In today’s digital age, it sometimes feels like hardware has taken a back seat to the software that drives our devices. Button of the Month is a monthly column that explores the physical pieces of our phones, tablets, and controllers we interact with every day.
It is 28 degrees Fahrenheit on top of this mountain, before you factor in the wind that’s blowing snow sideways into my face. I’m sitting on a rock with my soda can-sized backpacking stove the size of a soda can trying to make lunch and regretting my decision to go hiking in the middle of February. I press a small button on a pen-size rod that I’m holding over the burner, bringing a spark to life for just an instant. The familiar whoosh of gas igniting means I can start heating up ramen — lucky me.
But wait, how did pressing that button cause a spark? My lighter doesn’t have a flint and steel or any batteries. It’s not even solar powered (not that I remember what sunlight looks like; it’s winter in Washington). So how can it start a fire? Magic? No, it’s actually an interesting quirk of physics and material science. Come, sit by this sad replacement for a campfire with me, and I’ll tell you how it works using an example from happy summer days rather than miserable winter afternoons.
Even though it’s been over half a decade since I’ve regularly used a full-size grill, I can still vividly remember the somewhat delicate dance of lighting one during summer cookouts — pressing and turning the gas control knobs and then pushing the big red “ignite” button.
Perhaps it’s so memorable because of how tactile the process was — I could feel and hear the button clicking as it was fully depressed, which, if everything went right, would be followed almost immediately by the gentle roar of gas igniting and the warmth of fire on my face. (Given that I grew up in Florida, the heat wasn’t necessarily as welcome as it would be right now.) Or maybe it’s stuck with me because I was always terrified that it wouldn’t light on the first try and that the gas would build up and explode in my face after several more increasingly frantic button presses.
Back then, most ignition systems used a pretty neat piece of tech called a piezoelectric lighter. They work by turning kinetic energy from the force of you pressing the button into electricity, creating a spark.
I am wildly 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 make 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 many, many summers to come. (The effect also has other uses; it’s exploited to make guitar pickups, speakers, printers, quartz watches, BlackBerries, motors, rocket-propelled grenades, and so much more.)
Normally, 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 that I’ve been going on about isn’t particularly special or unique from a user interface perspective. While I associate it with summer, the lighter I use for various household needs like lighting candles and mending shoelaces uses the same piezoelectric technology. And so would many of the lighters people might use to manually start a charcoal grill, funnily enough.
And while piezoelectronics kind of feel like magic — you’re literally striking a crystal to make electricity like you’re Thor or something — they’re not actually that new. This patent from Weber-Stephen Products (yes, that’s the well-known Weber grill company) was filed in 1980, and it says that piezoelectric ignition systems for gas grills were already “quite common” at that point. I found patents from the ’60s and ’70s relating to using them in handheld cigarette lighters as well.
The ignition button still makes me think of (and long for) wonderful summer days, but it’s not necessarily the best way to light a grill anymore. There are several different systems manufacturers use, with higher-end models using a battery to automatically generate the igniting spark as you turn the temperature control knob. Some even use wall power to heat up an electric element to the flash point of gas. But those aren’t as memorable as a big red button that makes fire leap out in front of your face. (Note: almost every grill tells you not to stand over it while you’re lighting it for a reason, so don’t be like me.)
Despite all of that, my grill’s ignition button still holds a special place in my heart and feels worthy of a write-up because I can’t think of many other buttons that have such a strong seasonal association. Thinking about it for a bit has let me escape into summer, even though I’m living in the brutal reality of February, where winter has been reigning for months and threatens to do so for quite a bit longer still. So here’s to the objects that get us through the tough times and that let us look forward to taking bike rides in the park, going to the beach, or maybe even grilling up some hot dogs, hamburgers, and assorted vegetables. (With apologies to all the people who prefer winter.)
Now, let’s get down off this mountain that I put us on at the beginning of all of this. Remind me not to go hiking again until April.
Photography by Mitchell Clark / The Verge