This spud’s for you

'Backyard Ballistics' author shows others how to create homemade projectile launchers -- and not hurt anyone

If you're an adult, he's the kid you don't want living next door. If you're a kid, this is the guy you want to hang out with. He launches potatoes like missiles into the Southwest sky, and he builds catapults, rockets and robots, and fires cannons. He makes things go "whoosh," "boom" and "splat," as he says.

The thing is, he's not a kid. This Kenny resident is a 47-year-old single father of two college-age sons. He's Bill Gurstelle, author of "Backyard Ballistics," a book revealing the secrets of how to build your own potato cannons, paper-match rockets, fire kites, tennis-ball mortars and more.

"My neighbors don't really fear me," Gurstelle said with a sly grin as he sat in the upstairs study of his two-story house. "At least none of them have told me they do."

All's noisy on the Southwestern front

Gurstelle readily acknowledges that his area of expertise and fun isn't for everyone. Some folks just don't want to take four feet of PVC tubing, jam a potato in one end, shoot some hairspray into the other, and blast a potato into the heavens.

"Either you get it or you don't," he said. "A lot of guys, especially young guys, get it. Women don't. They have no idea where I'm coming from. It's kind of a visceral gut-thing.

"I look at it as technology as entertainment. When people watch these machines go, like a big catapult or a fighting robot, the technology itself is entertaining. And that's kind of what I'm into."(He says he has never hurt himself, or hurt anyone else, with his toys.)

The birth of mayhem

Gurstelle first tasted the thrill of making things go whoosh, boom and splat as a freshman engineering student at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. A student living in Gurstelle's dorm began collecting shaving cream cans, removing the cans' tops and bottoms, and fashioning them all into a long tube.

"Then he'd put a tennis ball in one end and lighter fluid in the other end," Gurstelle said. "Now this could be blurred through a lot of time and a lot of beer, but as I recall, he blew this tennis ball over the 10-story dormitory where I lived. It was an incredible amount of raw power that this guy made from stuff he'd found. I went, 'Wow, that's really cool!'

"It was an epiphany event."

In 1998, Gurstelle was working in telecommunications as a mechanical engineer. Bored with his job and recalling his epiphany, he decided to self-publish the inside story of how to launch a spud the length of a football field.

"I was absolutely sure that no legitimate publisher in the world would touch this," he said. "I figured they'd look at it and go 'too dangerous.'"

He was wrong. But not knowing that, he went to the bookstore and bought an armful of books on how to self-publish. One of the tips he gleaned: send a finished manuscript off to famous people so that they might write a few complimentary words for the book's cover.

"So I started thinking, 'Who would be interested in a book like this?' It was kind of tough. So I started sending it to astronauts and stuff and some of them actually wrote back. None of the astronauts were willing to review the book. But, like, I sent it to Russell Johnson."

That name might not ring a bell, but Johnson's most famous role certainly will: the Professor on "Gilligan's Island."

Ironically, Johnson was living on an island in Washington state's Puget Sound. He was willing to write a blurb touting Gurstelle's manuscript, and the would-be author was up and running.

Gurstelle took another flyer by writing Dava Sobel, best-selling author of "Longitude" and "Galileo's Daughter." "She loved it," he recalled. "She had an 18-year-old son -- he really loved it.

"Out of the kindness of her heart, she said 'I'm going to help you'."

Tuber or not tuber

Sobel introduced Gurstelle to her publisher, who, in turn, introduced him to an agent. The wheels were turning as nicely as those on a well-oiled catapult. The agent, who lived in New York, and the Minneapolis upstart writer decided to take some publishing industry executives on a trip to Central Park armed with three of Gurstelle's PVC potato cannons.

"They're all crowding around me, and I put a potato in there. I'm really hoping this works. And this potato launches over Central Park! All these kids come running over and they're just captivated; 'What are you doing? What are you doing?' I don't know why they weren't in school, but they weren't. So these potatoes are just flying through the air.

"Every once in awhile, these cops would come riding by on horseback, so we'd all stop and look down at the ground," he said, laughing.

Soon afterwards, Gurstelle had two offers to publish his book. "Backyard Ballistics" was published in 2001 and last year climbed to number two on Discover magazine's list of best-selling science books, trailing only Stephen Hawking's classic "A Brief History of Time."

In 2002, Chicago Press Review released his second effort -- "Building Bots: Designing and Building Warrior Robots." As the title suggests, it was an effort to capitalize on the bot-building mania fueled by TV shows such as "BattleBots," "Robotica" and "Robot Wars."

Gurstelle's currently at work on "The Art of the Catapult: Build Greek Ballistae, Roman Onagers, English Trebuchets, and More Ancient Artillery." He hopes to have the how-to on siege weaponry finished this year. "It's full of designs for different styles of catapults. I'm going to terrorize my neighbors with those," he said, laughing again. "They all think I'm nuts anyway."