The unmitigated terror of lawn darts – why they were banned

The unmitigated terror of lawn darts – why they were banned

Are you old enough to remember being terrified of being skewered by lawn darts? You know, those metal pointed, weighted darts that look like miniature javelins with fins? In any other dimension, they’d be treated as a weapon, not a game for children. I’m periodically stuck on the subway with nothing to do but let my brain wander through a tangled landscape of ideas and half written articles and during an epic delay underground recently, I began thinking about lawn darts and wondered why I no longer saw them.

Photo of an old Hasbro Javelin Lawn Darts set

Everything is fun and games until you get a lawn dart in the head

Scan from 1970 Hasbro Lawn Dart Patent

Drawing from the 1970s patent for lawn darts

Nightmare memories of lawn darts

We had a neighbour, years ago, who owned a set, decades ago, and I hated them… the darts, not the neighbours. Their kids where a bit cavalier about launching them into the air and woe to anyone who got in their way. The metal tipped missiles created havoc when they went astray.  I looked for the original lawn dart patent from sometime in the 1950s but had no luck. I managed to dig up an old Hasbro patent application from 1970 that reworked the design a bit.

The pointy bit was still made of a heavy metallic material (usually lead) so it would hit the ground with sufficient force and not wobble about. The new bit was a proposal to use molded plastic for the fins and shaft to cheapen the costs per unit.

“Referring now to the drawings, there is shown generally at 10 a dart construction comprising a weighted head portion 12, a metallic shaft 14 extending from one end thereof and terminating in point 16, an elongated plastic shaft 18 extending from the opposite end of head portion 12, and a tubular portion 20 having vanes 22 extending integrally there from.” 1

Drawing from Irwin Toy's lawn dart patent 1975 - details on how they are constructed

Details from Irwin toy’s lawn dart patent

Irwin also manufactured a popular series.

I couldn’t find the original patent but did find one from 19762. It looks equally deadly:

In hindsight, it should never have been a game marketed to kids. Then again, my neighbours shouldn’t have left the darts unattended, but that was the 60s – survival of the fleetest of foot.  The concept of lawn darts is a fun one … the delivery, not so much if you get nailed by one, which prompted me to see if anyone has produced a solution to their deadliness. The trick, I suspect, is the darts must have several features to be effective, including sufficient weight and a pointy end that sticks into the ground, which is what makes them such efficient weapons. Without a tip, proper weight distribution and fin length, you end up having a sad game of “toss the metal tube about and hope it eventually sticks into the ground”.

The metal tipped version was outright banned in Canada in 1989.  Why? According to tests, lawn darts could exert 23,000 pounds of pressure psi – enough to crack through a human skull and puncture the brain. Which it did. In less than a 10-year span, over 6,000 people made trips to the emergency room for treatment – 80% were under 15 years old and 50% under 10.  The injuries included “punctures, lacerations and fractures to the head and skull”3, along with eye injuries, usually to bystanders.

“The combined factors of weight, the narrow-elongated shaft, the speed that the dart is traveling at the time of impact, and the thickness of the child’s skull at the point of impact present the risk.” Consumer Product Safety Commission3

In the US the darts were eventually banned, unbanned, and then banned again [see articles below for the full, tragic story].  It’s a bit complicated. Currently, there is a brisk trade in used sets. Just scan Kijiji or Craig’s list in the summer and you’ll see people begging to find a set to buy. I spotted one person offering over $200 for a set.  I was a bit surprised by this, especially given their ability to maim. Nostalgia overrides safety sometimes.

Safe lawn darts

As it turns out, a few people filed patents for safe lawn darts. Most didn’t make it off the drawing board. Many of the patents focused on using a blunt tip. It’s a decent idea, but the darts don’t always stick into the dirt, in as much as they plop to the ground and bounce about a bit. Given enough height, they will penetrate the ground, but then we’re back to the same issue – weight, height and skulls don’t mix. Others tried a combination of lighter non-metal darts with blunt tips or flat bottoms rather than tips. Again, people complained about lack of control when the darts were thrown. The thing about traditional lawn darts is they stayed where they dropped, making it easier to score.

Photo of Coleman's Lawn Dart sets - modern safety "darts"

Safety lawn darts from Coleman

Most modern versions of lawn darts have settled on a uniform design:

Coleman’s is typical – blunt, flat bottomed, soft end to prevent skull damaged and weighted to help with stability. Poof makes a set that looks a bit more like a traditional lawn dart, and using the Jarts brand name, but with a round plastic ends rather than metal. Far safer, but many people complained they couldn’t stand up to a lot of impacts and fell apart.

photo of Poof companies safety Jarts

Jarts – safe lawn darts

The biggest issue is the newer lawn darts bounce about too much making it hard to score. Most complaints appear to come from people who played the original lawn dart games and lament the lack of accuracy and control the old javelin styled darts had. Issues seem to revolve around whether the ground is too hard and dry, or the grass is too long. Either cause serious bounceage (not a word, I know). I suppose you could hose down the backyard before playing but that brings a new set of problems to the game. Without the traditional javelin point, bounce will continue to be an issue. But seriously, it’s a backyard game not the Olympics.

I have an idea that might work. Get a large cloth made of Velcro, cut it into squares with numbers and scatter them around the yard. They need to be largish swaths of material or the game won’t work.  Then Velcro tip flat bottomed darts. The darts should come in varying weights for different types of throwers, like real darts. Space out the cloths and then when you throw, the darts stick. Miss the cloth? Oh, it’s like falling off the dart board, no score.  I like Velcro – it can solve so many of life’s little problems.

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Read more:

http://articles.latimes.com/1988-03-03/news/mn-317_1_lawn-dart

http://mentalfloss.com/article/31176/how-one-dad-got-lawn-darts-banned

http://www.nytimes.com/1988/03/10/garden/one-man-s-crusade-against-lawn-darts.html

http://joewo.com/WordPress/?p=11407

Footnotes:

  1. Original Patent https://www.google.com/patents/US3672678?dq=inassignee:%22Hasbro+Industries,+Inc.%22&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwj04eSevKfVAhUi5YMKHchxCfw4ChDoAQh     kMAk
  2. Irwing Out Door Darts Patent https://patents.google.com/patent/US3982762A/en?q=lawn+dart&assignee=Irwin
  3. Consumer Product Safety Commission https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/CFR-2015-title16-vol2/pdf/CFR-2015-title16-vol2-part1306.pdf
In honour of Exploding Battery Week – the Daniell Battery

In honour of Exploding Battery Week – the Daniell Battery

Every time you fire up your phone, stop and offer thanks to English chemist and all-around polymath, John Frederick Daniell (1790–1845), inventor of the Daniell Battery. He’s the dapper fellow to the in the picture below. No, he didn’t design the first battery, he was second, but his design has been described as the first practical battery. Alessandro Volta (volt … volta … get it?) developed the first battery.

John Frederick Daniell, inventor of the Daniell Battery

Photo of John Frederick Daniell British chemist

John Frederick Daniell, British chemist

Daniell was a typical 19th century intellectual – a busy, active mind that wasn’t constrained by one discipline – chemistry, physics, meteorological, climatology and a little bit of geology thrown in.  He started his career working at a sugar works where he developed a technique for clarifying sugar.  He later went on to patent his idea. I tried to find the patent but had no luck. Anyone want to fund a trip to the UK archives? I think I could spend a lifetime there looking at patents.

Anyway, while working at the sugar plant, he attended lectures at the Great Windmill Street Anatomical School in London.  It was there that his interest in chemistry was encouraged.  He sat in on lectures by William Thomas Brande, chemist, author of the Manual of Chemistry and later professor at the Royal Institute. The Great Windmill had a powerful influence on Daniell’s passion for chemistry. While there, he formed a lasting friendship with both Brande and Michael Faraday – a name that should ring a bell or two with most of you.

 Illustration of John Frederick Daniell and Michael Faraday from Sketches of the Royal Society and Royal Society Club by Sir John Barrow

John Frederick Daniell and Michael Faraday from Sketches of the Royal Society and Royal Society Club by Sir John Barrow

By 1830, Danielle had established a name for himself in the fields of chemistry and meteorology.  His work and influential friends (Samuel Taylor Coleridge among them) helped Daniell obtain the position of first professor of chemistry with the new King’s College London where he could devote all his efforts to science and not on the mundane matter of working to support family. While at King’s College, Danielle worked on advancing Volta’s battery, developing a battery that would be named the Daniell Cell.

So just what was the Daniell Cell? Let’s see if I can get this right the first time. The Daniell Cell was pretty much a copper pot stuffed with a copper sulfate solution. That pot was put into another pot made of earthenware rather than metal. It in turn was filled with sulfuric acid. A zinc electrode was put into the mix to create a reaction. By building on the works of both Volta and Faraday, Daniell created a battery that produced an electric current that was stable and eliminated the pesky and dangerous hydrogen bubble problem that formed with Volta’s model.

Here’s a Daniell Battery Cell:

Photo of an early Danielle Battery 1836

Photo of an early Danielle Battery 1836

And here’s another one:

Photo of an early Daniell Battery 1836 courtesy University of Malta

Photo of an early Daniell Battery 1836 courtesy University of Malta

Looks a bit … er … dangerous. Not to mention not very portable, but then that wasn’t a necessity.  I don’t think modern Health & Safety would be impressed.  But here’s the thing, Daniell’s ground-breaking invention fueled a boom in communications.  It was the building block for the expansion of the new telegraphic network that snaked throughout both the UK and US and the new electrical industry until well into the 1870s when newer developments made the Daniell obsolete.  The chemical reaction in the battery sparked the currents that drove the burgeoning communication advancements … all leading 200 years later to your little smart phone.

Technology. Amazing, isn’t it?

Read more:
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You can read more on how the Daniell Cell works here: Notes from the Oesper Collections The Daniell Cell William B. Jensen Department of Chemistry, University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati, OH. It opens a pdf you can download and read.

Read more about John Daniell: https://www.chemistryworld.com/opinion/daniells-cell/7919.article and the Encyclopedia of World Scientists (Rev. ed) by Elizabeth Oakes.