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Busts or Booms? On:2007-04-17 04:21:39

Ahh! First loves!---And no, I’m not waxing sentimental about Mandy Erlenbach , or that girl that time in Barcelona near the Sagrada Familia, nor Bettina Wirtz on student exchange from Hannover or was it Hamburg: no ... no ... you see the other day I saw an article on a news site about some teenager or other who was arrested for making explosives; and it immediately reminded me of my first love...

Chemistry!

Back when I was young, many a long and torturous year and mile ago; back at school in England; back when one of my kinder nicknames was ‘Professor’ often (boys being of course boys in their dealings with the more original thinker) with the co-cognomen of ‘Leery’; back in my rooty East Anglia-of-the-beautiful-Broads (not the aforementioned girls, but rather small and lovely lakes); back (to make a long story less long) around 1960 there was, in nearby Great Yarmouth, a chemist’s shop.
Now an English chemist’s shop was (in fact still is) what you Americans would call a pharmacy. And this one; independent, dark and seemingly from an age even earlier than that of my tale; was a rich and sparkling cave of delight to a lover of chemistry.

Being myself at the time a member of the boys-will-of-course-be-boys-brigade my love of chemistry, and my main claim to fame at school, centred on making things that went, if not bump in the night, then bang at preferably the most unexpected of times.
I made gunpowder, and chlorate’n’sugar, and some really quite exotic explosives---all of which, or at least the ingredients for all of which, could be bought at that chemist’s shop in profusion and often in quite obvious and promiscuous proximity. Why on a time projecting to create that simple (simple at least to make), but extremely unstable and high, explosive Nitrogen Triiodide , I went in and purchased Iodine crystals and .880 Ammonia and a packet of filter papers to collect the precipitate---not since that old joke about the little shop on the corner where you could buy a big bag of rat poison ... and a rat ... has such obtuseness been observed in the commercial sector---I mean, I mean, short of asking him outright if he had anything that I could spread, when damp onto, say, the bottom of a toilet seat, that when dry would explode loudly enough to induce abject hysterical diarrhoea into anyone using said seat, could I have been any more obvious? We are talking here of a compound that in tiny quantities, when dry and prodded gently with a fairly long stick, would leave the ears ringing unanswerably.

The list of chemicals so purchased frightens the mature me: I got red and yellow phosphorous, sodium and potassium and magnesium and powdered aluminium metals, conc. (indeed fuming) H2SO4 and HNO3 and a whole pharmacopœia of other nasties.

Then there was the incident of Mike and the matchlock. Mike Playle (or Bucket as we hypocoristically hypo-lambdacised his last name) was into engineering (and indeed survived and is an engineer to this very day) and our Bucket built a matchlock rifle (though it was actually smooth bored) and I made gunpowder for it, a good batch---a damn good batch; and one day, out on Aldeby Marshes, to test it he took careful aim down a long water-filled dyke, fired, sent his slug to splash ... Oh a good hundred yards down the dyke---and the end-plug of the gun (thank goodness he must have flinched as he fired) to whistling past his ear almost as far behind him. Now THAT was what I called a good batch of gunpowder, and a bit of good luck that day for Mike, who of course just managed to avoid kicking the bucket.

Now-a-days no doubt I would be arrested as a potential terrorist or worse, but even back in those less paranoid times, of course, things still came to a head---quite literally, and indeed to mine! When working on some solid rocket fuel and wearing a safety mask like a wimp I raised the grubby thing for a moment for a clearer view of my work at the exact moment that the mix chose to demonstrate how unstable both it and my fate could be. I ended up in a lot of pain and hospital, with eyes like frosted glass and a face like a jack-o-lantern long after halloween.

That was a pretty good batch too.

Finally: I suppose if they HAD been a bit more strict in those days both my eyes would now work as Nature and the makers of Jaws-3D (not to mention those horrible red and green lensed glasses) intended, but what can you do...

Cheerio for now
from the quasi-monocular
Richard Howland-Bolton





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