Why this man is using a machine to grow icicles in his backyard

Icicles may be everywhere this time of year but growing them yourself is tough. A pair of Toronto science artists are trying to change that — and perfect the growth — with their backyard icicle machine.

Artist Ron Wild uses homemade icicle machine to grow his own in his Toronto backyard

Ron Wild has set up an icicle building machine in his Toronto backyard. He's still trying to perfect it, but it combines his love of art and science. (Haydn Watters/CBC)

The temperature is spot on. The amount of sunlight is ideal. And the mix of melt and freeze has been perfect. But Ron Wild is having a heck of a time growing any icicles.

His homemade icicle machine has frozen up. The makeshift contraption sits in the middle of his Toronto backyard — a combination of wood, Styrofoam, piping and duct tape. Water runs from a big bucket to five different nozzles, which drip, drip, drip and ideally form icicles.

"This is an unlikely place for a scientific experiment but that's exactly what's happening here," he said.

The machine is the brainchild of Wild — a digital artist who considers himself a "citizen scientist" — and his friend and collaborator Stephen Morris, a University of Toronto physics professor who has been studying icicles for many years and compiling findings in an icicle atlas.

The icicle machine lives in Wild's Toronto backyard. 'It very much looks like a very rough experiment because we’re still working on the science part,' he says. When they sort that out, they will make it look pretty. (Haydn Watters/CBC)

Morris typically grows his icicles in labs, but Wild convinced him to build an outdoor machine. He had it on his porch growing icicles for the past two years. But Morris is away in British Columbia this winter, so Wild has been babysitting — and experimenting.

"People see icicles everywhere and they think nothing of it," Wild said. "But when you want to [grow them] in a specific place at a specific time, it's actually quite challenging to do."

'Device in progress'

A few nights with his headlamp and a heat gun ("the icicle maker's secret weapon") and Wild's got the machine running again.

He's managed to grow a good crop: five icicles all varying in size and appearance. His measuring tape tells him the longest is about 30 inches (76.2 centimetres), longer than any of the icicles he's seen on his eavestroughs.

Wild uses a tape measure to see how long his icicles have grown. It helps inform Stephen Morris's wider icicle research. The professor wants to mathematically solve why an icicle has the shape it has. (Haydn Watters/CBC)

He documents each, noting growth, shape and ripples, and then posts his findings online. He'll occasionally check in with Morris to get advice and show him the results.

Morris has made a serious scientific effort to understand why an icicle grows to a certain size and how it gets its ripples. It's easier to figure that out in a lab, where you can control all elements to grow an icicle.

With this outdoor machine, the goal is more artistic than scientific.

The pair want to make an unattended, automated icicle growing gadget, that can live in public squares around Canada. In the summer, they envision it as a fountain, while in the winter, it becomes an icicle maker and destroyer.

Artist Ron Wild explains how he grows icicles crops in his Toronto backyard 0:52

But the freeze-up shows there's still a way to go.

"It's a device in progress," Morris said, while looking at the latest icicle batch over Facetime. "It's not a final version of anything."

Warm spell, then cold snap

The machine has been a learning curve for Wild, who doesn't typically deal with icicles in his day-to-day work. A winter full of unreliable weather has caused additional issues.

"One of the magical things that people don't realize is that for an icicle to grow, there has to be water that isn't frozen that runs a certain distance, then begins to freeze," he explained.

Icicles may be everywhere this time of year but growing them yourself is tough. The CBC's Haydn Watters met a pair of science artists are trying to do just that with their backyard icicle machine. 4:52

That means a warm spell is needed, followed by a cold snap. But it can't be too cold. 

He's now had three successful crops this year and he's hoping for more. The failures have taught him a lot too. 

"You learn more when something doesn't work."

Wild documents all aspects of his icicle growing, including the parts that don't work out. Part of this icicle grew unintentionally on the machine before falling off. He decided to take a photo anyway. 'You learn more when something doesn’t work.' (Haydn Watters/CBC)

Wild is using what he learns to help build a better machine. He's confident he and Morris will eventually be able to perfect the machine. Until then, Morris has some advice to get Wild through the winter.

"Keep the hair dryer handy."

About the Author

Haydn Watters is a roving reporter for Ontario, primarily serving the province's local radio shows. He has worked for CBC News and CBC Radio in Halifax, Yellowknife, Ottawa and Toronto, with stints at the politics bureau and the entertainment unit. He also ran an experimental one-person pop-up bureau for the CBC in Barrie, Ont.


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