Recently, while spending a weekend in Upstate New York, I jumped into a lake with my shorts on. Unbeknownst to me, my battered iPhone 5S sat snugly in my pocket. Sometime during my swim, the phone slipped out and disappeared. I had no idea where it had gone until 26 hours later, when a swimmer noticed the phone’s reflective Apple logo winking at him from the lake’s muddy bottom. He fished it out, and solemnly presented its soaking, lifeless corpse to me. "I’m sorry," he said.
Jasmine, long grain, risotto, dark wild, or basmati, put it in rice
No matter how faint the prospect of revival, every wet phone elicits the same folksy remedy: put in rice, my friends said. Put it in rice, my parents said, and leave it there for at least a day. Jasmine, long grain, risotto, dark wild, or basmati, put it in rice. So I did: I found an abandoned box of Uncle Ben’s, buried my phone under the grains, put it back in the pantry, and waited for the rice to work its magic.
In an era of Genius Bars, man-on-robot assault, and do-it-yourself handgun drones, the so-called rice trick feels like a kernel of ancient wisdom, passed down from one generation to the next. You can almost imagine our ancestors dunking their precious, soggy goods into burlap sacks of rice long ago. But where did the rice trick come from — and does it really work?
In July 2007, less than a month after the first iPhone was released, a MacRumors forum member by the name of jorsuss launched a thread called "I dropped my iPhone in water" with a familiar tale: "I was checking the phone if I got any calls or messages and I dropped it in the sink." Jorsuss covered the phone with rice in what may have been the first documented attempt to use the rice trick on an iPhone. It didn’t work, but it is proof that the method existed before the iPhone, even if the details of the technique were fuzzy — "Is the rice supposed to be cooked or uncooked when using it to dry out a water-soaked cell phone?" asked one user on Yahoo Answers at the time.
One month earlier, in June 2007, a Washington Post reporter dropped his BlackBerry into a toilet while prepping for a date. When he saved his phone (and his date) using the rice trick, it merited a personal account in the paper along with a write-up on LifeHacker: "Dry out your soaked gadgets in rice." But the phone-saving tip predates the smartphone — back in 2000 at least one user used it to help him revive a Nokia 5130.
"Is the rice supposed to be cooked or uncooked?"
Keep digging and you finally get to the likely source of the trick: for many decades, rice was used to keep camera equipment and film dry in tropical locations. In 1996’s Yankee Magazine’s Make It Last: Over 1,000 Ingenious Ways to Extend the Life of Everything You Own, Earl Proulx writes, "If you’re taking your camera to a warm, humid climate, ward off rust and fungus by putting some silica gel desiccant (available from camera shops) in a porous bag and storing it with your camera equipment and film… In a pinch, substitute uncooked rice." In an article from a June 1946 issue of Popular Photography, the author writes that while silica is the preferred method of keeping exposed film dry, tea, brown paper, and rice can work as well, though "their moisture capacity is so low, however, that very large quantities are required to produce a substantial effect." (People have been questioning the power of the rice trick for at least half a century!)
Photographer M. Scott Brauer, who has previously shot for The Verge, says he wasn’t aware that using rice for storing film equipment was a "thing," but that he himself has done it. Another photographer who’s shot for The Verge, John Francis Peters, had never heard of that application for the rice trick but said it sounded "quite interesting."
When the first phone was dunked into a pile of dry rice is impossible to say — but there is an ironic symmetry in the fact that we still use the method to keep our primary photography equipment safe.
So, does the trick work? In 2014, Gazelle.com ran a semi-formal test that indicated it didn’t. Of the seven household desiccants they tested, uncooked rice was the least absorbent, behind cat litter, couscous, oatmeal, and instant rice. Unless you’re willing to spend serious money, leaving your phone on a shelf to air dry, they suggested, may be your best option.
Craig Beinecke, co-founder of TekDry, a company that provides "emergency electronic device rescue services" says so too. TekDry has developed a fancy machine that resembles a suitcase bomb and uses negative pressure and low heat to actively expel fluids out of a properly doused phone in roughly 20 minutes. Last year, TekDry commissioned consulting group DTJ to conduct research into the efficacy of rice. "In the experimental measurements, slightly more water was lost to evaporation simply by leaving the waterlogged device in an open room than by enclosing it in a container of rice," the study concludes. Of course that study should be taken with a grain of… salt. The research was entirely funded by a company whose business depends on the rice trick being ineffective.
The rice trick endures because it sounds right, even if it isn’t
Regardless of the evidence, the rice trick endures because it sounds right, even if it isn’t: rice absorbs water; absorbing water is key to saving a phone; so rice will save your phone. And every time a phone falls into a toilet or sink, the trick is transmitted anew, from parent to child, from friend to friend. Countless testimonials speak to the efficacy of rice. I have my own: I’ve personally dried my phone in rice a number of times — once, I used quinoa. It worked every time. Every time I repeat these stories, which I do freely, I contribute to the rice trick’s myth.
The rice trick does have one unique and very powerful property. The worst thing you can do to a wet phone is to power it up before it dries completely — doing that is cell phone homicide in the first degree. Unlike leaving the phone on a sunny windowsill, the rice trick places the phone out of sight, and maybe out of mind. The grain may not guard the device from the destructive powers of water, but the trick does temporarily remove a much more dangerous element: us, and our impatient, tech-driven neuroses. Spending 12 hours, 24 hours, or even a few days — depending on the instructions you follow — without your phone can be hard. Having it sit in plain view makes it harder. We’re tempted to power up too soon, and kill the very thing we crave.
But if we believe in the rice trick, we give it time to work its magic — time that maybe would have saved the phone with or without the rice. In effect, the rice trick only works because we believe it does.
Twenty-four hours after I placed my phone into the box of rice, I pulled it out, charged it up, and hit the power button. I was stunned: the screen lit up, and asked me to re-enter my Apple ID. I did, and the entire system booted up flawlessly: the camera worked, as did the microphone and the speaker. Under the screen, I could see pockets of moisture; eventually, most of them evaporated. Within three days, there was hardly a trace that my phone had spent a full day playing submarine. My phone should have been swimming with the fishes. But there it was, the electronic living dead. Spooky.
There it was, the electronic living dead
That Monday I strutted into the Verge office with my resuscitated phone like a modern-day Dr. Frankenstein, parading my very own freak of science. A whole day! At the bottom of a lake! My colleagues asked the inevitable question: Did you put it in rice? I did, I said. Of course, they said, that’s the trick, works every time.
But two weeks later, my phone became sluggish, unresponsive. Then, one evening, it stopped receiving a signal entirely, the word "Searching…" permanently tattooed in the upper left corner of the screen. I brought it to my carrier, where a lady tried this and that, starting and restarting the device ad infinitum. After 45 minutes, she turned to me, visibly frustrated. "Sir," she asked me, with a streak of suspicion in her voice, "did you get this phone wet?"
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