Back in the old days, there was once a time when I wasn't working on an air hockey robot.

That time is now, because we finished our air hockey robot a long time ago and it was simply the coolest fucking thing that has ever existed. But this is not a story about our air hockey robot, it's a story before we even started that, in Novemberish of 2001, when I was taking Robotics with the biggest jerkpile professor I've ever had. He had some pretty stupid crazy ideas about dividing the class into groups and having each build a different robot, and then at the end of the semester all our robots would somehow magically work together to form some kind of fucking robot workcell assembly line.


Robots magically working together.

This plan was full of flaws, the biggest being that it's an Engineering class populated almost entirely by engineers. Engineers are good at the following things:

By the same token, practically all Engineers lack the following skills:

So it's no surprise that none of the groups accomplished anything whatsoever with their projects. Except for one group; luckily, Ralp was in the class, as well as another programmer, Wojo. We were the only ones (including the instructor, honestly) who could work the voodoo required to even make anything move (short of hooking a motor directly up to current, although many students (again, including the instructor) failed to even accomplish this), and we decided to work in the same group. Wojo had a couple of engineers in his group, Justan* and some other kid. I don't remember his name but I'll call him Pete Best because he ended up getting replaced on our way to fame. We replaced him with Ringo for the actual air hockey project, although Justan tragically stuck around. Actually come to think of it, I probably won't call him anything, because he's pretty irrelevant to this story.

Anyway, we were working on this robot arm and the engineers randomly decided that the motors needed more power. Sometimes the engineers accidentally had good ideas, and I wasn't about to argue with this one. So, I found some guy in the physics and/or engineering department and said hey jerk, we need a better power supply for our killer robot, sucka! So he let us use this great big thing that weighed about 329475 pounds and was all rusty because it was probably made in 1944 to generate DC Voltage from raw lightning, or nuclear test explosions, or the power of Patriotism, or something. How should I know; go ask one of those Civil War buffs. The neat gauges seemed to indicate that it could supply up to like 25 Volts at 20 amps. I don't know, really. All this engineering babble about volts and watts and joules and hectares or whatever can go jump in a proverbial lake.

Well while the engineers were engineering, Wojo and I decided to turn all the dials all the way up on the power supply and connected some wires, and WA-LA we had created an automatic spark generator!! Well we got bored with that almost before we had even tried it out, so we found a bunch of capacitators and plugged them into a breadboard so we could discharge them and make slightly larger sparks!

Obviously this was getting us nowhere so I went back to that crazy stockroom guy who gave me the giant power supply and demanded a really big capacicitatior but he seemed kind of suspicious since he wanted to know what Voltage and Farad-age and stuff, and WHY. I kinda figured he wouldn't be too thrilled if I said "OH, we want to overcharge it and see if it explodes, and if it doesn't then we'll discharge it into some punk engineer's spine!" so I opted for the less-conspicuous "OH, gosh, I don't know… the cool engineers needed it for something and they sent me because I wasn't engineering with them; but I'm just a programmer, I don't know what a Volt is! In fact I don't even speak English! s0 STFU! aL UR CAP$iT@Tx0R R BeLONGZ 2 US! kthx" So I had to go back empty-handed for now.

But ok, that's not even the cool part yet. In the lab where we were working, there was a bunch of solder, and one of us noticed how hot the wires attached to the power supply got when we created sparks, so we wondered if it would be enough to melt a strand of solder. It wasn't. BUT, we did quickly discover that if we attached one electrode to the solder and then touched the tip of the solder wire to the other electrode…

Solder wire above the washer anode, or cathode, or some fucking thing. ZAP!


Basically, the spark would liquefy, or maybe plasmify, the solder as soon as it completed the circuit, spewing glowing globs of molten tin in all directions, while smoke billowed up. And it wasn't just a single spark. If I pressed down, the whole strand of solder would violently and noisily crackle away. I could feed a foot of solder to the hungry electrified washer in about five or six seconds. We melted at least a few yards of it that evening. We even managed to start a small fire at one point. It was destructive, messy, dangerous, and mucho fun.

The pictures above are from a video I tried to capture of the phenomenon with a webcam (that would later evolve into the vision system of our air hockey robot), but the computer ran at about 0 MHz, so it was only able to capture literally 5 frames in as many seconds. Luckily the two frames you see here were rather well-timed.

Wojo decided to try to actually weld another chunk of metal to the washer, because, after all, once you've invented a poor-man's arc welder… well, it just stands to reason! Unfortunately—actually maybe I should say "Neutrally" because it wasn't very unfortunate: we didn't actually need any metal welded together—neutrally, this endeavor failed. A friend astutely suggested a reason why:

<Ralp> We created a poor-man's arc welder in Robotics class.
<Never> Does it only weld poor-men to each other?
<Ralp> Possibly.
<Never> Poor-men indeed, if that's the case.
<Ralp> We didn't manage to actually weld anything together, but I didn't try it on poor men.
<Never> You built a poor-man's arc welder and FAILED TO TRY IT ON POOR MEN?!

Once we had disintegrated all the solder we could find, it was time to go home. This has nothing to do with welding anything, but I had forgotten that earlier that day I had parked my car in a no-parking zone in the middle of campus to unload a huge pile of Cat-5 cable I borrowed. This was several hours ago, before class and long before all this dicking around with electricity, and I didn't remember until I was trying to figure out which parking lot I was in. But somehow my car was neither towed nor even ticketed; the Public Safety Department just stuck a piece of paper under my windshield wiper that basically said "You can't park here, jerk." HEY, thanks for the tip! All in all, this was a good day indeed.

* View Justan's Dungeons & Dragons Stat Sheet