Origami Heaven

A paperfolding paradise

The website of writer and paperfolding designer David Mitchell


The Waterbomb and the Kettle

This page attempts to record what is known about the origin and history of the traditional designs known as the Waterbomb and the Kettle. Please contact me if you know any of this information is incorrect or if you have any other important information that should be added. Thank you.

The Waterbomb is sometimes also known as the Ball or Balloon and the Kettle as the Sedan Chair.

The name 'Waterbomb' refers to the use of this design as a water bomb in the playground by school children, but it can also be used to produce smoke rings (in a way similar of the Playing Card Cube), as a prison for flies (whose buzzing is amplified by the container) and in other inventive ways.

The Kettle is a Waterbomb which has handles at either side. When partly filled with water it can be held over a candle, without the paper catching fire, until the water boils.

Both the Waterbomb and the Kettle appear to be Western rather than Oriental designs.

The play 'The Duchess of Malfi', by John Webster, first performed in 1614 and first published in 1623 contains the words, 'Our bodies are weaker than those Paper-prisons boys use to keep flies in ...' which is often taken to be a reference to the Waterbomb design.

The first definitive evidence for the Waterbomb design, though not in quite the square faced form we are most familar with today, comes from an untitled drawing (no 16 in Plate III) in Elise Van Calcar's book 'De Kleine Papierwerkers', which was published by K H Schadd in Amsterdam in 1863.

In his article 'History of Origami in the East and the West before Interfusion', published in 'Origami 5: Fifth International Meeting of Origami, Science, Mathematics and Education', Koshiro Hatori asserts that, ''Many of the European origami models contained in Krause-Boelte's book (ie 'The Kindergarten Guide', published in 1881) are not included in contemporary Japanese records. The pig, house, sofa (also known as piano or organ), balloon (waterbomb), arrow (paper plane), salt cellar (cootie catcher), bird (pajarita or cocotte) and windmill ... were all born in Europe and imported into Japan along with the kindergarten system.' I have not been able to verify the mention of the Waterbomb in this book.

Neither the Waterbomb nor the Kettle appear in other early sources for Western paperfolding designs e.g. they are not included in Cassell's Complete Book of Sports and Pastimes, published in London in 1882, Eleenore Heerwart's 'Course in Paperfolding - One of Froebel's Occupations for Children', published in 1895 or Houdini's Paper Magic, published by E P Dutton and Company of New York in 1922. Nor, somewhat surprisingly, because boiling water in the Kettle above a candle seems to be just the kind of set up he would have been interested in had he known of it, can I find reference to either design in those of Arthur Good's / Tom Tit's writings during the 1880s and 1890s that I have access to. They may, of course, be mentioned in those of his writings I have not seen.

So far as I know, diagrams for the Kettle first appear in Will Blyth's 'Paper Magic', published by C Arthur Pearson, London in 1920 and for the Waterbomb (under the title 'The Ball') in 'Fun with Paper Folding by Murray and Rigney, published by the Fleming H Revell Company, New York in 1928. The Kettle also appears in this latter volume (under the somewhat odd title 'The Sugar Bowl').

Both designs also subsequently appear (as the Water Bomb and the Kettle) in Margaret Campbell's 'Paper Toy Making', first published in 1936. In the preface to the first edition the author's son, Roy, writes, 'I shall not forget the miniature miracle of boiling water in a paper kettle over the flame of a lantern.'