How Potato Cannons Disappeared and Nobody Said Goodbye
In the early 2000s, spud-launching PVC weapons were the best thing ever.
Me and a cannon I built for the story. The gifs are lemons hitting stuff.
Potato cannons, spud guns, lemon launchers—no matter what you called them, basically, they were DIY guns made from little more than PVC piping. You took some hardware plumbing supplies, glued them together, jammed a lemon/potato down one end, and sprayed some deodorant down the other. And then you spent a few rollercoaster minutes clicking a BBQ igniter thing to light the deodorant, waiting for the potato cannon to go off. And then it went off.
The lemon or potato or whatever would get blown out of the pipe at high speed, using the same physics that drive an internal combustion engine. The potato takes out palings in your backyard fence. Neighbours yell. It was wild.
Shooting a potato cannon is a lot like masturbating that very first time. You suddenly find yourself in a bold and socially unacceptable future that involves Lynx. Your hand hurts but your heart sings, and you want to do it more, and better, and you're giggling about it with friends until you're eventually doing it with such vicious regularity that it's time to do it less. But you never forget that first time.
Except that people have. Or rather, the internet has, as you can see in this graph from Google Trends below. See how searches for potato cannons peaked in the early 2000s and tapered off? How does that happen? How could something so fun have fallen out of favour?
We'll get to that, but first, some history. It's 1940, height of World War Two, and Britain's commercial shipping companies find themselves under attack from the German Luftwaffe. While some wealthier companies installed actual anti-aircraft guns, most ships weren't able to defend themselves. There was a need for a cheap and relatively safe way to lob projectiles at planes.
Enter the Holman Projector.
The Holman Brothers were manufacturing air compressors for coal mines at the time, and they came up with a pretty ingenious way of using the steam from a ship's boilers to launch hand grenades. The de-pinned grenades were dropped down the barrel of the gun. Steam was then diverted from the ship's engine room into the gun's pressure chamber until there was enough force to send the grenade into the sky.
If the grenade happened to explode at the right moment it could take down a plane. But often it wouldn't, which is why sailors resorted to jamming just about anything down the muzzle. By the end of the war there were an estimated 4,500 Holman Projectors in service. And, according to anecdotal reports, many had fired potatoes.
Of course, our modern incarnation of the Holman Projectors uses PVC piping in lieu of steel, and flammable aerosols instead of steam. Call it 20th century innovation—a lot of which took off with the internet.
"I'd heard of them for a couple of years before I started building them," explains Dan Thames, who set up one of the internet's first cannon-themed Yahoo chatrooms in the late 90s. "I had seen one in maybe 1995 or so, that was just PVC pipe and powered by hair spray. But the internet really helped the knowledge spread. One guy would learn something, share it, and others would build on his work. Several of us in the group built large guns that were powered by compressed air. It was a bit of a science to see what you could make work the best."
Dan was one of many people who—through the late 90s and the early 2000s—turned potato cannons into a full on thing. Engineering students everywhere used the internet to outdo each other with time-space altering mortar blasts, while several groups completed rather in-depth investigations to determine the finest propellant/projectile combos.
One particular study established that a PVC combustion chamber filled with acetylene could eject a potato at 283 kilometres an hour. Dryly they noted, "potatoes launched with acetylene were also destructive to wooden boards and plastic objects initially employed as backstops before transitioning to a six millimetre thick steel plate."
As with every craze though, there are always the horror stories. A few years into potato gun mania, stories of injury and death began to appear, including the case of a 21-year-old guy from Hull, Iowa, who pressed his igniter only for the gun to explode and kill him. Another case, more recently, saw a 15-year-old Melbourne kid get shot in the face and pass away in hospital eight days later. "Our son Daniel went to a neighbour's place to hang with a few mates and never came home," his dad told the Herald Sun. "That shouldn't happen."
It's possible that cases like this helped to sink the popularity of potato cannons. Certainly by trawling internet news you can sense of tonal shift from early amusement—"How funny are these things!"—to some fairly grave warnings from police. Despite cases like these no specific laws exist for the prohibition of potato cannons, or not in Australia. Instead their regulation comes under the umbrella of state weapons acts, enforced by state police.
But a spokesperson from Victoria Police downplayed the notion potato cannons are something they deal with, commenting, "we're not aware of any issues relating to the type of firearm you have described."
This seems to be the feeling everywhere. Dan from the Yahoo group explained he and his circle had fallen completely away from potato cannons, having first graduated to fireworks, and more recently to flying wingsuits. "That has been my history," he says. "Learn as much as you can about one thing, and then move to another. There has been next to zero traffic [on the potato cannon site] the past few years. And I haven't been active in the hobby for a long time."
There doesn't seem to be some complete, unifying reason potato cannons disappeared from our lives, and I'm sure many will tell me cannons haven't disappeared from theirs. But anecdotally it seems the people who were previously running sites and forums have moved on, with few new sites to replace them (WikiHow being an exception). Dan theorises that the cannon crowd migrated to social media, but a quick search reveals the largest potato cannon Facebook group is actually the name of a band, while nearly all YouTube videos were uploaded around 2006. Basically, just like any other phenomena powered by bored young men, potato cannons seem to have had a shelf life and faded away.
I, for one, am sad about this but accepting. Shooting a potato cannon is basically like shooting any other gun. It puts the power of death in your hands and feels awesome, but it also puts the power of death in your hands. And that's a kind of thing 17-year-old versions of me don't need.