Category Archives: Institute activities & news

Toroidal Ring Vortex machines pulling the crowds

After years of scrabbling around in the back blocks of Australia’s farm ‘resource collections’ (i.e. the back paddock dump) a second Toroidal Ring Vortex machine has been discovered and has being successfully restored.

Controversially, this is apparently a World War 11 German Wehrmacht machine known as a HF99. The HF apparently stands for Himmel Furz. Finding parts has been very tricky indeed especially something known as “die Klappe Foofer”. Any suggestions welcome.

If you do not know of the Toroidal Ring Vortex Machine, the video clip below shows one being operated by IBYS head chutney consultant Billie Justice Thomson.

Here is another recent demonstration of the HimmelFurz

The Toroidal Ring Vortex Generators are available for hire under certain conditions (email to start that conversation). They are an enduring source of wonder for all. The first Ring vortex Generator has now been hit/whacked/hammered an estimated 100,000 times plus.

The new/old Himmelfurz in action at Tonsley Innovation Hubarama, South Australia

And in case you wondered whether they pull a crowd, check out the clip below from Science Alive 2017. Long queues!

Twittering Machine

Avian augury – the use of birds to foretell the future – has a fabulous history. Every morning I hear them telling me to get up and make the best of the day.
How to capture that indescribably beautiful sound of birds in the morning?

Short of superglueing some parrots to a fence, the avian research arm of IBYS has built a prototype that may be unveiled at the Science Week Fair in mid August…
Twittering machine trial

Twittering machine trial from Mark Thomson on Vimeo.

Broken Hill String

I’ve been up in Broken Hill and surrounding areas recently working on the wire project – which is about all the resourceful ways that people use wire to repair, adapt, create.

I’ve been on the track of “Broken Hill String”, which is the wire used in the local mines to set off explosives. Once used it is discarded and taken home by the miners who find literally hundreds of uses for it. It is a sort of predecessor to cable ties. There’s a great sense of pride in local resourcefulness here and a slight annoyance from the older miners I spoke to about the general wastefulness of modern life. More to come soon. I’ve also been out into a few local pastoral properties looking at the way people use wire (usually a lot heavier gauge wire) to repair and make things. Some of the building techniques are clever.

Mark Thomson

Research Director, IBYS

Hooting smoking and whistling at Murray Bridge

“You fellas have too much time on your hands!”

We heard that a few times over this last weekend when the Institute took the Random Excuse Generator to the 12th National Historical Machinery Rally on the banks of the Murray River at Murray Bridge in South Australia. We thought it was pretty funny coming from somebody who might have spent eight or nine thousand hours repairing an old tractor they’d pulled out of a swamp!

The biennial rally is the biggest rally of old traction engines, farm equipment and historical working vehicles in Australia, bringing together most of the restorers’ clubs and associations in one place. It’s an immense event covering numerous acres, full of hooting, smoking, whistling machinery, most of it beautifully restored or at some point on the way there.

A magnificent machine in the grand parade

It also attracts a very pleasant, chatty bunch of people who have a really good time together. They’re very accomplished shed dwellers with an amazing range of skills between them and a fair willingness to share them. So it was a good place for the Institute to take Hoke’s Random Excuse Generator on a rare outing and show people some of our products along with a few pieces of our remarkable Hoke’s Tool Co. collection.

Technical Director Dr Chris Block explains the intricacies of the REG

The Random Excuse Generator got a big workout – IBYS Technical Director Dr Chris Block was obliged to make numerous running repairs as the REG seems to have acquired the ability to make excuses for itself (there’s clearly a feedback issue here).

Over the weekend we signed up a number of new Institute members, added a lot of people to the email address list, took orders for t-shirts (because we sold out over the weekend) and held a draw for a valuable Hoke’s Tool Co. Trivia Drive. T-shirts and Certificates of Membership will be in the mail in the next few days. The lucky winner of the Trivia Drive was John Becke of Yanco in New South Wales. John was exhibiting a 1952 Norman generator set at the show, and is a member of the Riverina Vintage Machinery Club.

For us it was all worthwhile, seeing the slow smiles come over people’s faces when they realised what we were up to. We met lots of terrific people that we would like to participate in our online activities and put their sheds – which would be some of the most interesting to be found anywhere – up on our site. Stay in touch and thanks to all those people we met over the weekend who made it such a good experience.

Mark Thomson

Advanced Research Director




In building this blog/website, it’s been necessary a couple of times for me to point out that what we are trying to do is not just talk endlessly about sheds, humpies or backyard outbuildings for their own sake. There is a method, a big picture, behind it all. What I want to do is to encourage curiousity, creativity and resourcefulness and the place that it tends to happen most, in the way that I want to encourage, is in the shed.

The sort of shed culture that I am keen to propagate is about a sort of frugal thoughtfulness blended with the sort of creativity that has become unfashionable. Creativity is not an easy subject to raise in these circumstances because in many people’s minds it brings up images of.. well, wankers and artists who are obsessed with themselves. It’s a bloody tragedy that ‘creativity ‘ has now become a specialised activity and that people have bought the idea that there is a small specialised sector of zany, whacky creative types – usually weird, messy or otherwise being outsiders – and that there is everybody else, who are normal and not at all creative.

This proposition strikes me as crap. I meet large numbers of people who are undoubtedly stunningly creative and innovative in many ways. They might be builders or mechanics or any of hundreds of occupations but because they are outside of the conventional description of ‘creative’, or worse still, make things that are useful, their imaginative skills are not recognised. Officially creative is generally defined as things that have a big white space around them. That you know they are creative, such as in an art gallery or a framed picture that way you don’t confuse them with the merely useful.

Saying that most of the art world is basically up itself and a waste of time makes me, of course, an ungrateful barbarian to many of my former colleagues in the art world (yes, I once went to Art School).

And I would leave it at that but I feel that not harnessing or recognising the full creative talents of a culture could be a fatal flaw for any culture.

I’ve recently been reading “Collapse” by American biologist/geographer Jared Diamond in which he outlines numerous cultures and societies which have collapsed and vanished and why. The story of Easter Island is particularly disturbing. Jared Diamond points out; what could they have been thinking when they cut down the last tree, thus leaving them on a very isolated Pacific ocean with no way of making a boat to leave the place?

“Collapse” certainly makes convinces me that anyone who thinks that somehow the vast magnicient edifice of western civilisation couldnt fall over very easily is deluding themselves.

However, I’m starting to rant. I think I’d better go out to the shed and make something.

That’s why I want to encourage a sort of personal sense of responsibility for how the world works around each of us. In fact the backyard and its associated institutions – the shed and the barbecue to name a couple – can make a strong claim to being the very generators of our prosperity, our well-being and sanity.

The thoughtful application of the principles of mechanical advantage – the screw, the lever, the pulley, the wheel and axle and the inclined plane and wedge – meant that solving problems was a source of delight, satisfaction and even occasionally profit.

But with urban infill housing slowly taking over the backyards of our cities, this personal playground of creative minds is being obliterated.

We are becoming an indoor, inward looking nation, gazing out on patio courtyards paved from edge to edge and ordered to within an inch of their lives. The woodpile down the back or the pile of useful scrap has vanished. Rather than fix anything we ring up ‘the man’ (that mysterious individual from… where?) to come and install a new part or we buy a new plastic version made by slaves in some unseen part of the world.

Television, flapping away at computers and the minimising of all risk now dominates our lives. We are diminished as humans by technology almost as much as we benefit from it. We are literally losing touch with the world.

This website is for people who reckon that it’s no bad thing to get your hands dirty or those who don’t throw good stuff out at the drop of a hat. And if you’re one of those people, you’re very welcome to make a contribution.

The answer’s in our own backyard.

Mark Thomson.
Advanced Research Director



Guiding Principles


  • Never throw anything out- you’ll need it one day, sonny jim.
  • Being a practical and useful person is a worthwhile achievement
  • Encourage curiosity, wonder and other cheap thrills as the origins of imaginative problem solving.
  • Useful and everyday things contain their own beauty.
  • Without a grasp of the principles of mechanical advantage – the lever, the pulley, the screw, the inclined plane and wedge and the wheel and axle – we’re stuffed.
  • You can never have too many tools.
  • I said put that down!
  • A big mess in the shed or the backyard is only a problem for those without a clue.guiding-principles.pngguiding-principles.png
  • Reticence, mumbling and disorganisation are the signs of a deep and enquiring mind.
  • Good ideas are precious beyond rubies but if not shared freely are as useless as tits on a bull.
  • And leave something for the next bloke.


What are we here for again?

As a baby boomer, I spent a lot of time endlessly thumbing through Popular Mechanics magazines. They were just so damn practical and useful, populated by a world of deeply handy and capable Americans that were hard not to like.

Things are different now. Americans seem to have different things on their mind such as reducng third world countries to dust and misery or ignoring global warming to the point of calamity. They’re not as easy to like.

make coverUntil yesterday when my jaded view of the US took a sudden turn for the better. From my friend Genevieve in Oregon (who is transplanted there under most unusual circumstances) I received a copy ofThe Best of Make: 75 projects from the pages of Make.

Make Magazine is a US Magazine that has only been going for a few years but has found a vast niche market: the people who are the shed tinkerers of the US, the hard rubbish collectors, the try-anything-for-a-bit-of-a-laugh types, the frugal people who never throw anything out because they can see use still in that stuff.

The projects they make a somewhere between art/craft/engineering… and fun. Most important… fun.

At last! We here at the Institute of Backyard Studies salute Make and the many activites they propagate such as Makers Faires and lots of online material (see

The book is even better. It starts with a story from Mister Jalopy about trying to repair his car’s non-functional fuel guage which was going to cost over $500. He decided to try to do it himself and ended up finding it was a very simple problem involving a broken clip which would have cost about a dollar.

What the Maker people are about is forcing manufacturers not to do this sort of wasteful foolishness and they pursue with a missionary zeal.

Their Makers Bill of Rights should go up on any respectable shed wall. It includes things like Cases shall be easy to open! Batteries should be replaceable! Special tools are allowed only for darn good reasons! Screws are better than glues! And many others usually relating to eletronics (they are very keen on liberating electronics from geekdom).

There’s also an eagerness and openness about sharing ideas and knowledge that is quite infectious.

This book will gladden the heart of any tinkerer and it is especially good for a child who needs to get some hands-on experience and will see some results from that experience. It would be a nice addition to any library in a community men’s shed..



from Mark Thomson, IBYS Advanced Research Director

Coming from an organisation that celebrates tinkering in all its many forms, in the past few weeks we at the Institute have been enjoying the revitalising of tinkering culture. Or rather the public recogntion of the value of tinkering. It’s pleasing because a couple of years ago I had a two week residency at the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Maine, during which I wrote a monograph entitled “I tinker therefore I am”. At the time people thought I was some sort of raving loony. Most of them still do of course but I feel a slight smug twinge of satisfaction that I was right.

With the GSU (Global Stuff Up) and all, people are no longer throwing out consumer goods with quite the gay abandon they once did – at least in the wealthy west. The rest of the world has, quite sensibly, always conserved resources and tinkered of course.

Tinkering is a beautiful thing. Or as I said in the Haystack monograph:

Tinkering a minor risktaking activity without any great consequence: it is not goal-directed nor are there defined outcomes. There are no key performance indicators for tinkering. Thus, tinkering is suspended from the pressures of defined goals and time limits. It’s about a question mark, not a product or a saleable process. Tinkering involves a flow state, an intense focus on a small closed world. Tinkering and play are closely interlinked: a ceretain sense of wonder propels the curiousity at the heart of every compulsive tinkerer. Tinkering also allows failure which is essential for any process of evolution.

And so on…

There have have been Wall Street Journal articles:

Tinkering Makes a Comeback Amid Crisis

The ABC (Australian Braodcasting Corporation to you outside Australia) has been busy on tinkering, including this interview with Miles Park from the Faculty of Built Environment at the University of New South Wales who has been exploring the relationship between tinkering, product longevity and e-waste reduction

There’s also an interview with me (gosh! self promotion! just fancy that!):

There’s also a Tales of Tinkering Blog that the ABC has set up:

Alex Pang, a bloke from California who works on strategies around future uses of technology, has also written a very nice comprehensive survey of the state of tinkering:

Nancy White, another West Coast guru (whom I had the great pleasure of meeting recently) has been reflecting usefully on the subject:

Through Nancy I met (on a stinking hot Saturday morning recently) an Adelaide local Mike Seyfang, who is following up on many of the same themes that we explore in the Institute. A man with a strong science and technology bent, Mike is a veteran of the early days of modern computing in Australia. He’s got an impressive grasp of the possibilities of digital tinkering and knows lots of people of the same ilk. His theories about the future of language could lead to some interesting discussions…

There are a number of other people who are in on this caper if you are interested: John Seely Brown, Anne Balsamo, Mitch Resnik (more suggestions are welcome)

Or if you want to make some further comments, feel free to add them in the ideas section of our forum.

The chook shed on wheels

It always seemed like an urban myth or a piece of bush leg-pulling: that somewhere out there was an old chook shed being towed behind a van. Then, some months ago, I was going around the roundabout in downtown Alice Springs, just by the council offices and the public library when there it was.

So I threw the old Falcon into a tight squealing u-turn (it was my sister’s boyfriend’s car which I had just borrowed to go down the shops) and went back and had a chat with Frank Turton aka The Chookman.


Frank is an entertainer and he had just been driving around the Northern Territory doing his stuff. The NT is the kind of place where they appreciate people like Frank. He comes from Paringa which is on the River Murray next to Renmark in South Australia. There’s not a lot to Paringa – a bakery (7/10) and a slightly expensive junk/curio store in the old garage. I suspect that Frank is one of the biggest things Paringa has going for it.

Frank takes his chooks on his musical tours around the great Australian countryside – or at least it was taken for granted that he did. It’s a perfectly natural thing to do. So he needed to tow them behind in their own specialised accomodation.

Frank Turton’s chook shed on wheels

The chooks were definitely in there – they would peek out from the sound holes of the guitars or through some of the ventilator flaps that Frank had thoughtfully provided for his fowls. From the many stickers on the trailer shed it was clear that these were some very well travelled chooks.

Good on ya Frank. Think about it… some people spend their lives pruning the geraniums with nail scissors or getting the the knives and forks in perfect size order from left to right. Not Frank. His mission has been to take his chooks on a national tour and more than once it seems. These are chooks with an expanded view of the world. Just imagine what other cage-locked fowls must think when they meet these sophisticated well-travelled birds. They would be impressed. I was.

Hard rubbish -the garbo’s perspective

Some time back, Malcolm sent me a few shed photos. As you can see below, it’s a modest shed, but clearly loved by its owner.

Malcolm’s shed

Malcolm’s shed pic 3

Malcolm works as a garbological transport engineer for one of the Sydney Councils, which is an excellent position to be in when you want to build a shed.

A good many of the components for the shed (including tools) were sourced on the job, especially during the twice yearly Clean Up day (or ‘hard rubbish’ day as it is known in some parts of Australia. Other parts of the shed were culled from traditional sources: part of the structure was the old roof trusses from a mate’s place that was being renovated;similar with the cladding. The floor was from a garage sale. A bit of money was spent buying new stuff but it was kept to the absolute bare minimum.


The Institute of Backyard Studies pays homage to Malcolm and all who do the right thing and build like this. But wait, there’s more!

It was a privilege and a revelation to speak to someone who works on collecting hard rubbish. He more or less confirmed what I have always suspected – that there is a vested interest in councilsd leaving the stuff out on the street for a while because sooner or later there’s a good chance that a freeloader like me will come along and grab those worn green widgets or that piece of painted, dinged up but so useful Tassie Oak shelf.

And for Malcolm the job involves some hard choices. He said that some days the cabin of the garbage truck is so full of good stuff at the end of the day that the council supervisor has to come and get the rest of the crew in another vehicle because they won’t fit inside. There’s also a lot of transferring stuff going on. He knows that some people he works with a looking for certain things and vice versa, so a lot of swapping can go on at the end of the day. Other things end up being sold on Ebay. Other stuff ends up at the local Vinnies or Salvos if it known that they are looking for good furniture or whatever. As Malcolm says, you make a bit, spread some around, give it away.


Interior Malcolm’s Shed 1

Since these photos were taken Malcolm and his wife have moved home and the current place does not have a shed. As you can imagine, that situation will soon be rectified.

Any more observations about hard rubbish are welcome in our forums. I’ve noticed that hard rubbish seems to be changing – this year there’s heaps of those trolley barbecues, along with the usual canvas and wood fold up chairs, cracked plastic furniture, busted bamboo anti mozzie oil lamps and broken battery powered vacuum cleaners. Many whippersnippers seem to have reached the end of their working lives (although I’ve now got 4 and the motor works on every one of them) There’s even a few satellite tv dishes (they look handy…) I’m always looking for more Random Excuse Generator parts or something that may have been part of Henry Hoke’s Quack of Doom (see elsewhere on this sight for sore eyey about Henry’s inventions)

Hard Rubbish and re-use is a subject worthy of further study. There’s an interesting essay about all this from ‘The Sage on the Page’ and look up bindilling and re-use

More to come later