Flash in the pan

Alix Paultre, Editorial Director, PSD



Alix Paultre, Editorial Director, PSD

One of the beautiful things about being a wordsmith is that one finds all kinds of history, culture, and advice in many of the quaint and poetic turns of phrase that exist in the (American) English language. One such turn of phrase is “flash in the pan” which is so good at describing a situation that its use and perceived meaning span years and interpreted meaning.

The term first came to being at the advent of firearms. Early guns (I beg my fellow veterans not to send me email, the weapons were not rifled at the time) were basically hand-held (lugged?) cannon, with just a touchhole to set them off. A small pan at the hole held a primer charge that was set alight (first by rope, then flint and other mechanical ignition systems) to fire the gun.

If the primer failed to ignite the main charge it was literally a “flash in the pan”, that made noise, fire, and smoke, but didn’t lead to anything of import. The term came to mean any promise that fell far short of its intent. From a design and business viewpoint, this is the vaporware that wasn’t, or the “next big thing” that merely added a new way for mall cops to get around.

The second definition came to being during the gold rush years of the late 19th century. One of the easiest ways to find gold is along rivers in lode-bearing areas, as the gold is washed away from the rock in pebbles and chunks like any other rock being eroded. Using a shallow pan, one can swirl the water and separate the denser gold from the lighter gravel in a surprisingly efficient manner. In this case the “flash in the pan” was a shine of light in the detritus that promised gold, but “didn’t pan out”, another more directly-related term.

Here the corollary to us is closer to research and development, where promising leads often take one down unexpected dead ends or in directions undesirable to the designer. There things (such as the promise of cold fusion) turned out (for now) to be merely “fool’s gold”, pyrite mistaken for its nobler cousin. Here the onus is on the circumstances, not on the operator.

What both of these terms can teach the engineering community is not inconsiderable. In the case of the first interpretation, one must be willing to risk, but one does not want to risk foolhardily and be perceived as inadequate. Proper preparation will keep you from “going off half-cocked”, preventing that flash in the pan from blinding you and underwhelming your audience. If you take every step carefully and thoroughly, your primer will ignite the charge and send the load downrange.

In the case of the latter, there is no shame to patiently searching for that nugget of gold, there is always a measure of luck in prospecting. The key here is to be careful not to jump to conclusions and assume every flash in the pan is gold.