Getting Burned

The necessary dangers of electricity, and whether they're worth it.

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The first Maker I ever met was named Lou.

Well, not quite right. The VERY first maker I ever met was named Mom, and after her came some kid who Made really good snot bubbles, and after THAT the kid who learned how to Make origami out of gum wrappers, etc, etc. I suppose I’ve known a lot of Makers in my time.

But the first person I ever met who really understood that he was a Maker was definitely Lou. He was the first person I’d met who treated electronics without the formality or resignation of a career. It wasn’t a boss whose rules he had to follow. It was a friend, and AFTER work he’d sit down with a beer and his old pal Electronics to unwind. To de-stress by experiencing new stressors of his own making, challenges and conundrums to be sorted and debugged in code and hardware.

Lou dancing at my wedding

Lou dancing at my wedding

When I mentioned that I really wanted to replicate the glowing spine found on cylons in the series “BattleStar Galactica” for a Atlanta Sci-fi convention, Lou didn’t hesitate. He reassured me that it was possible, and that if I could find a way to make it a prosthetic, he could create the light effect.

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I didn’t want to offend anyone with a bare cylon back, so instead I got you this back pain ad!

I’ll fast-forward for you through months of prototypes, one of Lou’s first PCB designs, and several aborted attempts at a prosthetic spine on my end. About a month before the conference, Lou had a functioning prototype, and I had a messy kitchen and a couple of quarts of liquid latex down the drain (figuratively- kids, don’t pour liquid latex down your drains!)

I checked out the shaky demo video, delighted, and I didn’t stress at all about my failures to produce my side of the product, because from my perspective, I had the easy part. Just arts ‘n crafts!

Come the date, I remained unconcerned that the idea of a false layer of skin to hide the electronics inside of just wasn’t working out. I flew out to Atlanta with a semi-sheer shirt and a plan; I explained that I had it all worked out- we would glue the boards directly to my skin with latex, throw the shirt over them, and it would be showtime!

Lou didn’t love my plan. He explained about short circuits. He explained that while 9V wasn’t sticking your finger in the socket, it wasn’t exactly skin-safe. He told me about solder joints (they’re pointy!) and about sweat (it’s conductive!), and he tried, really hard, to tell me about electricity.

I’d get you some signed references from my parents, my teachers, and my husband if I thought for a second you guys would have trouble believing that I’m a little hard to persuade once I’ve got the bit between my teeth. Feel free to ask Pete next time you run into him at a Maker Faire. Lou never stood a chance.

There’s a lot of detail I could go into, and I could explain the specifics if I thought it was more enlightening than cringe-worthy, but I don’t, really. I wore the costume for 8 hours, turned a TON of heads, gratified us both immensely, and noticed a persistent smell of BBQ without really giving it much thought. It was about two in the morning before I discovered a knuckle-deep third-degree burn on my back. It happened so gradually that I didn’t feel more than a tingling and pinching sensation that I attributed to a pokey solder joint.

If you want a full rundown, Lou recorded one here, way back when this happened, while the information was still fresh. He’s cool like that. I don’t have any records outside of my doctor’s notes, and he was laughing too hard to really give me anything but a tetanus shot.

I suppose the official lesson here is that electricity, even in small amounts, is dangerous, and that any dangerous thing is made more so by user ignorance. By refusing to even try to understand what the dangers were, and how I could mitigate them, and by choosing to plow ahead against the advice of the better-informed, I endangered myself for no good reason. I was told in advance what it would take to make the apparatus safe, and when I didn’t manage it, I decided to proceed with no safeguards at all in place. Respect for your tools (bandsaws and power supplies alike) is critical to safe and effective making, and a lack of it can lead to far more trouble than the small electrical burn on my back.

But the unofficial lesson is a little less clear. I don’t know if there’s a single best-practice that I followed. I didn’t make an effort to be safe or smart, but I had a lot of fun, enjoyed the fruits of a successful project, and discovered a new passion. A few months later, Lou sent me a link to Sparkfun, and told me about Free Day. I discovered conductive thread, and called Lou with more questions than I could get off of my tongue all at once. A floodgate had opened.

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Total game changer.

Lou and I have both come a long way since then, and we’ve both got a long way to go. He’s a founding member of Hackyard Athens now, so he’s spreading electronics education like a weed! I teach thousands of people a year their first e-textiles circuit, and I talk to them a lot about how to do it safely.

But neither of us can be sure that everyone is going to listen to our directions, read our tutorials, or heed our advice. And if we lived in a perfect world, and we could, I still wouldn’t tell anyone that it’s a perfectly safe hobby. Because electricity IS dangerous. If enough current is moving to turn your light on, play your music, or turn your servo, enough current is moving to create sparks, burns, or smoke. By teaching and using e-textiles, I haven’t discarded the danger of the soldering iron. I’ve traded that and the stiffness of wires for the very different danger of an un-insulated conduit. I WANT people to feel, and to be, safe when they’re learning about electronics. We all do. Nobody likes to see anyone get hurt, for the most part. But you can’t divorce the excitement, the power, or the purpose of electronics from the danger. Our best defense against potential injury is education, but by necessity we all start from a position of ignorance. In the end, all we can do is offer all the help we can, all of the information we have, and the good advice that fell on our deaf ears the first time around. We try to keep safe, but we hope that if, and when, we DO get burned, the education was worth it.

It was for me.

Comments 23 comments

  • DC in small currents really is not all that noticeable. I have gotten burns from DC as well. So I feel your pain there. Glad you spoke up and help people understand this. E-textiles are certainly going to be used more and more and having some good common sense practices for wearable tech is a good thing. Thanks for sharing.

  • This is a lesson a lot of people learn over and over. I am a chemist in my day job, and have not had many big booms, but I have had a few. They all came out of the blue. I tell people now “No one plans accidents. Be paranoid.” Be careful out there.

    And thanks, Dia, for saying something. Perspective matters. And I’m glad you are OK.

    • What a lovely comment! Thank you. I am very okay. I was truthfully sort of excited at the time. I could stand to be a little less proud of my scar collection, I think.

  • Many years ago, after doing Burning Man for the first time (this would be 1997), I decided that for Halloween I wanted to be something way different. After thinking about it, and deciding that I could in fact make something wearable with a string of blinky xmas lights, a 12 volt gel cell battery from Fry’s electronics, and an AC inverter. I was very bright indeed, and my name “LightMan” came to be.

    Not thinking of another way to do it, I duct taped the xmas lights to my clothes, had the AC inverter on my hip in a not so little fanny pack, and wore the 5lb gel cell battery on my shoulder. It wasn’t pretty, but I was very bright! I ran in to a few problems… after dancing that night and getting very sweaty I discovered that if I touched the AC inverter to turn it off I would get shocked, and also that duct tape isn’t very good at adhering to sweaty clothing. I kept running back to the car for more and more duct tape. Thank goodness I had never soldered the battery pack to the inverter… I used the cigarette plug that came with both devices. This created a very quick “break away” safety if something started to feel a little more twitchy than usual.

    Amazingly it ran for a good portion of the night, with me making sure the lights were on a super blinky mode, and turning it off when no one was around.

    I haven’t done something like that for a long time. A few years ago I added EL wire to a bacon suit, and created Bacon Light Man, but it just wasn’t as bright (however I still had the possibility of being shocked, which is a plus).

    I’m hoping I can add some neopixels to some outfit, and again be super super bright, without all the weight! :).

  • I did exactly the same thing last year with a Tony Stark Arc Reactor prop. I’d noticed it getting uncomfortably hot after about 20 minutes - LEDs might be staggeringly more efficient than incandescent bulbs, but they still put out some heat!

    I shoved some card down behind it to protect my skin (it was elastoplasted to my chest, and I’m a hairy guy, so I didn’t want to pull it off unless I needed to!) which seemed to work well enough. That is, until the end of the day when I finally took it off (aaaargh) and found a nice 5mm hole where one LED had cooked its way into my chest. Yikes!

  • I would have been inclined to try some of that “liquid latex” as a “conformal coating” on the electronics. Or cut up some “zip-lock” bags (with apologies to the trademark holder) and a bit of electrical tape to hold it on. (Clingy wrap such as “Saran” would generate too much static.) Neither, though, would have helped for the internal heat generated by the electronics.

    • Both seemingly good solutions! It’s an unfortunate aspect of convention costuming that you frequently have to work with supplies that fit in one of two categories:

      A) Things you had the foresight to bring B) Things whose natural habitat is a hotel room

      So you’ve generally got those supplies that seemed, on the face of it, to make sense (minus the things you forgot, because there ARE plenty of things you forgot), plus tissues, small sheets of paper, a pen, small plastic bottles, a shower cap if you’re lucky, and a shoe-shine mitt and sewing kit if you’re REALLY lucky.

      Liquid latex is certainly one of the supplies we had, and I felt really good about latex as a conformal coating! Especially since, when applying a prosthetic, you usually coat the attaching surface of the prosthetic with latex, then the skin you’re applying it to, let the latex dry, then press them together. I was basically already conformal coating the boards, and my back, before applying. It didn’t work because liquid latex dries soft, flexible, and easy to tear. The solder joints on the back tore through the latex, not enough to detach the board, but enough to make contact with the sweaty skin underneath the latex. Lou predicted that this could be a problem, but I didn’t listen to him.

  • Dia, in Lou’s rundown, he mentions a video, and even helpfully provides a link to the video, but the link is broken. Do you still have that?

    • It was pure fortune the rundown even still exists! That’s a few server upgrades ago and I’m merciless at axing old content.

    • It’s the video just above the link to his blog post- he sent it to me to upload and include. :)

  • You big tease! Where’s the pictures of the Cylon spine in action? grrrrrr.

    • That’s what Google is for.

    • This was years ago, and I looked, but couldn’t find any. FWIW, they weren’t very good anyways. Since it’s a chasing effect, if you took a photo, you’d just get a picture of one LED on. :) I’m pretty sure the last remaining photo is hung up on the wall at my doctor’s office.

  • Did anyone else start to read this and think it was an obituary?

    • I read the first paragraph and skimmed to the bottom. Seeing the wedding reinforced the obituary impression and the other two pictures made me think he broke his back due to a conductive thread accident

    • Thanks for the concern, guys! I am currently still alive and quite thankful that people would notice otherwise.

    • I thought Lou drove his arm into the bride’s chest. Some kind of martial arts heart removal trick (or kidney at that depth).

    • Yep, thought Lou was done for

    • Whoa! I never even thought about it like that, but going back and looking at it, you’re right! It totally reads that way. :) Luckily for all of us, Lou is alive and well, and still occasionally brainstorming weird projects with me. :)

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