The Holy Grail of Inventing Has been Found...
The Formula for Starlite Is Revealed*
By Mike Marks
Last Sunday morning I left my basement office in a rare state of excitement and headed upstairs. My daughter Jane was at the kitchen table quietly sipping coffee. I slapped the table and whooped, “I’m Indiana Jones, I just found the Holy Grail!” and proceeded to show her a video of a guy on YouTube directing a blazing brazing torch at his fingers for a full twenty seconds. The guy explained how his fingers were singe-protected by a thin layer of material he’d concocted from corn starch, baking soda and Elmer’s glue. The material was his version of Starlite, a secret substance with mythical heat resistant properties invented in the 1980’s by a former hairdresser named Maurice Ward.
The story of Maurice Ward and his creation of Starlite is an archetypal invention story: lone inventor without a fancy education, big budget or tricked out workshop, is inspired by tragedy and invents something fantastical bordering on magic that corporations and the military are desperate to get their hands on. Almost always such stories fall apart when studied in daylight. And like many inventors, Maurice Ward did have a scent of tinfoil. But he also had a real substance he could demonstrate and that’s where magic joined reality.
Ward was inspired to invent Starlite by a horrific 1985 airplane fire in Manchester UK: "It interested me because it was an air disaster on the ground... Fifty-five people died in 40 seconds. We thought we'd like to find something that doesn't burn very much, that would be useful."
Leveraging knowledge gained from mixing new formulations for shampoo and conditioner in his home lab, Ward decided to try developing a more flame-retardant plastic. From 1986 to 1989, sometimes mixing 20 formulations a day, he tried again and again until he came up with a substance that seemed to be impervious to any sort of heat. His granddaughter suggested he call it “Starlite” and the name stuck.
Starlite made its public debut on a 1990 episode of the BBC TV show Tomorrow's World. On live TV Ward blasted a 2700F butane torch directly onto a raw egg protected with the material. After five minutes of flame he turned off the torch, picked up the egg and broke it, clearly uncooked, into a bowl. He claimed Starlite could withstand a laser beam with a temperature of 10,000C (18,000F), the heat of an atomic bomb, temps greater than the surface of the sun. Following that show Marice Ward had interest from the British Department of Defence, Boeing, and even NASA. But, like many inventors with great ideas, he had a reputation for being impossible to negotiate with, asking for "£1 million one day, then £10 million the next." He was understandably afraid that big and powerful companies would steal his invention without compensating him fairly and never left samples behind after a demonstration for fear of reverse engineering. He never filed for a patent because that would mean disclosing his secret sauce.
In 2011 Maurice Ward died and took the formula for Starlite with him to his grave. It looked like the promise of Starlite was lost forever. And that’s what I knew until I came across the YouTube video posted by NightHawkInLight, a man whose actual name is Ben Cusick, an inventor and videographer from Michigan. Cusick has a popular YouTube channel where he demonstrates fun invention-type projects and interesting physical effects while explaining the underlying science.
Cusick became fascinated with Starlite while watching a documentary series on Maurice Ward. He keyed in on the information that Starlite incorporated an expanding carbon foam, something he was familiar with from previous experiments. Cusick thus knew how to make the foam and he knew that it had interesting properties of insulation. From there he says it wasn’t hard to figure out the rest.
Ben Cusick demonstrates his version of Starlite without hype in a just-the-facts manner of a guy talking about fertilizing a lawn. He demos the magical material, details how to make it at home and explains how and why it works. It’s easy to make, he says, you barely need a measuring cup. Here’s the recipe for Starlite as recited by Ben Cusick:
“About ½ a cup of corn starch”
“About a teaspoon of baking soda”
“Add as much [Elmer’s glue] as it takes… to make a putty”
Knead it and voila!
You have a substance that can shield you from a laser beam, withstand the heat from an atomic blast, enable you to lay a picnic blanket on the sun, or be used to make bricks for your own kiln.
In a follow up video Cusick stacks four copper pennies on a tortilla thin pad of Starlite that rests atop his naked fingers and proceeds to focus a blow torch on that assembly to melt the pennies into a puddle of liquid metal. His fingers barely notice the heat. It’s astounding. It’s the lost Holy Grail.
And I found it!
...thanks to Ben Cusick who figured out how to make it, produced a video that both demonstrated and explained it... and after 1.2 million people had viewed the video before me.
Here’s the video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aqR4_UoBIzY&t=186s
*Or at least something that seems to have the same properties.
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