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.