are a fan of “survival of the fittest”.

    1. Standard fare in most shoe stores in the early ’50s; maybe ’40s, too.
      Still…must have been very low dosage. Never heard of anyone contracting cancer of the feet…

  9. In the 1980s/early 1990s, as a kid, I remember reading an article in Scientific American about building your own laser. Aside from the high voltage connected via binder clips, the fire bricks to allow a heated chamber well above normal temps, and a few other questionable things, it was quite safe, because I couldn’t afford any of it on my allowance, and for some reason my parents weren’t willing to fund it…

  10. This article brought to mind an old Popular Science magazine that had on the cover, “Build Your Own Aqualung! ” It explained how to repurpose old CO2 tanks for deep diving. I still think “What could go wrong?” when I see that headline.

    I also recall the old Lindsay Publications catalogue with a book on building an arc furnace. The commentary describing the book said something along the lines of, “You run every risk in the book with this one; electrocution, poison gas, severe burns, but if you want to give it a go it’s a great resource”

  11. I own a copy:

    Scientific American: The Amateur Scientist : The Complete Collection CD-ROM – March 20, 2006

    Reminds me that I need to look up something I saw a high school friend do to see if it came from that great column series: glass jar, old refrigerator compressor used as vacuum pump, two carbon rods from D cells with sharpened ends, wooden fixtures attached to lid used to hold carbon rods’ sharpened ends close together, hot side of mains run through salt solution in cereal bowl as current limiter (it boiled) = ARC LIGHT. Worked really well. Don’t try that at home.


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