Chemistry (1930s)

…the book had an index entry for gunpowder.

In the depths of the Depression [ca. 1933] daddy came home one night with a lump of coal and a “recipe” that was then all the rage. The black lump was placed in a saucer and some water and ammonia poured over it, to which some blueing, salt, and a few drops of red ink had been added.  In a few days fanciful and feathery crystals of blue and green and white began to envelop the lump of coal.  The result was called a “Depression Plant” [1]—something decorative that all could afford in those desperate times.

On the Fourth of July daddy always produced a supply of fireworks, fire and cannon crackers, and weird things like “snakes”; little grey cones which, when lit with a stick of glowing punk, would erupt into an ever growing serpent of ash coiling and curling around. We could set off the firecrackers ourselves but the cannon crackers were reserved for daddy.  Out on the “East” lawn and on the back steps we set firecrackers under tin cans and broke them in half to make spitting “cat” fights. For after dark among the fireworks were Roman candles, fountains, pinwheels, and sparklers to end the day.

One year I was sent to my room for some forgotten transgression on a Fourth when daddy was making for us a special wooden cannon  supposedly to shoot firecrackers.  My punishment was exclusion from the firing.  My sister Holley told me later that it was a failure; it blew into bits. Yess!

On another Fourth, while fooling around and watching fireworks at the Bacon’s, I had several firecrackers in the bottom of my shorts pocket. Unaccountably one (but not all!) went off shredding my underwear amid frantic hopping and slapping of the smoking fabric.  I had to have a tetanus shot the results of which eventually kept me in bed for several days with a high fever and a painful and uncomfortable case of “lockjaw.”

Just before I was ten [1934] I was given a boxed chemistry set for Christmas and, for my birthday a few weeks later, a microscope kit.  The detailed memory of them has faded but the set had test tubes and some little vials of chemicals, litmus paper, phenolphthalein, some sort of spirit lamp I think, and things like tweezers, a wire test tube holder, etc.  So, I could test vinegar and ammonia as acid or base, magically convert water into wine, extinguish lighted matches in invisible carbon dioxide, and make tiny quantities of the poisonous gas chlorine, greenish in the bottom of the tube and fascinating because of its horror in the Great War.  Dark purple potassium permanganate and glycerine when mixed would sizzle and spontaneously burst into flame with purple smoke.

I could dissolve sal-ammoniac in water, put a drop on a microscope slide and, as it dried, watch the beautiful crystal feathers spread out like living ferns to fill all the field and stop.  Similarly one could watch emerging cubes of sugar and salt and, as my father showed me outside in the winter, the simple freezing of water.  One summer, in the mucky water from the pond in back, I found a rotifer with the microscope.

According to mother’s diary in 1937 [4/21, I was twelve] “Donny and Wm. made paddles for a boat and also gunpowder.”  I have no recollection of this day but I certainly remember my gunpowder of later years.

When I was almost fourteen daddy gave me a “real-life” chemistry set for Christmas.  With it was at least one book by A. Frederick Collins; “The Boy Chemist” (1925) or the “Boy’s Book of Experiments” (1927) the last mentioned being most memorable for its having an actual index entry for gunpowder.

The “set” comprised individual items that he had amassed and packed in several boxes: spherical and Erlenmeyer flasks, a retort!, Bunsen burner, ring stand, test tubes, glass funnels, a “thistle” tube, bottles with rubber stoppers perforated with holes for glass tubing, the tubing itself (in long straight pieces later to be cut with a file and softened and bent in the heat of the burner)–and chemicals.  Chemicals in real regular sized bottles.  Sulphur; potassium, sodium, and strontium nitrates; vicious (fuming) acids–sulphuric, nitric, hydrochloric.

He helped me set up a laboratory in the basement laundry room where there was water for the big soapstone laundry tubs and gas to be tubed up to the burner from a spigot he added to the two-burner wash-boiler stove. We had an old enamel topped kitchen table; we made shelves for the equipment and chemicals.

I think I spent more time bending and welding glass tubing and blowing glass bubbles than actually experimenting but as time went on several things stand out in my memory.

One was the making of oxygen and hydrogen by the disassociation of water with a direct electric current–the bubbles rising in each of two inverted test tubes filled with water.  A red-hot iron wire immersed in the oxygen would burn violently with sparks and the hydrogen tube, when inverted over the Bunsen flame, would go off with a pop reverting explosively to its original compound leaving water droplets on the sides of the cooling tube.

Another was guncotton and its dissolved form–nitroglycerine.  I started with guncotton (nitro cellulose) made by treating ordinary cotton with nitric acid then washing and drying the result.  It would burn in an instantaneous flash but I don’t remember trying to confine it as in firecrackers as described by Collins.  Just as well, maybe.

Nitroglycerine came later.  I can’t imagine how lucky I might have been for the making involved dissolving cotton in a mixture of two acids with heating over the Bunsen burner.  I learned—much later—that this reaction is highly unstable and requires precise temperature control to complete safely.  (In a similar experiment Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, lost his eyesight.) I poured the small amount of resulting yellow liquid into one of my mother’s tiny perfume bottles and suddenly realized that I hardly dared touch it further.

Finally, I arranged a flagstone on the ground below my sister’s second floor porch in back and gingerly took the small bottle upstairs and outside where I leaned over the railing and, centering it over the flagstone fifteen feet below—dropped it.  Nothing happened; and I guess I was well out of that one.

We had fun with elemental iodine crystals which we could get at the drugstore and which we treated more or less haphazardly with household ammonia.  The result was ammonium iodide, a brown substance so unstable when dried that the touch of a feather or a house fly could detonate it. We spread it “wet” in various places like the floor of my sister’s room where it would snap and crack making purple smoke under her shoes.  Later, in college, we made larger quantities but abruptly ended our experiments after an unexpected blast from a damp batch.

The rubber hose on the spigot of the washtub stove proved ideal for the making of paint can bombs.  The lid of an old one gallon can would be hammered on all ’round and a nail hole punched in the center of the top and in the side at the bottom.  With the rubber hose end held firmly at one of the holes the gas would be turned on [2]. The entering gas made a faint hissing sound and, as the can filled, the musical pitch of the hiss would rise gradually leveling off when the can was full.  Then, with a finger or a thumb over each hole, the can would be taken outside, set down, and a lighted match applied to the hole at the top.  A small flame, like a candle flame, would then burn steadily and quietly for what seemed like a long time.  Then, getting smaller and fainter, it would suddenly vanish as—BAM! the lid would be blown sky high.

We gradually learned that this was fairly harmless business and took the activity inside to the playroom where a can might be set to burn silently and maliciously under the player-piano bench beneath some unsuspecting musician.

Better and louder blasts were obtained with rectangular gallon screw-cap cans—cap on tight.  The result being a  large (and fairly neat) rectangle of sheet tin and two ends.  I learned once of a machine that shelled walnuts by a similar method.

Rockridge Pond (Bill & Loki, 1938)

Floating out onto Rockridge Pond on a home made raft we would poke the rotting bottom with long sticks.  Bubbles rose and could be captured in an overturned water-filled can.  Methane.  We ignited it to see the blue flash.

In the thirties any kid could ride down to the drugstore on his bike and buy all the ingredients for black powder in satisfyingly large quantities–sulphur and potassium nitrate; the charcoal we gleaned from the fireplace ashes.  Even potassium chlorate could be had which was a great blast and sensitivity enhancer; the only additive that would make a good homemade firecracker–plain old black powder made with only potassium nitrate was too slow for that.

Mix a little sulphur and potassium chlorate on the anvil and hit it a smart hammer blow.  Bam!  The hammer bounces as though having struck a rubber pad.

Somewhere we learned that one could take a 1/4″ machine bolt, just barely thread on the nut and fill the small cavity with kitchen, strike anywhere, match heads–the white part, very carefully shaved off the heads one at a time.  A matching bolt would be screwed carefully in and both slowly tightened to compress the charge.  Tossing the assembly onto a hard surface would detonate the match heads blowing the assembly apart.  I’m sure we never gave a thought to the potential danger of the flying bolts.

Cannon (1940)

In 1940 I made a cannon out of some 1/2 inch iron pipe and a couple of fittings.  It lacked realism and so I built a carriage that could vary the elevation, a recoil mechanism of rubber bands, and some giant 20d spikes to anchor it to the ground.  I painted it in military camouflage. We made a mold out of plaster-of-Paris and cast cylindrical slugs of lead to fit the barrel.

Dad was supportive but counseled caution—pointing out the obvious; that black-iron water pipe was not designed for use as ordnance—and so we always rushed to hide behind trees after having lighted the fuse.

The gun was a muzzle loader.  Pour in some powder (not too much the first time).  Add a small wad of newspaper, tamp it in hard.  Then the slug.  Another wad; tamp it in.  Magnesium ribbon worked well as a fuse, brilliant, hot, and slow burning.  Light the fuse; run for the tree.  The cannon bided its time: first sparks from the touch-hole and then, as though gathering its strength—boom!  We could fire a slug through a three-quarter inch pine board.

Once we took it to a small promontory overlooking Rockridge Pond where we set the barrel at an angle high enough, we thought, greatly to shorten the horizontal range.  We fired and watched for a distant splash. A second or two.  No splash?  Then, from the far shore about two-hundred yards distant, came a sharp clank.  Sheesh!  A slate roof?  A car?  We grabbed the cannon and ran pell-mell for the house.  I later learned in physics class that maximum projectile range is obtained at a barrel elevation of forty-five degrees.

One day I completed my finest batch of gunpowder.  I had used water in the mixing and grinding and had spread the black goo out onto newspapers to dry at low heat in the kitchen oven before final grinding. The finished batch half-filled one of my mother’s enameled metal salad bowls and on this afternoon it sat in the playroom at the far end of the workbench.  It contained potassium chlorate; I needed to test some.  So, at the near end of the bench, I set a pinch on the anvil and whacked it with the hammer.  Bam! As expected.  But…  What’s this?  A great hiss and rumble at the other end of the bench!  A mushroom cloud arose on a pillar of dark flame and spread out over the playroom ceiling [3]. In an instant my beautiful powder was gone and one of my mother’s better salad bowls left red-hot, blackened, and deformed—to say nothing of the soot besmirched ceiling and the smell of brimstone which soon pervaded the house.  This was around 1940 before the atomic bomb but it realistically foreshadowed that event in miniature. No one was home and I have repressed whatever lies and stories were fabricated and whatever family repercussions might have been the result.  It was my last boyhood batch of gunpowder.

[1] Depression Plant:
3 lumps of coal
6 tbs. blueing (added to laundry, the “Whiter than White” of the day.)
6 tbs. water
6 tbs. salt
2 tbs. ammonia
4 drops red ink or food coloring

[2] Not recommended for fuel gases heavier than air such as butane or propane.

[3] For years I have puzzled over how a spark could have flown the distance between the anvil and the bowl. I have lately come to suspect that it might have been the sharp shock of the hammer explosion that caused a detonation. If so, I was better out of that one than I realized at the time!

Wm. C. Atkinson, August 2002



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