India's Phat Phats: ingenious steam-powered toy boats


29 Responses to “India's Phat Phats: ingenious steam-powered toy boats”

  1. GlenBlank says:

    A simple diagram for a DIY version of this, using copper tubing and a candle, was featured in “Elective 6: Sailor” in the 1962 printing of the Wolf Cub Scout Book issued to all new 8-10 year-old Cub Scouts working to earn their “Wolf” rank.

    They just called it a “Jet Boat”. I think the Indian “Phat-Phat” is an excellent onomatopoeic rendering, though.

  2. Jonam says:

    I played with these as a child in India (late 1960′s) when my dad would buy them from one of the many toy sellers who could be found at the local markets. We migrated out of India in the early 1970′s. Recently, my dad went back to India for a family visit and managed to buy one for my son. They are much harder to get now but still as much fun and keep running until the flame goes out.

    The other thing that goes with these boats are the plastic “fish” made out of thin scrap plastic sheet in the shape of a “V”. A small piece of camphor is inserted in the notch of the “V” and they are dropped in the water and as the camphor dissolves, they zip around randomly on the surface.

    Simple fun from another time and place.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I can’t imagine this being sold in the US for 50 cents. More like 5 bucks. Greed rules here.

  4. Anonymous says:

    What an ingenious little toy! I want one. So what if I’m 33?

  5. Robbo says:

    We play with ours in the backyard pond. The goldfish love it – following them around and around.

    So cool.

  6. MadRat says:

    You’d think after Ponyo there would be more of a market for these things.

    • Lucifer says:

      I don’t think many companies want to take on the product liability laws in the US by putting out a toy that requires an open flame to operate

  7. Anonymous says:

    When I was a lad, I used to make little boats out of aluminum foil and attach a notched piece of soap to the stern (does a tiny foil boat actually have a stern?).

    Anyway, the soap breaks the surface tension of the water and this propels the boat.

    Not quite as cool as this, though.

  8. Donald Petersen says:

    “Enjoy sputter”?

    How could I not?

  9. PaulR says:

    Lee Valley Tools used to sell some. I can’t find them on their website, however.

  10. Anonymous says:

    My son used these as a basis for his Science Fair project last year and won. Very cool little boats!

  11. Anonymous says:


  12. retrac13 says:

    One of these boats features prominently in the movie, Ponyo. Very cool!

  13. loosethoughts says:

    Wow. I used to play with these when I was a kid. My old man would bring them back for me!

    Yay memories!

  14. AGC says:

    I made a boiler out of a pop can and epoxy, it was a mini steam engine.
    I wonder if I made a 1000 mini boilers could I power a small row boat.

  15. xy9ine says:

    i want this! sad that kids toys so seldom use fire these days. loved my old mechano steam engine… and how about the spark shooting robots? awesome.

  16. Dan Hoey says:

    This toy is usually called a “pop pop boat”, as at . The toy was patented in 1891, but there are reports of it as early as 1880. The heyday was in the 1940s and 1950s, declining as plastic toys took over the market.

    The video says there is an “inlet pipe” and an “outlet pipe”. That is incorrect. The steam propels water out both pipes, then vacuum sucks water back in both pipes. The main reason for having two pipes is that it makes the boiler easier to fill.

  17. racecarboobtat says:

    It sounds like my British Seagull.

  18. JIMWICh says:

    Phat-Phat Boat is phat!

  19. Anonymous says:

    I had no idea these were available to buy anywhere, but they’re great fun for kids to make. Wrap the middle of a length of metal tubing around a stick a few times to make the boiler and jets, and install it in anything that floats and won’t burn. I seem to recall that at least once we carved a boat out of a bar of ivory soap.

  20. Anonymous says:

    As a kid in India, I couldn’t buy this. But based on a book by Ya Perelman (Physics for Entertainment I or II), made one with an egg as the boiler.
    For the right kind of boiler, you make pinholes at each end, blow through one till everything is pushed through, including the yolk, dip the egg in a bucket of water and blow out the water collected within to rinse the egg out all out. Repeat till you think it’s clean. Seal one hole with tape or anything better – but non-inflammable – that you can think of. Dip the egg in water again to fill up to a point a little below the remaining pinhole when the egg is placed horizontally.
    Bend wire to make a makeshift tripod. Make a boat of cardboard from last year’s school exercise books, cover it with paper from those old books, then plastic cut out from bags. A bottle cap with oil or paraffin and a wick of cotton provides the energy source.
    Place the egg upon tripod and the whole thing in the boat.
    There’s no popping sound and jerks as in that ‘unaffordable’ phat-phat boat, just a low eerie hiss.
    Works like a charm and you feel you’ve accomplished something even if you haven’t. Hey, but it’s fun.

  21. Unexploded says:

    Apparently, relationships aren’t the only things powered by heat and “trust”

  22. Anonymous says:

    ha this brings memories! i made one of these for my girlfriend’s birthday a few weeks after watching ponyo. putt putt putt putt
    Now i can say i learned thermodynamics for a woman!

  23. peter x says:

    you can make a noiseless pop pop motor out of a coil of copper tubing – a slow loading site with a great tutorial here:

  24. SamSam says:

    I’ve always liked the simple version shown here:

    There are a bunch of other great projects on that site.

    I’ve also seen a version that uses a small folded-over sheet of metal (soda can wall?) as the main chamber for the water, which creates a very loud PUTT PUTT as the water turns to steam and then the walls of the chamber collapse back in on themselves (I think).

  25. Anonymous says:

    i remember that the cub scout manual of my youth had a page on how to build these with balsa wood and copper coil. what a cool toy!

  26. SamSam says:

    By the way, although water goes both in and out of these tubes, it’s interesting that there is a very defined forward motion, instead of jiggling back and forth. I’m pretty sure that this is because of the directed “pushing” of the water during expansion, and non-directed “pulling” of the water during contraction.

    That is, if you tried to blow out a candle by blowing at it through a straw, it would be very easy. But if you tried to blow it out by sucking through the same straw, it would be very hard, even though you’ve got the same amount of air moving past the straw’s opening. That’s because, I assume, the air is coming into the mouth of the straw from all around the opening when sucking, instead of all going in one direction when blowing.

    Throw Newton’s third law in there, and you have a boat that travels more in the forward direction than in the backward direction on each putt.

    • dman says:

      @SamSam – I am not an engineer, but looking at it, I think the motion is probably not due to slightly unbalanced directional vs non-directional push-pull motion, but more to do with the fact that it’s a steam boiler :-)

      1ml of cold water ingested, turns into 1600ml of steam expelled (according to a quick web search).
      So that’s where the small pull, big push comes from. Not that these toys approach 100% efficiency or anything, but there is clearly enough vaporizing to make plenty of motion happen.

  27. Anonymous says:

    Sadly India is now flooded with cheap toys from China and this supply is killing the local, handmade wooden toy industries. Channapatna is South India used to be very famous for toys.

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