Saturday, January 14, 2006

Blow Up

So, Blown Anything Good Up Lately?

Thomas Edison was fired from his first job for setting a railroad baggage car on fire. Apocryphally, Edison had set up an amateur chemistry lab in the railcar to amuse himself when he wasn’t selling newspapers to passengers on the daily commute from Port Huron to Detroit on the Grand Trunk Railway. Young Edison made a mistake in handling phosphorous which apparently started no little fire in the baggage car.

I find that many of radical tinkerers I meet share a number of unusual experiences sometime in their childhood. One commonality was, like Thomas Edison, lots of them blew something up as a kid. And they felt good about it. Few apologies, little remorse. It was something that happened, they did it and that’s about all there was to it.

Usually the object of destruction was something old and worthless, a thing whose highest value role in the world was probably its sacrifice of itself, thereby inspiring the nascent extreme tinkerer to move on to more sophisticated and credible projects. But sometimes the targets of childhood high impact experimentation were not well chosen. One of the tinkerers I talked with once blew up a car, one a fence, several blew up sheds or garages. (Beside the baggage car incident, the youthful Edison bought his tinkering chops by filling a log with gunpowder and blowing up an icehouse.) A couple of them accidentally started fires that required the assistance of the fire department to contain.

My extreme tinkerer acquaintances reported “successful” experiments involving fuel oil/fertilizer explosives, “rock dynamite”, “stump dynamite”, rupturing pressure vessels filled with sublimating carbon dioxide, garbage bags filled with hydrogen, fulminate of mercury and ammonium triiodide (the darlings of college freshman chemistry classes), nitric acid soaked cotton, and pipe bombs filled with all manner of ill advised and dangerous powders and propellants.

A couple questions for readers of this blog:

1.Safety issues aside, do you believe there are moral or ethical ramifications of blowing things up for fun? Have you blown anything up?

2. Can you tell me about any famous scientist, inventor, engineer, who blew something up accidentally, either in childhood or as an adult?


Milan said...

To me, the important issue here is one of prudence. Putting dry ice in pop bottles and watching them explode is harmless enough, provided people aren't going to mistake it for gunfire or some kind of terrorist attack.

People need to be aware of the effect their actions are likely to have and avoid those that are likely to harm others or the property of others. A bit of prudence with regards to not hurting yourself is also wise. Don't base your research on "The Anarchist's Cookbook."

That said, your list of "extreme tinkerer" experiments has a number of familiar items in it.

Charles said...

i like things that go "bang".

2 years ago, i was confined to bed for a few months (chemo, not results of things that go bang) and in my confinement I could read. that's about it. Read. So Read I did. Verne, Kipling, Wells, etc. Books written as "Adventures for Boys"

These were written at a level I doubt many teens today could keep up with.

My point being, we have "dumbed down" our society in a ridiculous quest for "safety"

Guess what? Everyone Dies. No one gets of this ride alive. There is risk in life. With risk come rewards.

As we work harder and harder to make life "safe" for our kids, we are choking off creativity and learning.

Kids should blow things up. Make stuff go BOOM! Learn what does and does not work. Adults can point at the stove, repeating "don't touch, HOT!" one hundred times over. The first time a kid burns the fingertips, they comprehend hot.

We should let kids play with BB guns, Firecrackers, Chemistry Sets and pointy scissors. Safety is a cover-up for control and sedate, drugged, non-creative blobs.

Give that kid down the street some white phosphorus, he may cure a disease in the future.

But let him sit and play video games all day, and he may? what? become a good consumer? Go to the Mall, live a safe life, and help contribute to the decline of our society!

Make things go boom NOW!

Fred said...

I spent much of my early teens perfecting various potassium perchlorate mixtures in 300mg charges. Of course, the "bigger is better" bug bit, and I mixed up a 4g batch. Carefully folded up inside an aluminum foil pouch, I placed it on a 1/4" thick steel plate in the center of an empty parking lot, and stacked a 300-page notebook on top. With a 20-lb sledge hammer and earplugs, I let loose. There was literally nothing left but the steel plate, the cracked sledgehammer handle, and the spiral wire binding- now good 30 feet away, uncoiled. I suffered some permanent hearing loss in my right ear and some nasty burns, but I'll never forget the feeling of that shockwave and the reverberating boom. It was a good lesson. Bigger is not *always* better.

bill beaty said...

Speaking of idiocy: dry ice boomers are now illegal in Washington state. Only terrorists buy dry ice and coke bottles! :)