Diary of a Pyro

Copyright © 1988 - 2005 John H. DuBois III

Chapter Four

It was in my first year of High School that I finally met someone local who was into pyrotechnics as much as I. Scott was in my Experimental Science class. Actually, I had probably met him many years before when his mother was my teacher in 4th grade, but it was at this point that I actually got to know him. Around this time we began playing with the well-known pipe bomb. We were still grinding up engines for powder, but we had a cheap source of construction materials; my father had a shed with boxes of pipe parts. We played blasting engineer on the cliffs near the ocean, putting pipe devices deep in gopher holes to remove bits of earth and send them into the sea. One particular piece of cliff held our attention for a while. Almost every day we would go down and loosen it a bit more. We finally knocked it off with a cross-shaped device - a tee pipe adapter with four pipes screwed into it, each with a cap on the other end. We had used that arrangement because we were running out of pipe caps; that one used only four caps for four pipe sections while normally each pipe section would require two.

The shortage of pipe parts caused us to look for other containment vessels. Scott had the idea of using empty CO2 cylinders. He widened the hole in the end of one to the size of a fuse (764″, 3mm), and then funneled the powder into it. We later found that most types of powder would slowly but surely pass through the small hole, like sand through the neck of an hourglass. He put a fuse in it and tested it, and it worked beautifully. This device was our staple noisemaker for several years, despite the danger from the metal casing. We bought untold boxes of CO2 cylinders (about $2.50 for a dozen), and simply punctured them to let the gas out before using them. Actually, I had a seltzer bottle and Scott had a CO2 powered BB gun, but a few cylinders go a long way with those, so we usually just wasted them. We called them cobs (CO2 bombs, ho ho…)

As an experiment to see how well they would work underwater, Scott sealed the fuse hole of one with tape and dropped it in an old steel sink that was sitting in his back yard full of rainwater. It worked quite well, with the added bonus of putting an impressive dent in the bottom of the sink. I liked it so much that I thought I'd put a similar depression in the sink that my father had given me for my workshop. We filled it with water, set the device in it, exited and closed the door. They seemed like such small things that I was rather surprised when the fiberglass roof of my workshop ripped off of the walls and opened up like a flap in what seemed to me to be slow motion, before settling back into its original position. As it happened, I had a terrarium filled with cacti and a large separately potted cactus sitting on the end of the roof that opened up. They rose with the roof, and the terrarium came back down where it was, but the other cactus moved outward in a parabolic arc and crashed on the flat slab of stone in front of the workshop. Incredibly, it landed right side up, and while the pot was in shards around it the cactus stood there unharmed.

When we went back inside I found that the damage was not limited to the roof (where actually it had not been too bad.) Unfortunately I had neglected to consider the fact that my sink was made of cast iron. When I looked where the sink had been, there was absolutely nothing except the cold water tap standing forlornly by itself on top of its pipe (the hot water had not been connected.) It was comical in its way. The sink itself had been fractured into myriad pieces of various sizes which were scattered about the watersoaked floor. I worked my creative mind until my father came home. I told him that I had been melting lead and pouring it into a tennis ball can, and had filled the sink with water to help it cool. However, when I picked up the can to set it carefully in the sink it had been (surprise!) hot, so I ended up tossing it into the sink, which had shattered with the impact.

When we had nothing better to do, which was fairly often, we would make up a box of cobs and take them down to the beach. There we would toss them in pools of water to create a nice plume, which in good conditions would be 30 or more feet high. Sometimes we put them in small pools and put rocks over them to create a sort of cannon that would lob the stone out to sea. Another place near the ocean that we liked to do them was in a tall shallow cave shaped like a parabolic trough. It happened that this cave pointed directly at the city's main beach. We would set them off exactly at the focus, so that the sound was directed in a beam at the beach about a half mile (one kilometer) away. Because of its shape, we called it the con-cave.

At this time we were still playing with containers full of pure oxygen. Scott had discovered Solidox pellets, which are used to generate oxygen for oxyacetylene torches. A pellet of oxygen-producing material is burned in a gas generator which consists of a cylinder with a rubber tube attached. It produce a stream of oxygen which is fed to the torch. Scott made a generator out of pipe sections and attached a piece of tubing to it. We found that the large pellets could produce about seven gallons of oxygen, a much larger amount than we could practically make with hydrogen peroxide. We had fun with all sorts of containers and fuels. We eventually determined that WD-40 (light oil in a pressurized spray can) worked very well; we simply sprayed it through the fuse hole into a container full of oxygen to make a device that was quite powerful.

Having the Solidox around to generate oxygen resulted in a bit of serindipity. I noticed that the Solidox can said that it contained sodium chlorate. I knew that chlorates are powerful oxidizers, and it occurred to me that it might be useful in some sort of powder (all of our previous attempts at making our own powder had failed.) I proceeded to pound a pellet with a hammer. I ended up with a mixture of black powder and fine fiberglass-like stuff. Sodium chlorate is white; I guessed that black manganese dioxide was added to moderate the reaction, and that the fiberglass stuff was added to burn with some of the sodium chlorate to generate heat so that the rest of it would release oxygen. I put it through a sieve to remove the fibers and any unground chunks of pellet. Then I tried mixing it with various components, and testing the combustibility of the resultant concoction. It burned well, but slowly, with almost everything. I was used to engine powder, which disappears in a flash, and didn't think that anything that burned that slowly in the open would explode if contained. However, it occurred to me that some of the mixtures would make good rocket fuels. I selected a mixture of made from equal volumes of sodium chlorate and sulphur to test.

To make an engine casing, I cut a piece of one inch (2.5 cm) steel conduit that was about eight inches (20 cm) long from a length that I found lying outside. I squeezed one end down into a sort of nozzle shape with pliers, pinching it in at four points. I then plugged the nozzle and packed fuel into the casing from the open end. I packed it down hard to make it burn slower (the more tightly it is packed the less surface area there is between the constituent grains for the burning to proceed on.) Lacking any other means of closing the top end when I was done, I hammered it shut and then folded it over with pliers. Of course hammering at it when it was full of powder was not very wise. Fortunately, it didn't explode right there in my hands, but it did turn out to have had a deleterious effect. When I was done I removed the nozzle plug and put a fuse in.

Scott, Laurence, and I waited until it was dark and then went down to the park next to the ocean to test it. I found a slight hole and set the engine in it so that it was pointed up and toward the ocean. I didn't bother putting a stick on it or anything; I just wanted to see if it would move. We lit the fuse and ran quite a distance away, not taking any chances. We saw the engine start burning; a strong jetlike flame shot out of the nozzle but it was not nearly enough to move it. The engine was a failure; the fuel was not burning fast enough. After watching from a distance for long enough to decide that nothing dangerous was going to occur, we approached it to get a better idea of what was happening. We stood over it, watching as the portion of the metal that was heated to an orange glow by the combustion of the fuel crept slowly up the tube.

At some point, Laurence thought he saw a police car approaching, so he moved away from the scene. Scott was also lucky; at a critical moment he saw the flame suddenly lengthen and become more violent and he ducked. I was still bent over the engine when it suddenly exploded with terrific force. I found myself lying on my back a few feet away; I felt like I had been unconscious for some time but just as I became aware of my surroundings I heard the echo of the explosion off of the pier a few thousand feet away, so I was really only out for a few seconds. I immediately jumped up and we ran back to my house in case the sound should draw the police. Though my eye ached I didn't think that I had suffered any harm until we went inside and Laurence and Scott saw me in the light. They gave me horrified stares and told me to go look in the mirror. I did, and discovered that the entire white portion of my left eye was blood red. A piece of fuel or earth had hit me and broken some blood vessel.

I used the old tell-them-you-were-doing-something-that-you-shouldn't- have-been.br -doing-but-which-isn't-as-bad-as-what-really-happened bit with my father. I said that I had been hammering a piece of Solidox and a bit flew off and hit me in the eye. He didn't think it was serious enough for me to see a doctor so I just let it heal naturally. Of course the next day at school I got a lot of stares complete with revolted looks. After a couple of days, I looked in the mirror in the morning and saw that the right quarter or so of my eye was white again while the rest was still red. It seemed an odd way for it to heal, but that's the way it proceeded. It probably looked even stranger than when it was all red. The next day it was half red and half white, then only one-quarter red, and then it was done.

Before it had completely healed, I happened to visit one of my teachers from Junior High. I had enjoyed Mr. Belknap's science class and went and visited him a few times even after I was in high school. I don't remember what he thought of my eye or what I told him about it. As was the case at the high school, the students stared at me when they noticed my injury. I found out much later that one of the students who saw me was named Luke, and was a friend of Scott's. He recalls seeing me at the Junior High and wondering what had happened to my eye and who I was. Of course, he didn't know at the time that we had a mutual friend. I don't remember seeing him, but I later got to know him when he joined our band.

I thought about the nature of the failure and decided that hammering on the top of the engine casing had loosened the powder at that end, increasing the surface area available for burning, so that when the combustion reached that point it increased in violence until it exploded.

We also had some fun with nitrogen triiodide monoammine, NI3ĚNH3 (popularly known as nitrogen triiodide). Some years before, my father had given Laurence a book called The Young Folks Cyclopædia of Games and Sports. It was written in the 19th century, and among other things gave complete directions for its young readers to make nitrogen triiodide, a high explosive. The fun thing about this compound is that it is a contact explosive. It is stored wet, because in that state it is reasonably inert, though a large enough shock can still set it off. When dry, however, it will explode at the slightest touch or jar. The method the book presented for making it was to soak iodine crystals in a strong ammonia solution for at least half an hour. We didn't have any iodine crystals, but eventually Laurence found a place in a local industrial park where he could buy such (apparently innocuous) chemicals. However, Laurence had read about a process for making iodine from potassium iodide, and so following some logic all his own bought that instead of iodine crystals. To convert the potassium iodide, it was necessary to mix it with sulphuric acid and then heat it. The iodine would be given off as a vapor, and could be condensed on a cold plate above the vessel where the reaction was proceeding.

We set up an apparatus to do this in my workshop. I had a gallon of 40% sulphuric acid that my father had bought me at an automotive store where it was sold for car batteries. At this time he was still encouraging my chemistry experiments. I mixed some with part of the potassium iodide and put the container over a Bunsen burner. The burner ran on propane from a cylinder of the type used for torches. I went through untold cylinders of it over the years, at no small expense, since my father didn't want to run a natural gas line into my workshop. This was, of course, probably a wise decision since my first workshop had nearly burned down along with the house.

On a ring over the top of the container I put a Petri dish full of ice water to condense the iodine on. A purple haze of gaseous iodine soon formed over the vessel. The process worked quite well even in our crude implementation, except that sulphuric acid vapor was also given off, and not all of the iodine condensed. Vapors of acid and iodine soon filled the place and we had to retreat outside. I remember going in on occasion to replace the condensing dish while trying to hold my breath.

Finally it was done. I scraped the crystals, which were extrememly fine, off of the dishes. I didn't have a beaker to soak them in, so I cut off the top of an aluminum soda can, dumped the iodine in, and poured ammonia solution over it. I used “household ammonia” for lack of anything else and hoped it would be strong enough. I let it sit overnight, just to be sure that they had fully reacted. Unfortunately I had forgotten some rather basic chemistry. During the night the ammonia ate away at the aluminum, and the solution poured out over the floor where it dried, leaving the crystals ready to detonate. The next morning when I walked in I got a rude surprise. Fortunately, since it was spread fairly thin, only the part under my shoe went off. In fact, for months afterward as I walked about the workshop there would be an occasional snap, crackle or pop.

The portion of the crystals that had not dissolved was still in the bottom of the can. I brought some outside and gave part of it to Laurence. I departed when he mixed it with sugar and left it to dry with hopes of attracting some flies. I smeared some of what remained near the edge of the road with the idea that it would dry fastest there. When Matthew came out to see what I was doing, I told him to be very careful not to touch the purple spot on the road. Although I was quite serious with this warning, he apparently took it as a dare and proceeded to jump on it. He ended up on his butt with a sore foot, a purple shoe (since when it explodes it decomposes into iodine and nitrogen), and ringing ears. He took my warnings somewhat more seriously after this episode.

The next day, I brought some with me to the high school. We amused ourselves during breaks by letting blobs of it dry and then throwing rocks at it. When Scott saw it, he had to have some, but he didn't have any iodine crystals or materials he could make them from. He decided to look around the chemical storage area that was next to the room we had our Experimental Science class in. He slipped in during class one day and found that there was a large jar of pure iodine crystals there; a virtually infinite supply for making nitrogen triiodide. Near the end of class he entered the supply room again and took them. I think at first he intended to take only part of the jar, and began to remove some from it, but eventually decided to take the whole thing. However, during the execution of his earlier plan he managed to spill some. If he hadn't done that, the loss might never have been noticed, but as it was one of the teachers saw the mess before the end of the day and figured out what had happened.

Near the end of the last class of the school day, an office courier brought my algebra instructor an urgent message. He stood up in front of the class and solemnly informed us that someone had stolen some iodine from the school lab. The message included dire warnings about the toxic nature of the chemical. One of the school twits, Alan, who knew that I was playing with iodine stuff and unfortunately had the class at the same time as I, immediately called out my name. The teacher looked at me but didn't comment. Alan wasn't a US citizen then, and was due in court in San Francisco the next week to establish his citizenship. I fantasized briefly about appearing in order to testify against him.

The next day in Experimental Science our instructor, known as “The Shaft”, repeated the notice about the iodine. When he was done he continued, saying “Fortunately, iodine leaves a telltale purple stain… exactly like the one behind his chair!” His finger waggled accusingly, all eyes turned to me, and I looked behind my chair where I found that it was indeed as he said. I must have spilled some of the nitrogen triiodide there earlier. He didn't pursue the matter, but did make life difficult for me from then on. I felt better about it when I imagined him with his little brush and dustpan, reaching down to sweep up the evidence. The brush touches the purple crystals…

Though I didn't think much of Scott's means of acquiring the iodine, I couldn't resist helping him try to use the stuff to make nitrogen triiodide. The crystals were quite large, more like chips of iodine compared to the tiny crystals that we had made. Our first attempt was simply a repeat of the method we used successfully with the homemade iodine, except that we used a glass container instead of an aluminum one! We let it react for a long time and then poured the ammonia off. I let a tiny bit dry and then tensely touched it with a stick. It was completely inert. I was surprised since it seemed that it should work, and tried a few more samples before I was convinced that it was quite dead. I could not think of any good reason for it to have failed.

However, since the book had called for “strong” ammonia solution, I decided to make some even though ordinary ammonia had worked before. I was fairly sure that heating ammonia would drive out ammonia gas. I poured some ordinary ammonia into a flask and put a stopper with a rubber tube in the top. I poured some more ammonia in another flask and arranged the tube to bubble the ammonia gas I hoped to generate through it, thus strengthening it. When I heated the first flask bubbles came out of the tube and most of the gas was absorbed, demonstrating that it was working. We repeated the process with this strong ammonia solution, but again it didn't work. I tried putting some of the crystals, wet with ammonia solution, in a large glass tube which I then passed ammonia gas through. This too failed to give us our much desired product. We eventually gave up and disposed of the iodine crystals which were rather incriminating evidence. It occurred to me later that the problem might have been that the crytals were too large, and that if we had powdered them, or dissolved them in ammonia solution and then evaporated the liquid, it might have worked.

I finally found something useful to do with the nitrogen triiodide that I had made with the homemade iodine. Another of those who had seen the demonstrations was my friend Alec. He and I were continually getting into arguments over every object under the sun, and for that matter inside it (i.e., is the inside of the sun hotter than the outside? Of course I knew it was!) These arguments generally devolved into facetious threats. His latest threat was that he would pour herbicide on my cacti. I responded by telling him that one day I would push some of the nitrogen triiodide into the crack between his locker and its door. He replied that he would simply kick the door before opening it. He did, too. For several days I went down to the wing his locker was on, and watched as he stood to the side and reached his leg around to kick it. Other people also watched, undoubtedly interpreting it as some sort of bizarre ritual. I finally carried out my threat on the last day of school. When I went down during break to see what would happen, I found that I was too late; he had already opened his locker. I wondered whether he had remembered to kick it.

Sometime that year a friend of Scott gave him some picric acid. It is a high explosive that is used as a standard of power and sensitivity, and little else. He only had enough to fill a small pipe. He had a single blasting cap from the quantity that Laurence had once had; all of the rest had been squandered by just setting them off. We put it in the pipe and brought it down to the rocks along the oceanfront that served as our “testing grounds”. We lit the fuse and dropped it in a pool of water. The first time water leaked in and it failed to go off. We dried it out, waterproofed it, and tried again, and it detonated with shattering force. The water didn't make much of a plume; it was dispersed by the powerful explosion into a fine mist. That was the only significant quantity of high explosive I ever saw work.

The following summer we had a much larger quantity of fireworks on the 4th of July than we had ever had before. This was because Scott had gotten hold of a catalog from an out-of-state fireworks company called Pyro-Sonics. They sold all manner of Class C fireworks, which includes firecrackers, rockets, etc. Although it sounded quite risky to me, Scott took our money and placed an order with them. He just signed his name in the place where it asked the buyer to confirm that the purchased materials would be used in accordance with local regulations. It actually worked; a few weeks later he received a large box of illegal fireworks by UPS. There was an EXPLOSIVES CLASS C label on the side, but no one asked any questions. So, we had bricks of firecrackers, grosses of bottle rockets, and several 100 foot (30 meter) rolls of fuse for our own creations. Of course, our finances at that time were rather small so we still bothered to unravel some of the packs of firecrackers so that we could light them individually.

We went to Carmel Beach for the Fourth again, our first celebration of this important day with Scott. He had actually been going to Carmel Beach for longer than the rest of us. Luke also came along; I think it was the first time we all got together. This time we set up our camp at some distance from our parents. I forget whether it was our doing or theirs, but it was the beginning of a trend. Despite our mail-order bonanza, all of my fireworks fit into a small box, while Laurence used a chest. I had made another base for my tennis ball cannon, though the sparker I finally found for it was not as good as the one I had before. I thought about bringing it with me, and tried again to design some mortar shells to lob with it. But I didn't really have the experience to do that yet, and decided not to bring the cannon at all since the cops might interpret it as some sort of weapon.

That was the first year I had homemade noisemaking items. I had about eight cobs, most of them only half full since the engine powder we were still using was quite expensive. Even at this point, firecrackers were precious enough that we unravelled most of our packs so we could light them individually. Luke brought a large Quaker Oats box of loose firecrackers. Unfortunately, without the protection of the wrapper, they were a bit too easy to ignite. At some point, a flying ember set them off. The box started erupting lit 'crackers, spewing them out like popcorn from a pan of hot oil and scattering them on the sand. Luke frantically attempted to dump them out so that they wouldn't all go off, while avoiding the flying charges. He was partially successful in this endeavor. But, later in the day he accidently set off a firecracker near Laurence's ear, and Laurence exacted retribution by tossing a lit match into the box. We were treated to another impromptu spectacle.

Luke and Scott had a sufficent quantity of bottle rockets that they decided to have a battle with them. They piled up mounds of sand fifty yards apart and proceeded to hide behind them and fire their rockets at each other for quite a while. The wind and inherent instability of the weaponry made it almost impossible to hit anywhere near their targets, but they had plenty of fun trying.

The most fun we had was when Laurence lost the key to his chest. While he searched in the sand, I kept offering the use of one of my CO2 devices. He refused at first, partly because he didn't want to damage his chest and also because he was afraid that the explosion's attendant flame and sparks might ignite the bare 'works in the chest. I wasn't worried about that eventuality; I thought it would just make it more interesting. Laurence didn't see it that way, so he instead enlisted the services of a person who happened to be combing the beach with a metal detector. But, the search was in vain, so he finally gave in and wedged the proffered cylinder underneath the hasp on his chest. I doubt whether he liked the gleeful anticipation on my face as I watched from a safe distance while the fuse burned down. I felt like the pyrotechnic muscle in a safecracking team. As the tension peaked, the hasp was violently dissociated from the chest and strewn in multiple pieces over the beach. The display was even better, though, because the lid unexpectedly flew open in a cloud of smoke, just like the door to a safe in a movie. It was picture perfect. The only flaw was the failure of the contents to add to the festivities.

Sometime that summer I went and visited Tim. I showed him how to waterproof firecrackers and we had fun tossing them in his neighbor's pool at night and watching the flashes until his father saw us and asked us what we were doing. One day when we were bored we decided to get some pipe parts to have fun with. He led me to Orchard Supply Hardware. I had never seen a hardware store as big, and was elated to discover that they sold bags of fertilizer-grade sulfur. It was actually fairly pure, plenty enough so for my applications. I bought two 5 lb. bags, which lasted me through years of use. Tim bought a nice pipe section and a couple of caps. He filled it with black powder, put a time fuse on it, and lit it near a local reservoir. It made a much louder boom than I'd have dared to generate in the middle of my small city in the middle of the day.

We had lots of fun during the rest of the summer. I regretted having so few explosive devices on the Fourth, so I started experimenting with Solidox mixtures again. After all, the fuel I made with it had exploded in the “rocket”. It seemed that it simply needed to be contained well to detonate. I mixed sodium chlorate in various ratios and combinations with combustible materials, and loaded it into CO2 cylinders. We brought them down to the testing grounds and judged their effect. Most of them exploded, and it seemed to me that a mix with sulphur and charcoal worked best. This was much cheaper and easier to produce than engine powder (grinding up the engine cores was more difficult and tedious than grinding up the Solidox pellets), so it became our standard fill. The sulphur gave it a greenish tint, so we called it green powder. Since we didn't like using metal casings we tried using cardboard tubes, but found that due to the powder's need for strong containment it would only work on a large scale and with very thick tubes. We often used pieces of thick carpet tube, or glued several sizes of thin carpet tube that fit inside each other into one thick one. These things were large enough that we would bring them out to Pebble Beach to set off at night; the security forces are spread pretty thin there and are unlikely to be nearby. Scott usually used a back entrance, or we used some ruse to get by the gate without paying. Despite the dearth of security we did them next to the ocean so that the cliffs would reflect the sound out to sea and away from the land. I wondered what the famed people who lived in the area, like Clint Eastwood, thought of the night rumblings.

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