Monthly Archives: June 2006


I’m back from an enforced absense from the web. First my virtual-server went down, then I discovered that all the confirmation details and passwords to get the server back up were stored in the now inaccessable server.

Fixed now anyway.

*BOOM* A tale of woe.

It has been said that young amateur scientists typically fall into one of four categories: those trying to make explosives, those with an interest in electronics, astronomers and those that like to take dead animals apart. I didn’t fit the classification so well, I had an active interest in all of those things.

It was back in the summer of 199mumble that I really succeeded in the first of those pass-times. I’d by then been able to make small quantities of gunpowder for rocket engines and the odd banger. I didn’t really intend to make anything more violent…

Every Saturday morning I’d go visit the local library to read the latest issues of Scientific American and New Scientist. It was in one of these session that I came across the memoirs of an industrial chemist. Explaining how science wasn’t as much fun as back in the day, he’d been able to make whatever he liked in chemistry class as long as he could document everything. His school master made the rash promise not expecting him to be able to produce half the stuff he eventually did. Most formulations being derived from data in the CRC Handbook Of Chemistry And Physics.

Inspired by this tale I set about locating a copy of the CRC Handbook and work out how some of the more interesting ‘materials’ mentioned in the article could be produced in the comfort of the garden shed for fun and profit.

Thankfully most industrial or military explosives, while quite simple in composition are quite impossible to make safely at home – forget what the anarchist cookbook tells you. I just didn’t realise stupidly easy and dangerous it was to make some others.

About a week of bookwork and a couple of visits to DIY centres and the chemist shop was all it took before I was ready.

I made a couple of grams each of three different materials. Each was carefully packed in a paper tube, fitted with an electrical rocket igniter and taped in a plastic bag to keep it dry and sunk about half way down a 20 gallon plastic water butt. It was my experience that black powder set up in this way will go BANG (for reference) and splash a bit of water around. I didn’t expect much more from the other mixtures. On this I was quite spectacularly wrong

By now a couple of the neighbour’s kids had come out to see what I was up to. I tell them and they call out their parents, probably not the best idea come to think of it.

I retreat up the garden with the trigger wire and call all clear. Nought point bugger all of a second later there is a bang to rival the big one, *!!!FUCKING BANG!!!* to be precise. The blast wave hits me and the audience in the chest with surprising force, causing at least one child to burst into tears and the local windows to rattle a bit.

There is a deafening silence, at the time I worry if this is because I’m now deaf. After a few seconds the world seem to recover from the shock. I’m standing in stunned silence, one neighbour is pissing himself laughing, the other is trying to console the kids. Where the butt stood is now just a cloud of fine water droplets.

Other people started coming out into the gardens asking variations on ‘what the fuck was that?’.

Brown trousers time.

I’m standing in the middle of what is obviously the aftermath of an explosion trying to convince people that “there is nothing to see here”, crapping myself and expecting to hear the police siren any second. The story that it was an experiment that went wrong was eventually accepted.

All we saw of the explosion was most of the water go straight upwards. The sole remains of the butt was a plastic circle that had formed the base. The rest of it was later located on top of the neighbour’s shed.

After this I swore off ill-advised chemistry experiments at home, to concentrate my time on ill-advised physics experiments instead.

Wantz – again

Some further digging in the archives today has revealed some confusion as to the source of the Wantz Stream. One news paper clipping from 1951 gives the source as “just south of Hainault” later stating “Six hundred years ago it was called the Wythendenbroke. Later it was known as Wisdom River.”

The book, The Dagenham Murder, suggests that around the mid 1800s until the early 1920s the stream woudl have been known locally as Tanners’ Brook after the tannery based somewhere in the area of the old Clap Lane.
The stream these days is rather quiet and unremarked, but on the 28th May 1964 after an exceptionally heavy rainstorm the stream over flowed its banks and flooded a large area including Oxlow Lane, Reede Road, Shafter Road, Dewey Road, Sandown Avenue and Crown Street. An area covering both sides of the District Line rainway and the Pondfield Park.

The response from the Council was to extend the culverting of the stream from the area of Pondfield Park to the end of Church Lane, where it has remained ever since.

I think I shall have to pay a visit to the British Geological Survey this week to see if I can find out the official source of this stream.

A hobby under threat?

It seems that one of the big stories doing the rounds on the ‘blogs today is the dumbing down of childrens’ chemistry sets.

When I was growing up as a kid, I remember begging for a chemistry set one Christmas, at the time the holy grail of chemistry sets was the Salters Science Chemistry Set 5. A large vile-green box packed full with everything you needed to split water into hydrogen & oxygen, strips of magnesium ribbon to blind yourself with when you stare at it burning and more copper sulphate than you can eat.

Of course I never actually got set 5. I was given set 2, which came with the same manual as set 5, but had a slip of paper telling you the contents of set 2 would not let you perform the experiment in the book beyond page 30 or so. It did also come with a nice order form so you could purchase chemical refils and seperate parts to upgrade set 2 to sets 3-5. Chemicals were about 15p per tube, the most expensive piece of glasswear ran to about five pounds.

I never did get set 5, but looking back over the manual I’ve saved these many years I realise that there was nothing too spectactuar you could do. The the most dangerous things in the set were magnesium ribbon and some chemicals for making chlorine gas.

Three years ago I was bought another chemisty set as a joke gift (I left the physics dept to join the chemistry dept). Nowhere in the manual did it make any mention of a more advanced set being avaliable – infact there was no more advanced set – this was the best it got. It contained about a half dozen test tubes, a small spirit burner and 8 chemicals. There was the obligatory copper sulphate, two dyes, iron filings, some citric acid and a few other odds and sods. There was nothing ‘fun’ in there. Not even any fun experiments listed in the manual.

If I’d had been given that set as a kid, I’d have felt conned. You can do many more fun and educational things with the contents of your kitchen cupboards. I used to know a couple of people that did chemistry at home – plating metals, coating mirrors, trying to find fun stuff in coal-tar. The don’t any longer, it is next to impossible for a private individual to get chemicals at home.

Chemistry teaching at schools, well science teaching in general, seems to be crap now. So where will the next few generations of scientists get turned on to science of not at home or school?