The Grill Ignition Button Serves Memento of Happy Summer Days

Before you take into account the wind blowing snow in a sideways direction into my face, the temperature on top of this mountain is 28 degrees Fahrenheit. I’m trying to make lunch while sitting on a rock with a backpacking stove the size of a soda can and thinking about why I decided to go hiking in the middle of February. I bring a spark to life for a brief moment by pressing a small button on a rod the size of a pen that I am holding above the burner. I’m lucky because the familiar whoosh of gas starting means I can start heating ramen.

But wait a minute, how did pressing that button ignite something? There are no batteries or flint and steel in my lighter. It is not even powered by the sun (not that I remember how sunlight appears; In Washington, it is winter. So, how does it light a fire? Magic? Actually, it’s a fascinating physics and material science quirk. I’ll show you how it works by using an example from happy summer days rather than miserable winter afternoons. Come sit with me by this sad substitute for a campfire.

Although it has been more than half a decade since I last used a full-size grill on a regular basis, I can still clearly recall the somewhat delicate dance of lighting one during summer cookouts by pressing and turning the gas control knobs and then pressing the big red “ignite” button.

I could feel and hear the button clicking as it was fully depressed, which, if everything went well, would be followed almost immediately by the gentle roar of gas igniting and the warmth of fire on my face. (Maybe the process is so memorable because it was so tactile.) Since I was raised in Florida, the heat wasn’t always as welcome as it would be now.) Or maybe it stuck with me because I always feared that it wouldn’t light the first time and that the gas would build up and blow up in my face after pressing the button more and more quickly.

The majority of ignition systems at the time made use of a rather innovative piece of technology known as a piezoelectric lighter. They function by producing a spark by converting the kinetic energy generated by your pressing the button into electricity.

Although I am completely unqualified to explain the physics behind this, the short version is that when you apply force to certain materials, such as a variety of crystals and ceramics, they produce an electrical charge. If you build it right, the mechanism won’t wear out for many, many summers to come because that charge can then be used to create a spark strong enough to ignite gas. There are additional uses for the effect; It is used to make speakers, guitar pickups, printers, quartz watches, BlackBerries, motors, rocket-propelled grenades, and many other things.)

Button of the Month typically features some of our favorite gadgets with excellent controls or unusual or interesting methods of input. However, from a user interface standpoint, the ignition button that I’ve been talking about isn’t all that special or unique. Even though I think of summer, the same piezoelectric technology is used in the lighter I use to light candles and fix shoelaces in the house. Funny thing is, many lighters that people might use to manually start a charcoal grill would do the same thing.

Additionally, despite the fact that piezoelectronics resemble magic in that one literally strikes a crystal to generate electricity, as if one were Thor or something, the technology is not particularly novel. This patent was issued in 1980 by Weber-Stephen Products, which is the well-known manufacturer of Weber grills. It states that piezoelectric ignition systems for gas grills were already “quite common” at the time. Additionally, I discovered patents from the 1960s and 1970s relating to their use in handheld cigarette lighters.

Even though pressing the ignition button still makes me long for glorious summer days, it is no longer always the best way to light a grill. Manufacturers use a variety of systems, with higher-end models using batteries to automatically generate the igniting spark when the temperature control knob is turned. Some even heat an electric element to the gas’s flash point with wall power. However, a large red button that causes fire to shoot out in front of your face is more memorable.) Note: Don’t be like me and stand over your grill while you’re lighting it, as almost every grill tells you to.

Despite everything, the ignition button on my grill still holds a special place in my heart and merits a mention because few other buttons have such a strong seasonal connection. Even though I am living in the harsh reality of February, where winter has reigned for months and threatens to do so for even longer, a little bit of thought has allowed me to escape into summer. So, here’s to the things that help us get through tough times and make us look forward to going on bike rides in the park, going to the beach, or even grilling hot dogs, hamburgers, and a variety of vegetables. I apologize to everyone who likes winter.)

Now, let’s get off this mountain I put us on at the start of everything. Please remind me that I won’t hike again until April.

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