A few years ago when I was 18 and moving out to university, my mom gave me an iron. Don’t get me wrong, practical gifts are great and by no means am I ungrateful. I’m sure you can imagine every 18 year old male, bags packed, shipping out to the big city, dreams of receiving an iron to go with that kiss from his mother. The truth is I don’t remember using an iron in the first 18 years of my life. Why not just keep it that way for another 18? It’s not like one needs an iron to navigate the tribulations of frosh days. Rather, one could dream up half a dozen more vital items: a coffee machine, a hockey stick or a gross of Mr. Noodles. I contained my thoughts, graciously accepting the iron wondering if I would ever actually use the thing. So it sat in my dorm, unopened for months, as a bookend holding up our friend Michael Spivak’s Calculus.
Freshman spring semester brought with it E&M — my version of 8.02. The class had labs! One lab prep required us to make homemade capacitors — two pieces of aluminum foil, wax paper as a dielectric and interestingly enough, an iron to mush everything together.
It’s 1:00 a.m., my lab starts in 8 hours, and I’m still short one capacitor. I can’t believe my good fortune — finding an iron at this time may prove difficult as all the artsy girls I know are sleeping or partying. I rip open the box and, having never used one of these things before, actually gaze over the instructions.
Now you may be impressed with the idea of making home grown capacitors and you’re probably dying to know just how great these puppies really are. To satisfy any curiosities, I went through the pain of digging out my freshman lab book. Wax paper has a relative dielectric of around 3, which translates into a surprisingly beefy capacitance of roughly 1 nanofarad per square inch. Just to give you some physical intuition, one square inch already contains a capacitance one hundred to one thousand times larger than my dead dog. Unfortunately even at this rate you’d have to iron the whole damn roll of aluminum foil to pack any real punch (for the keen engineers out there willing to try this I have no idea what the breakdown voltage is).
The iron lay dormant for another year and half. By this time I was the proud owner of an ample supply of capacitors. Rather the new problem was moving out of my residence. I needed a desk and a bookshelf to keep the iron on. Instead of buying these items, I decided to build my own, plywood, sandpaper and some iron on trim. I don’t think I need to spell it out, but iron on trim just doesn’t stick by itself.
Now I’ve used my iron twice in as many years and it hasn’t ever touched a pair of pants. I start to wonder how such a situation might arise when the answer hits me: an iron is nothing more than a hotplate with a handle — as if someone robbed a chem. lab of its second greatest item, the first being a Bunsen burner, and re-engineered it into a portable, compact form. Thinking back to those first years of undergrad, it’s a real miracle I only ever used the iron twice. Heck, closer inspection reveals my Black & Decker even comes with Teflon coating. Not only can I cook my eggs, I don’t have to worry about them sticking either. Maybe an iron really is a perfect gift for an 18-year-old engineering student. Although, if my Mother knew her progeny was en route to becoming the true iron chef, she may have opted for the coffee pot.