The Science of Dr. Gribbleflotz

Rick Boatright

Phillip Theophrastus Gribbleflotz was born on a Saturday afternoon in the upstairs board room of Mannington Main Street, the Mannington West Virginia chamber of commerce during the first 1632 minicon. Ultimately, he’s Virginia DeMarce’s fault.

We were sitting around after lunch, waiting for our afternoon guest, the mayor of Mannington, and discussing the social effects of being transported to the seventeenth century on the residents of Grantville. Virginia looked around and spoke in her mild, inoffensive voice. She had a lilt that I came to recognize over the years as provocative, but at the time sounded as though she was just speaking off the cuff, spontaneously.

“You know, these southern women are going to be most upset when their supply of baking powder runs out. How are they to make biscuits?”

Then, she looked me squarely in the eye and said, “Surely there’s a way to make baking powder in Grantville.” and paused. . . .

I floundered, and began coming up with excuses . . . Other chemistry is more urgent. There is a restricted number of chemists. We can’t do everything at once. We’ve already agreed we can’t make primers, how could we divert resources to baking powder?

Virginia replied in that same lilt, “Surely there’s a down-timer you could give the recipe to?”

A few minutes later, Herr Doctor Phillip Theophrastus Gribbleflotz took up residence in the back of my mind. Kerryn Offord summarizes our working relationship as “Dr. Gribbleflotz is yours, Dr. Phil is mine.” Since that Saturday afternoon, Dr. Gribbleflotz has been a co-resident of my mind, occasionally invoked and wakened from slumber by a poke, an idea, a question, usually from Virginia but with occasional participation by Paula Goodlett and David Carrico and Laura Runkle. The first character description of Herr Doctor Gribbleflotz (HDG) had something of his background and character and an outline of the “Cheat Sheet” that he was supplied with to make the first supply of baking soda for the ladies of Grantville. Not long after, Kerryn Offord took that outline and produced the first story: “Calling Dr. Phil” that detailed the problem, the search and the finding of the technician. That set the pattern. Someone would call HDG out of the dungeon I had locked him in. I would channel him long enough to create the technical background for the story, the problems, the solution and the issues and Kerryn would take that and wrap dialog, plot and humanity around my cardboard. The new book 1636: The Chronicles of Dr. Gribbleflotz continues that tradition with about 65 percent new material.

Each of the stories turns on a scientific detail and frequently on a pseudo-scientific detail. Because the rule of storytelling is that the story comes first, the science behind the story is generally glossed over. For those of you who are interested, this article will fill you in on the science behind some of the stories and some of our decisions about what could, and could not be used.

Calling Dr. Phil

The first challenge that faced us was Virginia’s demand for baking powder. Modern “double acting” baking powder is a mixture of baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) and cream of tartar (potassium bitartrate) and sodium aluminum sulfate. Single acting baking powder is nothing more than the first two ingredients mixed together. When the cream of tartar is dissolved in water it becomes tartaric acid and reacts with the baking soda to make bubbles just like what happens if you drop lemon juice or vinegar into baking soda. In double acting powder, the sodium aluminum sulfate doesn’t go into solution until it’s heated, so you get a second puff of bubbles when the biscuit or cake batter gets warm. Single acting powder makes its bubbles pretty much as soon as the water hits it, which is why it’s important not to over knead biscuits or overmix cake batter.

Cream of tartar is easy to get. It precipitates out on the side of wine casks as the wine ages, and on the underside of wine corks in bottles. You merely have to scrape it off. If you want the pure white powder you have to dissolve and filter it and then boil off the water, but the material makes itself.

Baking soda, on the other hand, does not appear in nature. It is not to be confused with washing soda—sodium carbonate—note the lack of “bi” in that name. Sodium carbonate does appear in nature. In Europe it was imported from the Middle East or from the coast of Spain where it was produced by burning seaweed until the LeBlanc process was developed just before the French revolution. You do not want to eat washing soda.

Fortunately for the cooks of Grantville, baking soda is simple to make and the process for making it is well known. It is one of the first labs that a chemistry student will do. Dr. Phil can be handed a “cheat sheet” with the recipe after little more than a few minutes of work by any of the people in Grantville with chemistry education. The reaction is straightforward:

NaCl(aq) + NH3(aq) + CO2 + H2O → NH4Cl(aq) + NaHCO3(s)

Let’s put that in English. Take plain old table salt dissolved in water, ammonia also dissolved in water, and bubble carbon dioxide through it, and you’ll get “Ammonium chloride” in solution, and sodium bicarbonate precipitating out as a solid. Now, that really only works if the solution is cold, otherwise the baking soda stays in solution too, but when you cool it, you get the baking soda on your filter paper and the ammonium chloride left behind in the water. One problem. Phil can’t go out and buy ammonia. No problem. Phil knows how to get “Spirits of Hartshorn.” Classically, alchemists generated both solid ammonium bicarbonate and a 30% solution of ammonia in water by the destructive distillation of the antlers and hooves of red deer—the horn of the hart—but the supply of red deer antler is both seasonal and limited in seventeenth-century Europe.

The solid hartshorn can even substitute for baking powder in recipes for thin cookies. When heated, the ammonium bicarbonate breaks down into ammonia and carbon dioxide. In a thin cookie, the ammonia can escape as a gas and the whole thing works. In biscuits and cakes, not so much. It can still be found in gourmet cooking shops although it is no longer extracted from red deer horn.

By the 1630s another technique was known both to up-timers and down-timers for getting ammonia. Human urine contains fairly large amounts of urea—note the derivation of the name—which bacteria will rapidly break down into ammonia. After aging the urine and allowing it to ferment for a while, you can distill off the ammonia. Dr. Phil and the Kubiaks worked out deals with every bar in Grantville and Jena to divert the collection from their urinals into holding tanks

It’s frequently been suggested that HDG should make a deal to install urine collection drains in the local livery stables, but equine urine contains less than a fifth the urea of human urine, so processing is even more arduous. In any event, the urine is a temporary step until other methods of ammonia production are in place. Still, Dr. Phil was lucky that he quickly became known as the “Aspirin King” instead of “The Master of Piss.”

One last point. Phil does not at all like the idea of the world’s greatest alchemist being confused with someone who makes stuff for cooks. Therefore the term “baking soda” is right out. But baking soda is a salt. It’s the salt of sodium and carbonate. Carbonate is mostly carbon dioxide, the stuff that comes out in bubbles when you mix baking soda with an acid. Alchemists referred to carbon dioxide as “fixed air”—air that was no longer useful for combustion, it was used up or fixed—and so, logically, baking soda is the salt of fixed air; Sal Aer Fixus. See? It makes perfect sense.

Dr. Phil’s Amazing Lightning Crystals

Crystal radios are very easy to make, except for one bit. Earphones are theoretically easy, but physically difficult. To hand-make an earphone for a crystal radio, you have to make a thin drum head, and glue a magnet to it. Then, you have to wind a coil of very thin wire, the best such earphones require coils made from wire no thicker than a typical human hair. If you don’t have commercially made magnet wire with flexible enamel coatings you wrap a single loop, paint it with shellac, wait for that to dry, wrap another loop, repeat 200 to 500 times. It’s difficult. It’s very easy to accidentally get a short between one layer of loops and another and waste all of your work. It’s also easy to break the hair-thin wires when attempting to affix them and solder them to the leads.

The job can be done by any patient competent person for very little cost, but making many of them takes a long time and is therefore expensive. Many who try will fail due to lack of care at one point or another.

Rochelle Salt

Fortunately for us, there is a simple, cheap workaround. Rochelle salts were first synthesized in 1675 by an apothecary, Pierre Seignette, of La Rochelle, France. Thus, “Rochelle” salt. They were also among the first substances discovered that exhibit piezoelectric action.

What’s that? Piezoelectric materials do two very cool things. If you bend or compress them, they generate a voltage difference between the top and bottom sides of the bend. This was extensively used in phonograph pickups to play records. A phonograph pickup could, for example, generate as much as two volts from being jostled by the needle moving up and down in the record’s groove.

The other action is this: if you apply a voltage to opposite sides of the same crystal the crystal itself bends. Because Rochelle salt bends a lot when you apply a voltage, it’s perfect for earphones. All you have to do is attach wires to opposite sides of the salt and contain it between two diaphragms so that you can hear it.

The only problem would be if they were hard to produce. Luckily, as the Kubiaks recalled, Rochelle salt is a common science fair project. It uses two ingredients you might have heard of: sodium carbonate (washing soda) added to a hot solution of potassium bitartrate (Cream of Tartar). After you add them together, you allow the crystals of Rochelle salt (sodium potassium tartrate) to crystallize out of the solution. As mentioned, Tartar can be found deposited on the inside of the barrels used to age wine.

For earphones, you don’t want thick beautiful crystals, although those can be grown. You want a thin layer of flat crystals that you can place between two diaphragms to make an earphone. If you have a flat plate of thin copper, you can cut the plate up into earphone sized pieces and then run the hot solution across the plates in a thin layer making many components at once.

Oddly, Phil has a substantial supply of both soda and highly refined Cream of Tartar. Isn’t that convenient?

Pyramid Power

Meanwhile Phil has been reading. He was introduced to the idea of the “Fifth Essence,” the “Quinta Essentia” by a Jewish alchemist he met years before. In his forays into the Grantville libraries, he encountered books that mentioned that same phrase, proof positive to him that his long studies about activating the fifth essence of the human spirit were known and understood to up-time science. Sadly, the books that he was reading were from the “new age” section of the library and comprised an odd collection of bits about pyramid power, crystal healing, and reflexology. Phil spent weeks and months attempting to put together a coherent theory of operation from these bits and pieces. Each failure was attributed to his own failing to properly understand the up-time publications or to correctly synthesize the compound theory that he was extracting from various sources.

It’s an on-going theme in the stories. Phil comes up with a plan for revitalizing the “quinta essentia” of the human spirit, it fails, he reworks his theory, and tries again. It’s very similar to people who compulsively develop systems to beat the odds at horse racing or to extract profit from a roulette table. The fault is always some minor flaw in their system, not that no such system can work.

Fortunately, the same meticulous attention to detail, hypothesis and testing that takes him ever deeper into dysfunctional alchemy also takes him further into effective chemistry, and the same techniques used by those he’s trained as his laborants help make their industrial processes ever more efficient both in terms of time and cost.


After the success with baking soda, the Kubiaks were confronted with what was, in many ways, a far more important challenge. The supply of up-time aspirin and other anti-inflammatories had run out. For pain, for arthritics, for the control of fever, and countless other uses, aspirin is a cornerstone of the modern pharmacopeia. Luckily, once again, aspirin is easy to synthesize and is one of the earliest labs done in any organic chemistry course.

The action of salicylic acid, in the form of a tea made from the inner bark of almost all species of willow, has been known since antiquity. Hippocrates, Galen, Pliny the Elder mention it for pain and fever, as do texts from ancient China, Egypt, Sumer, and Assyria. In the Americas, archeologists have found traces of salicylic acid on seventh-century pottery in eastern Colorado and in historical times the Cherokee and other Native Americans used willow tea for fever and other medicinal purposes. But willow bark tea tastes terrible, the concentration of salicylate is low, and the supply of willow is somewhat limited. In modern times the WHO estimates worldwide consumption of aspirin at 40,000 tons.

The solution turns out to be fairly simple. Salicylic acid can be synthesized from oil of wintergreen—methyl salicylate—by the action of strong acids. Oddly, the production of strong acids was how Phil made his living before meeting the Kubiaks, so this isn’t much of a stretch for him. Oil of wintergreen is extracted by distillation from the twigs and bark of sweet birch (Betula lenta), teaberry, or wintergreen (Galtheria Procumbens ).

structural diagrams

Structural Diagrams via Wikimedia Commons

So, you distill oil of wintergreen from a widely available source, react that with a strong acid to get salicylic acid, then react that with acetic acid produced by distilling it from vinegar to get acetic anhydride (acetic acid with no water in it). After you’ve let it react for a bit in a warm bath, you add water to decompose the remainder of the acetic anhydride, and aspirin crystallizes out and can be filtered.

Now, Dr. Phil can’t just call that aspirin. What kind of name is that? No, he’s making “the salt of the essence of vinegar and the essence of sweet birch. Or, as it’s marketed by HDG, Sal Vin Betula. Oh my, how the money rolls in.”

The Lightning Generator

Phil's fascination with electricity comes early in his contacts with the up-timers. Two different technologies are mentioned when trying to figure out how to get a lightning generator for him. The first is probably more familiar to people. The tall column with a silvery sphere on top that can cause people’s hair to stand up or pull large sparks is a classic image in science fiction and is called the “Van de Graaff generator.” The problem is, that upper dome is generally spun from aluminum plate and it requires a very high-speed motor in the base, a belt to separate the charges, and a system of rollers to carry the belt. They’re very fussy to make by hand and they break easily.

On the other hand, while not as well known, the Wimshurst machine is more complex looking, but is easier to build. That’s what Phil gets.

Traditionally, dating back to the Greeks, and doubtless before, people made static electricity by rubbing two dissimilar objects together. Amber and wool, sulfur and silk, etc. This was always somewhat problematic. Humidity, dirt on the surfaces, whatever material the person trying to generate the field is standing on—one or all of these could influence the success or failure of a particular attempt to generate the static electric field and the desired spark.

In the late 1800s, a series of inventors began to develop what they called “influence” machines that could separate charges without needing brushes or cloth or friction.

electric machine

Wimshurst Electric Machine. Image by N. Hawkins via Wikimedia Commons

Two insulating disks, plastic or glass or similar materials, are arranged so that as the crank is turned, they spin in opposite directions. Arrayed around each disk is a set of thin metal ovals, generally made from copper or aluminum foil. Across the center is a metal bar that trails a brush that wipes the sectors as they pass called the “neutralizer.” As you can see in the drawing, the two neutralizers (X and Y) are crossed. On each side of the disks are a pair of “pick ups” which have sharp points that do not quite touch the disk. (Z) When you turn the crank large sparks up to several inches long can jump between the electrodes attached to the pickups.

They work in an interesting way. When any two different conducting metals touch each other there is a small voltage and a small current transfer between the two because no two materials have the same number of electrons in their atoms and electron bonding forces are also different.

So, when one of the foil sectors passes under one of the neutralizers, a small charge is imposed on the sector. As that sector passes by a sector in the other side of the disk, it induces an equal but opposite charge on that sector on the other side.

If the front disk has a positive charge on its sectors, then as it spins it will induce a negative charge on the back disk. The same thing happens to the lower part of the disks, but in reverse, so when a sector passes by the neutralizer bar it becomes neutral and therefore ready to be charged again. This sets up low opposite charges on the top and bottom and high equal charges on the sides. These high charges are then picked up and transferred to the Leyden jars, which, in turn, are connected to the discharge terminals. When the voltage is high enough across the terminals, a spark occurs and the cycle restarts.

If you didn’t follow that, don’t feel bad. Without one in front of you, or good animations, the working of the machine is very hard to picture. Come to the 1632 minicon and we’ll show you one.

Phil’s Wimshurst machine is special. It was made by someone in Grantville with quite a sense of humor. His disks are composed of two 78 RPM records, one of “Stormy Weather” and the other of the Spike Jones classic “That Old Black Magic.” It probably wasn’t the best idea that Ted Kubiak ever had.

The Creamed Madonna

Phil was insistent that he would not make aspirin tablets that were white. Aspirin is supposed to reduce pain, cure headaches and make someone feel better. Phil’s aspirin tablets were colored with indigo and were blue. This resulted in some up-timers referring to them as “Dr. Phil’s little blue pills of happiness.” Since some people are humor impaired, a few folks became convinced that Phil and Co. were making Viagra, which is also blue. As Phil explains to his wife, that’s just not happening.

structural diagram

Sildenafil structural diagram via Wikimedia Commons

The synthesis of Viagra (generic name sildenafil) is challenging.

The demand, however, is enormous, so Phil agrees to research alternatives. In his research he encounters a classic problem with science in the public media. Journalists aren’t scientists, and often make mistakes. In the case of Viagra, it’s a mistake in the discussion of how it works.

Normal erections happen when the smooth muscles around the arteries that lead to the spongy tissue in the penis relax, allowing more blood to flow in, resulting in an erection. This happens when nitric oxide and a protein called cGMP bind to the smooth muscle cells receptors causing them to relax. Sildenafil blocks the action of a protein that breaks down the cGMP, and thus makes erections easier to obtain and stronger.

The problem with press accounts is that sometimes the term “nitric oxide” is replaced with the term “nitrous oxide” which the journalists have presumably heard of. The two chemicals are very different.

Nitric oxide is just one nitrogen triple bonded to one oxygen. NO.

Nitrous oxide is two nitrogens bonded together and then with an oxygen. NNO.

Very different. NO is an important signaling chemical in neurochemistry. NNO is laughing gas.

Unlike sildenafil, the synthesis of nitrous oxide is straightforward. You react urea, nitric acid and sulfuric acid.

2 (NH2)2CO + 2 HNO3+ H2SO4 → 2 N2O + 2 CO2 + (NH4)2SO4 + 2H2O

Phil—owner of the urine from every bar in Grantville and Jena—has plenty of access to urea, and making nitric and sulphuric acid was how he made his living prior to the Ring of Fire. The nitrous oxide comes off as a gas, mixed one-to-one with carbon dioxide, which turns out to be a good thing for Phil’s second attempt at a marital revitalization aid. But more about that in a moment. First things first.

Thinking that increasing the concentration of NNO in the tissues of the groin will enable erections, Phil has the bright idea to simply apply the gas directly to the affected area. He commissions a pair of rubber pants with a tube that can be connected to a pressurized cylinder of nitrous oxide. If you’ve ever used a “can of air” to blow the dust out of your computer, you know what’s coming. As the gas expands out of the cylinder into Phil’s rubber pants it cools from room temperature to well below freezing. This does not assist Phil in getting an erection, and shortly thereafter the pants, acting like an overfilled balloon, burst.

Oh, well. Science is never a tale of success after success. One learns from one’s failures.

Phil’s second idea for a revitalization product is less catastrophic. Upon seeing an up-timer acquaintance drinking a carbonated lemon soda, he thinks of dissolving the NNO in a liquid. Nitrous oxide does dissolve in water. A half-liter of water will take on seven grams of nitrous oxide, which if extracted (by shaking) produces about four liters of gas. Additionally, Phil’s nitrous oxide production line also produces carbon dioxide mixed with the nitrous oxide and approximately a liter of CO2 will also dissolve in the water along with the NNO.

Generally, these flavored nitrous oxide infused liquids are used topically. At first glance you wouldn’t think that the flavor would be important. You would be wrong.

It was tempting to stop there, but I can’t quite. At about the time the money waterfall started at HDG Industries from the sale of nitrous oxide soda, a group of grandmothers in Grantville needed to raise money for the Red Cross sanitation committee. One of them recalled that she had an old whipped cream charger. She knew that those used nitrous oxide cylinders to aerate the cream, then saw her husband’s copy of Herb Alpert’s album Whipped Cream & Other Delights. She immediately thought of a way for the committee to embarrass all of their children.

creamed madonna

The Creamed Madonna, story banner by Garrett Vance from the Grantville Gazette. Used by permission.

Dr. Phil for President

Don’t panic. Phil is president of the European Society of Kirlian Aura Interpreters. This is in itself funny because Phil doesn’t believe in aura interpretation. The “science” of the interpretation of Kirlian Auras was developed by the second of Phil’s assistants named Kurt. Phil called him “Beta” to distinguish from the Kurt he already knew. Beta started a Europe-wide fashion for the “science” and Phil was invited to Prague to become the aural interpreter for the king. It is pointed out that he doesn’t have to believe in aural interpretation in order to do it.

But what is this Kirlian aura? In 1939 a Russian electrical equipment repairman, Semyon Kirlian, discovered that if an object on a photographic plate is connected to a high-voltage source, an image is produced on the photographic plate. In Russian literature this is called "Kirlianography."

When a Kirlian photograph is taken, the subject is connected to a very high voltage, but low current, electric source, such as the above mentioned Wimshurst machine, a Tesla coil or an automobile spark coil. The subject, or a part of it, such as a hand or foot, is placed in contact with a photographic plate, which is itself placed over a grounded surface. The electricity then sparks from the subject, through the plate, and into the ground. Along the way, the sparks give off light that exposes the photo.

Here is a Kirlian photo of a fingertip.


Kirlian image of a fingertip. Photo by “Island Wiki” via

I assure you that taking that photo involved a substantial “ouchey.” During the first effort to get a photo of his entire hand, Kirlian gave himself a bad electrical burn.

Much has been made of Kirlian’s discovery by various pseudoscience writers. The Kirlians themselves claimed that Kirlian photography could provide an index of a person's physical health, and could illuminate the acupuncture points of the human body. Of course, it’s not just humans that produce Kirlian images. This Coleus leaf is far more interesting than the fingertip.


Kirlian image of Coleus leaf. Photo by “Mr X” via Wikimedia Commons

The Society of Kirlian Aural Interpreters that Phil heads has several functions. From the point of view of the practitioners, the society trains and certifies new practitioners. The society’s journals provide the latest research and designs for equipment, calculations and ways to effect the aura through diet, exercise, the wearing of copper and silver jewelry, etc. From the point of view of Europe as a whole, the society provides critical safety standards and practices without which untrained quacks would likely kill or severely injure their clients attempting to get whole-body photos or photos of the aura of the head. Additionally, the practitioners provide both pressure and funding for the development of ever more sensitive photo films, color photography and compact electrical equipment. They are by far the largest market for the early “aqualators,” to help them with the mass of calculations involved in reading an aural photograph.

It’s quackery, but under Phil’s guidance of the society, it’s quackery turned to a useful social purpose.

The Theremin

In the last story in the collection, a young woman who trained in Grantville is hired by Radio Prague because she built a theremin as her senior project in the electrical certification course. Her theremin features a small, hand operated Alexanderson alternator, much like the larger ones that provide the radio power for the Voice of Luther, Loyola University of the North, and soon, Radio Prague.

“What’s a theremin?” you may ask.

A theremin is the instrument on the soundtrack of The Day the Earth Stood Still among many other places. It made the “Dooo Weeee Dooo Weee Oooooo Weeeee” refrain in the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations.” It’s the eerie sound of many a bad horror movie’s soundtrack. It’s the instrument Jimmy Paige played in “Whole Lotta Love.” It’s an electronic instrument that varies both the pitch and the loudness as the player moves their hands in the air near the instrument, but without touching it. It was invented by the Russian Lev Sergeyevich Termen (known in the West as Léon Theremin). The only other instrument with a similar range and tone is the musical saw.

In the story, Mags' theremin uses two unfamiliar electronic components, the Alexanderson alternator and the flame triode. The alternator is something 1632 fans know from several stories about broadcast radio stations starting with “Canst Thou Send Lightnings?” They’re a solution to the problem that Grantville just can’t build “normal” radio transmitters for broadcast stations due to a lack of tubes or transistors. The giant, steam and electricity driven alternators produce radio signals mechanically. How can that be?

As cool as the alternators are, and as neat as it is that they can produce radio signals using rotating disks of iron, ultimately, they’re just an electric guitar writ large.

In an electric guitar, the pickup has six magnets, one placed under each string, and a coil of hair-thin wire wound round the group of them hundreds and hundreds of times. When the steel string over the magnet wiggles back and forth from being plucked, it disturbs the magnetic field, and changing magnetic fields make electric currents in wires.

In an Alexanderson alternator, the slots in the spinning disk substitute for the plucked wire, and as it spins it disturbs the magnetic field in the pickup and makes a signal. One pickup doesn’t create much electricity, but in an alternator, dozens or hundreds of pickups are connected together and produce a very serious current of, in the case of Mags' foot treadle driven disk, tens of watts, or in the case of the radio stations, hundreds or thousands of watts.

The other component in Mags' theremin are the flame triodes.

Since the early 2000s the 1632 authors and editors have been saying that making vacuum tubes will take time. The first hand-crafted lab samples of down-time vacuum tubes were produced in late 1635 and early 1636. Transistors are worse. No one will be making high power transistors any time soon. Small fragile point-contact transistors that can be cobbled from available materials are interesting, but offer nothing to someone building a thousand-watt radio station.

Still, Mags needed a way to create an audio oscillator for her theremin, and the rules of a senior project state that it has to be made from all down-time material. To make an oscillator, you need a device that will operate like a vacuum tube, or like a transistor. For many years, both down-time and among the 1632 writers and editors, nothing came to mind. Then, we stumbled upon one of those “Oh, yeah, I never thought of that” moments that the 1632 crew call “Sometimes whipping a dead horse works.”

There was a conversation about natural gas furnaces, water heaters and boilers, asking how the circuit that controls the gas valve and the spark that lights the furnace work. Those of us without an HVAC background assumed that some sort of thermometer or thermocouple or such was used. We were surprised to learn that no, the flame was sensed directly using something called a “flame diode.” It turns out that the ionized gases in a flame can substitute for the vacuum in a vacuum tube and can rectify an AC current using a cathode and an anode both inside the flame. No flame, no current. Flame, current.

That set us to thinking. Could you put a control grid in there and make a flame triode just like a vacuum tube?

flame triode

A flame triode in action. Photo by Nyle Steiner. Used by permission.

As it turns out, yes, you can. Nyle Steiner (K7NS) published a description, a circuit and a Youtube video of such a circuit in 2008. The HVAC industry has talked about them in journals since the late 1950s. No one thought to look to furnace control circuits for a key to down-time electronics until Mags heard the lecture on flame diodes in her electric certificate class.

The flame triode doesn’t make much signal, but it does work, and can, as Nyle Steiner showed in a series of YouTube videos, run as an oscillator or as an amplifier. In the theremin, Mags uses it as an oscillator to provide the pitch and volume control. The Alexanderson Alternator is the power supply for the amplifier that makes the sound loud enough to play in a band.

In a turn of events that should surprise no one, the theremin is avidly adopted by the Society of Aura Interpreters, since it provides immediate feedback about a person’s aura without having to subject them to sparks and electric shock and without the on-going cost of photographic supplies. Of course the theremin—oh I’m sorry, the Gribbleflotz Aural Aura Explicator—can provide only an approximate reading. Detailed calculations still require the Kirlian photograph.

The Future

We see no end to the stories of Dr. Phil and his companions. Mags' boyfriend builds model airplanes using small glow plug engines. Mags makes alternators. Dr. Phil is Dr. Phil. There’s more science out there, and more odd and wonderful ways for both down- and up-timers to understand and misunderstand, to use, and to misuse it. Kerryn and I will keep bringing you updates.

Note: You can see the flame triode in action, both with stills and video, at Nyle Steiner’s page:

Copyright © 2016 Rick Boatright

Rick Boatright is exactly the same age as Bill Gates and like Bill has been a software developer since the early 1970s, but in Rick's case a developer for not-for-profit social service agencies. He's been a moderator of online forums as long as online forums have existed. Since 2001, he's been a writer and editor, as well as the Head Geek, for Eric Flint's 1632 alternate history world. He also held the Head Geek title for Jim Baen's Universe magazine. He is the perpetrator of the annual "Weird Tech" lectures associated with the 1632 minicon, and was the creator of Ring of Fire series character Dr. Gribbleflotz, the world's greatest alchemist. Rick is the author, along with Kerryn Offord, of 1636: The Chronicles of Dr. Gribbleflotz out in August 2016.