Pop Pop Boats - The History

The Pop Pop Boat

Otherwise known as flash-steamers, hot-air-boats, toc-tocs or more accurately a Pulsating Water Engine (P.W.E.), the pop-pop boat originated in an 1891 British patent for the coil type water pulse engines by an inventor named Thomas Piot.The popularity of the boats spread quickly, however, and they were soon being manufactured in many countries.
In early publications, mention is made of a series of boats made in the early 20th century by the German toy makers Ernst Planck. In 1916 a US patent was granted to Charles McHugh for the diaphragm type engine. The German name for the boat, toc-toc, originated as a product brand name for a diaphragm / boilered boat in the late 1920's, while they have also been called put-put, phut-phut, and pouet-pouet boats elsewhere.

Credit for the first pop pop boat is usually given to a Frenchman named Thomas Piot. In 1891, Piot filed a patent application in the UK for a simple pop pop boat using a small boiler and two exhaust tubes. A 1975 article by Basil Harley mentions a similar boat seen in a French journal from 1880, indicating that this type of toy may have existed for many years prior to Piot's patent.

Désiré Thomas Piot (Born - 1835 France)

A late nineteenth century French engineer / inventor and the origins of the Vapour Pulse Jet Engine.

Whilst living in London Désirée Thomas Piot applied for 12 English patents between 1881-1897 six of which were published. 

Most of his patents concerned early electric traction motors, dynamos and batteries. These patents could well have related to the development of the first electric underground trains and electric power generators. London’s first electrified underground opened in Dec.1890 between Kingway-Stockwell ( Now part of the Northern Line)  on which he worked.

Only his last two patents involved pulse jets and where issued in 1891 (No. 20081) and 1897 (No. 26823).

Several toy manufacturers in Europe and the USA produced a model boat powered by a Piot type propulsion system until 1924.

When and American C. J. Mc.Hugh obtained a US patent (No.1,598.934) that modified the propulsion system by adding a vibrating membrane to the flash boiler to give the previously silent pulsing jet the metallic sound of a real marine steam engine.. The 'Pop Pop' was born.

The vapour pulse jet boat  or 'Pop Pop' has inspired and baffled children and parents alike for a century. Voyaging around the world to fire the imaginations of several generations .

Playing with a Piot pulse-jet boat almost certainly inspired a generation of future engineers at the turn of the 20th century to take the idea and develop other forms of pulse jet. 

In 1915, Charles J. McHugh filed a patent application for the diaphragm type of engine, an improvement to Piot's design. In 1920, William Purcell filed a patent for the coiled tube type of engine. This type of engine has been very common over the years in homemade pop pop boats, due to its simplicity of construction. The Cub Scout book (published by the Boy Scouts of America) contained a project called a "Jet Boat" for many years. This project used a coil type of engine based on Purcell's design which was placed in a wooden hull. Many commercial pop pop boats have also used this type of engine, due to its low cost.

McHugh filed for another patent in 1926. This was again a diaphragm engine design, refined so that it could be more easily fabricated commercially. In 1934, Paul Jones filed a patent for another diaphragm design which could be produced industrially from simple stamped parts.

Many pop pop boats produced in the 1920s had a single exhaust pipe. Designs using two exhaust pipes are easier to fill and prime the boiler, and have been much more common over the years.

Pop pop boats were popular for many years, especially in the 1940s and 1950s. Pop pop boats declined in popularity along with other tin toys in the latter half of the 20th century as plastic toys took over much of the market. While they are no longer produced in such large numbers, pop pop boats continue to be produced. These toys have come in many varieties over the years. Some have been very simple and inexpensive, while others have been much more ornate and artistic. As with many toys, pop pop boats are often sought by collectors, and the prices paid vary depending on rarity and design.

Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea.

The pop pop boat featured prominently in the 2008 Japanese animated fantasy film 
Ponyo. Toy boats with a diaphragm type engine, like the one shown in the film, were produced and sold as a tie-in when the movie was released.  

Ponyo ( Gake no Ue no Ponyo, literally "Ponyo on the Cliff"), initially titled in English as Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea, is a 2008 Japanese animated fantasy film written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki of Studio Ghibli. It is Miyazaki's eighth film for Ghibli, and his tenth overall. The plot centres on a goldfish named Ponyo who befriends a five-year-old human boy, Sōsuke. Ponyo wants to become a human girl.


ponyo pop pop boat
Ponyo Pop Pop Boat

The film has won several awards, including the Japan Academy Prize for Animation of the Year. It was released in Japan on July 19, 2008, in the US and Canada on August 14, 2009, and in the UK on February 12, 2010. The film reached #9 in the US box office charts for its opening weekend.

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