Category Archives: 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!

The Shearing Days

Recent research work by IBYS associates has thrown more light on Australian Inventor Henry Hoke’s “missing years” which currently seem to be fairly elastic – they could have taken up most of his life.  Photos taken in a remote shearing shed prove definitively that Henry really did work in the shearing industry- these stencilled letters which spell out his name on the shearing shed wall are part of a longstanding tradition when a shearing season comes to an end. The exact year of the stencilling is unclear.

Henry Hoke was thought to have invented the now-common shearer’s pizzle guard.

Any stories or anecdotes about Henry’s experiences as a shearer are always welcome.


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

Where’s the Henry Hoke exhibition?

The immense Henry Hoke tool collection is currently located in Canberra where it resides in the care of the Questacon, the national science and technology centre. The researchers there are giving intense thought as to the potential uses of the collection, which does include a partly constructed Quack of Doom and the only genuine functioning analogue Random Excuse Generator (well, it works sometimes).


As a result of the Question arrangements, we hope to see a whole new generation of young thinkers, scientists  engineers and makers wrestle with the brilliant mind of the great Henry.

The Maker Faire


Where to start?????



Young Americans are much given to the word awesome and correspondingly many young Australians have adopted the expression. It is applied as a general indicator of approval to virtually every conceivable activity. I recently saw a hand painted sign on a Californian street corner saying “Yard Sale – Awesome”

Generally they are not referring to the kind of awe of the “shock and awe” variety that Americans use to describe their colossal military might when it is deployed against some foreign target.

Recently another quite different and perhaps more gentle type of American awe was in evidence at a recent San Francisco Maker Faire – and that is the sense of awe about how the world works.

The Maker Faire is a rapidly expanding phenomena conceived by Dale Dougherty, the editor of Make magazine. Both magazine and event rest on the premise that Americans, and young Americans in particular, are rediscovering the joy of making and tinkering.

The first generation that grew up entirely immersed in the digital online realm are now combining the benefits of the internet’s social and information structure with  more traditional pastimes such as knitting, dismantling household appliances and adapting bicycles. But unlike the older generation of makers, there’s a subtle distinction from DIY (Doing It Yourself)  to DIT (Doing It Together) – using the net to build communities of shared knowledge, problem solving, invention etc. The net in effect has turbocharged the process of learning and making.

This recombination of tinkering new and old resulted in a 20 acres carnival of techno whizzbangery at the San Mateo County showgrounds near Silicon Valley and a little to the south of San Francisco.

Now in its sixth year, the event has everything from traditional knitters to high-end robotics and everything in between. There’s some of the most imaginative uses of bicycles you’ll see anywhere on the planet and even a functional, backyard built DIY scanning electron microscope.

Attended by around 100,000 people over an early spring weekend, Maker Faire is similar in size and feel to going to an annual agricultural show in a regional city.

There are, however, no displays of farm animals or produce. Instead, ,one finds many stalls giving hands-on demonstrations of soldering up electronic circuitry that can run everything from three dimensional printers to “e-textiles” –clothing with digital circuitry built into it.

The electronics connection, which is a crucial link between the old and new DIY tradition, is driven in part by an Italian invention called Arduino.

Arduino is a basic electronic microprocessor that enables relatively inexperienced people to construct simple interactive devices that can control lights, switches, motors and so on. The system has very simple operating software that can operate alone or in tandem with a computer.

Basic Arduino projects can be anything from a simple robot to a musical tone generator to your own personal LED displays or an electronic gas sensor. In short anything that requires simple electronic instructions to operate (and that includes many of the consumer goods around us) can usually be replicated, altered and tweaked.

Known as “open source hardware”, this technology is publicly and openly available for anyone to study, modify, make and generally explore its possibilities through tinkering. The software that controls it is equally freely available.

This commitment to openness is part of a larger philosophical approach to freely available knowledge that is particularly strong in the SanFrancisco/Bay area, which in many ways is the birthplace of the modern digital world – and a renowned home of radical political movements.

This altruistic streak comes through in many ways that we have rapidly taken for granted as being free or gratis – Wikipedia and Google for instance, or free software such as Linux or Firefox.

Many of these new emerged institutions are represented at Maker Faire, along with many of the corporate citizens of nearby Silicon Valley: Pixar, ASUS, Hewlett Packard to name a few.

Dale Dougherty,  Maker Faire’s founder, is encouraging corporate stewardship of the event because he sees the modern maker movement is being very similar in spirit to the early days of desktop publishing  computing in the early 1970s. According to Dale, the next generation of imaginative, problem-solving engineers– the Steve Jobs or Steve Wozniak of the 2020s – will almost certainly be somewhere in the Maker Faire right now.

Many of those young people include a striking number of young women and girls. The stereotype of the nerdy young computer boy in thick glasses seems to have to have vanished. One of the most obvious examples of this change is Meredith Scheff who has designed and uses soft circuit boards that can be ironed or glued into fabric and sells her own conductive thread that can be used in a conventional sewing machine. People like Meredith, who are driven by a passion and excitement for the possibilities of their unusual combination of skills, are going to be strongly sought after by the corporations designing future technology.

Being self-driven, the Meredith Scheffs of this world, with their mashup of wildly variable influences, are not constrained by conventional design solutions to problems. As such, they are potentially hugely valuable to those corporations looking to make quantum leaps in design.

The Maker Faire event fairly crackles with the huge sense of excitement inherent in this optimistic creativity. It is discussed both in the hundreds of booths, stalls and demonstrations and in the numerous well-attended free talks.  Speakers included science fiction writer David Brin, MIT Fab Lab founder Neil Gershenfeld, Frank Wilson, the wonderful mind/hand guru and Chris Anderson, the editor of Wired magazine.

With this mixture of the practical and the intellectual, Maker Faire has become the point around which a revitalised sense of American ‘can do’ capability has coalesced. To call it awe may be stretching it a little far but there is a strange and deliberately risky sense of awesome possibility in the air, even if it is just the sheer delight of having fun with raw undomesticated innovation. Perhaps it’s that Americans sense that here is a chance to reinvent themselves once more, returning to an older theme as “makers of things” , an expression used honourably by President Obama in his inauguration address. There’s also a sense that the spirit represented at Maker Faire might just be be the latest instalment in the several century long American experiment of easily available, shared and enlightening knowledge. For a nation rather rattled by a decade of uncertainty and the possible paradigm shift of responding to climate change, it’s a deeply attractive proposition. Watch this space!

Comment invited

Mark Thomson wishes to acknowledge the assistance of Big Picture Education Australia and Intel in making this trip possible


Burt Munro’s spirit lives on

*One of the above is true!

Deep in a former crumpet factory in Adelaide’s western suburbs Spog and the Volts on Salt One team are hard at work on an electric racing bike they believe will have the grunt to take out the world record.

A former professional go-kart driver, Spog has assembled a dedicated team who over the next couple of months will prepare the bike for their assault on the record. In late March 2011 they will wheel a mighty quick bike out onto the salt flats of Lake Gairdner in outback South Australia.

On the 10 mile straight track, the mass of lithium (LiFePO4) batteries will discharge their magic in a few minutes and Spog and Volts on Salt 1 will travel at unspeakable (ie we’re not telling you yet) speed.

To learn more about this must-attend event go to Already it looks like having a big turn out. Spog recently went up to the Lake Gairdner site and said it was all looking fantastic. The event seems to be very well organised as it has been running for over twenty years.

In the meantime the Institute of Backyard Studies site will be the place to keep track of the Volts on Salt developments.We’re proud to be associated with Spog and his crew’s efforts and salute the spirit of Shed Scientists everywhere and Burt Munro  of World’s Fastest Indian fame in particular.

Good on you fellas for having a RED HOT GO!

For further information about electric vehicles, check out the Australian Electric Vehicles Association website on

Mid January update

The VOLTwerks crew have been putting in a few late nights lately. The two Advanced DC L91 motors fell into place after many nights, working frantically for a technical inspection in Gawler this Sunday (23rd January). The original frame, a 2001 Suzuki GSXR donated by a mate who rode it into the back of a parked car and decided that it would be better as a contender for the electric land speed record, has been heavily modified. It will be considerably heavier than the original bike as weight is an important factor in racing at higher speeds.

The batteries – LiFePO4 – have turned up, all 240 of them, which will deliver 150 volts of power through a Soliton Motor Controller.  As for the bike speed that will result from this much power… only the Lake will tell in late March. There should be heaps of people turning up for the tests. (see )



February 1st update

Despite the fact that it has been murderously hot in Adelaide in the last few days (and in a shed with a low roof it really cooks) the VOLTwerks team have been hard at it. They’re hoping to having a working bike running in two weeks and ready for dyno tests in three weeks. Despite this cracking pace, the team has introduced a radical new element to the design at this late hour: they’ve added a third motor to go in front of the other two main motors. This motor, a 20 HP brushless DC outrunner motor from a very large radio controlled model helicopter, will accelerate the bike from 0 to 30 kph. A clutch will then disengage this small motor and the two large motors will then kick in. The logic behind this third motor is about energy efficiency: the considerable force required at starting (and thus the heat generated) will be borne by this motor. The clutch mechanism will have to be smooth…

The engine mounting work has continued and about 2/3 of the batteries have been tentatively put into place in the space where the fuel tank would have once gone. Each of the small batteries can put out an astonishing 100amps of current!  These batteries are joined up through the Soliton motor controller which discharges energy as required. So much power is dangerous – there’s lots of warning in the instructions about how a spanner dropped across the terminals will vaporise…

The remaining 1.3 of the batteries will be distributed about the bike, including along the swing arm (the forks of the back wheel – shown below on a jig). “Pistol Pete” a legendary gun metal fabricator, has been brought in to help with the rebuilt swing arm, which Spog estimates is about 4 times heavier than the original.  It’s built like a loco. Crew Chief Rocket Rodders has been putting in long hours helping with the fabrication and keeping some quality control to the design. Another vital team member has been Dr Jeff who is the guru of all things electrical. The team is doing good things. Everything thus far seems to be going to plan although there’s a hell of a lot of work to go yet. Bring on March!


Mid February update

Work is progressing and the shape of the creature is emerging

rare shot of The Spog minus helmet overcoem with emotion as the true shape of his vision emergesEven without the tailpiece its looking good

9th March update

With up to 5 people working on the bike up to 18 or 20 hours a day, the pressure is really on at the Voltwerks.

Resident boffin Dr Jeff has been putting in long hours soldering up an enormous amount of circuitry that will evenly control the battery charging and discharging. Nearly all the standard parts of the bike such as brakes, throttle have been reinstalled on the original frame and in many cases beefed up. As the bike needs to be heavy to prevent wheelspin at high speed, there is ample opportunity to add heavy weight in terms of robust structural design – as long as the additions all fit within the streamlined fairing. There’s also been a very nice bright orange paint job -it’s going to look good as well as go like hell.

One anticipated problem is the dissipating the rapid heat build-up in the motors from putting a colossal amount of electricity in a short time and then cooling them down again after the run. Spog and Rocket Rodders have built a cooling system that pumps coolant through an ice tank and then in coils around the motors and also cools the Soliton Controller. This is about to be put together and trialled and when the circuitry is finished and a few more bits fall into place, the moment of truth will take place… very soon.

Spog's lisits of millions of tasks to do. Note the bottle of Coopers memory aiThe Spog half way through another long day


Heavy rains in the South Australian desert have made the roads to Lake Gairdner impassable, cancelling the March 2011 DLRA meeting!

The Volts on Salt team, after months of incredibly hard work, are gutted. Especially when the bike was so close to being ready. A showdown with the competition sometime in the next few months is still on the cards if a suitable venue (ie a disused airstrip in good condition) can be found.

In the meantime, VOS1 runs, and beautifully smoothly at that.(You tube clip cming soon)

Spog and the boys are going to take a breather but are committed as ever. Stay tuned.


There was rain forecast on the television last night. Oh that’s good, everyone says, but there’s an edge of doubt in how they say it.

Three days a week I work in Renmark in South Australia’s Riverland region, where I am helping some friends compile a book on propagating citrus. There’s an irony to this task as the country has been hit by severe drought and the once mighty flow of the Murray River’s irrigation waters – that gave the citrus industry an essential ingredient in what would otherwise be desert – have lessened to an increasingly sluggish and salty trickle.

Despite this change, there is a great beauty about the place in the time before dawn, when I go for my daily walk.

I walk through arrow-straight rows of oranges and vines, laid out in flat precise grids and dotted with modest houses. Each house, apart from its 10 or 20 acres of fruit trees, is surrounded by its own protective clump of palms, gums and ornamentals to stave of the heat of a baking summer. These homes were established in the twenties and thirties, the products of unbounded optimism and of ‘the blockies’ – fruit block owners who got up at 4am and worked very hard all day.

In the still air of the deep violet dawn in the east, there’s a sense of momentous occasion to the place; it’s as though it’s all a film set and an orchestra is playing some inspiring overture. The rich red sand and dark green trees are slowly and softly set aglow by horizontal golden light in the rising dawn. You can almost hear the violins sawing away.

In this pleasant setting every morning I try to take a different route through the grid of roads spreading out from the town. This morning, the air is chilly but not unpleasant: the rain has, once more, failed to materialise.

There is no-one else around.

As I approach one house, close to the road, I see a man is sitting on an armchair on his verandah.

He would not expect anyone walking along the road at this time of morning and has not seen me. He is in his fifties, scrawny, very suntanned and wearing a bleached Drizabone raincoat over his shorts. His posture on the armchair is not comfortable: he is sitting on the edge of chair, looking down at the ground, with his hands clasped together between his open legs.

He is completely lost in his thoughts and I stare at him, feeling a sort of embarrassment for intruding. Perhaps he really had expected it to rain when he got up and put on his raincoat as some gesture of optimism.

Then my clumsy steps passing him by alert him to my presence and he glances up.

He has the look of a haunted and troubled man and for a moment I feel I am witness to some grievous personal tragedy. Maybe it involves the family or the banks or the bills piling up or the fact that the fruit block his father carved out of the scrub may soon return to that state and after a lifetime of hard work he, the son, will have failed. I don’t know.

He gives a brief nod of acknowledgment and I do the same. The blockie gets up and goes inside, slamming the screen door behind him.

Walking back to my comfortable desk work on the computer for that day, I suddenly realise perhaps I disturbed him praying.

Praying that his hopes won’t curdle, that the farm won’t go for a pathetic song at auction.

For just a bit of rain that won’t make him feel like a fool for putting on his raincoat.

he experience has stayed with me because it was the briefest glimpse into some unknown region. Perhaps it was what climate change might mean at the personal level. Or the fate of farmers and people on the land throughout history. Or of just someone else’s life.