It’s 28 degrees Fahrenheit at the top of this mountain before you factor in the wind blowing snow sideways in my face. I’m sitting on a rock with my backpack-sized soda can-sized soda can trying to make lunch and regretting my decision to go hiking in mid-February. I press a small button on a pen-sized rod that I hold over the burner, which briefly animates a spark. The familiar whoosh of gas ignition means I can start warming up windows – thankfully.
But wait, how did pressing that button cause a spark? My lighter has no flint and steel or batteries. It doesn’t even run on solar power (not that I can remember what sunlight looks like; it’s winter in Washington). So how can it cause a fire? Magic? No, it’s actually an interesting quirk of physics and materials science. Come sit with me over this sad campfire substitute, and I’ll tell you how it works, using an example of happy summer days instead of miserable winter afternoons.
Even though it’s been more than half a decade since I’ve regularly used a full-size grill, I can still vividly remember the somewhat delicate dance of lighting it up during summer cooking sessions – pushing and turning the gas control knobs, then hitting the big red ” light” button.
Perhaps it’s so memorable because of how tactile the process was – I could feel and hear the button click as it was fully pressed, which, if all went well, would be followed almost immediately by the soft roar of igniting gas and the heat of fire on my face. (Since I grew up in Florida, the heat wasn’t necessarily as welcome as it is now.) Or maybe it stuck with me because I was always terrified that it wouldn’t light up on the first try and that the gas would build up and in my face explode after several more increasingly frantic button presses.
At the time, most ignition systems used a pretty clever piece of technology called a piezoelectric lighter. They work by converting kinetic energy from the force of pressing the button into electricity, creating a spark.
I am vastly unqualified to explain the physics of How this happens, but the TL; DR is that some materials, including a variety of crystals and ceramics, generate an electrical charge when you apply force to them. That charge can then be used to create a spark powerful enough to ignite gas, which makes it great for lighting a grill – if you build it right, the mechanism won’t wear out for summers to come. (The effect has other uses too; it’s used to make guitar pickups, speakers, printers, quartz watches, BlackBerries, motors, rocket-propelled grenades, and much more.)
Usually Button of the Month is about unique or interesting input methods or some of our favorite gadgets that have really good controls. But honestly, the ignition button I talked about isn’t particularly special or unique from a user interface perspective. Although I associate it with summer, the lighter I use for various household needs, such as lighting candles and mending shoelaces, uses the same piezoelectric technology. And so are many of the lighters people might use to manually start a charcoal grill, funnily enough.
And while piezo electronics feel a bit like magic – you literally smash a crystal to make electricity like you’re Thor or something – they’re actually not that new. This patent from Weber-Stephen Products (yes, that’s the famous Weber grilling company) was filed in 1980 and it says that piezoelectric ignition systems for gas grills were already “quite common” at that time. I found patents from the ’60s and ’70s regarding its use in portable cigarette lighters.
The ignition button still reminds me of (and longs for) glorious summer days, but it’s not necessarily the best way to light a barbecue anymore. There are several systems that manufacturers use, with more expensive models using a battery to automatically generate the ignition spark when you turn the temperature control knob. Some even use wall current to heat up an electrical element to the flash point of gas. But those aren’t as memorable as a big red button blasting fire in front of your face. (Note: Almost every grill tells you not to step over it while lighting it for a reason, so don’t be like me.)
Despite all that, my grill’s ignition button still holds a special place in my heart and feels worth writing down, as I can’t think of many other buttons that have such a strong seasonal association. Thinking about it, I’ve fled into summer, even though I live in the brutal reality of February, where winter has reigned for months and threatens to do so for quite some time to come. So here are the items that get us through the rough times and make us look forward to bike rides in the park, going to the beach, or maybe even grilling up some hot dogs, burgers, and assorted veggies. (With apologies to all those who prefer winter.)
Now let’s get off the mountain I put us on at the beginning of it all. Remind me not to go hiking again until April.
Photography by Mitchell Clark / Acutely