Diary of a Pyro

Copyright © 1988 - 2005 John H. DuBois III

Chapter Six

Up to this time none of us had been injured particularly badly. Of course it had to happen eventually. One day we were at Scott's house working on something or other. Laurence had been bothering us so we had locked him out. He was roaming around the house trying to find a way in. For a moment we had the idea of hanging an electrically triggered cob out of the window to give him a surprise. Fortunately common sense prevailed and we decided that that would be dangerous, but not until we had readied it with an igniter. Scott put the device, ready to be triggered by an electrical impulse, in one of those metal cabinets that have lots of small plastic drawers. Apparently he left the leads hanging out, and as it happened the drawer below held some batteries for his remote-controlled car.

Nothing happened then, but a few days later when Scott was working on his RC car, he pulled open the drawer with the batteries in it. Against all odds, the leads from the battery contacted those of the item above in exactly the manner necessary to send current through it, and the cabinet was reduced to sheet metal and pulverized plastic. Scott's mother, who was in the house at the time, took him to the hospital where various sized bits of plastic were removed from his arm. He told her roughly what happened, but said that the item that exploded was a full cylinder of butane. A friend of his mother's who also happened to be in the house at the time of the accident theorized that current from the batteries had somehow ignited the butane in the cylinder, though of course this is impossible since it had no oxygen to burn with.

Scott had another unpleasant experience with an electrically ignited cob, though not as bad as that one. For variety, one day we put an electrical igniter in one instead of a fuse. I connected a piece of speaker cable I had handy to it. The wire was only about four feet long, but since we expected to carefully place the device in such a way that the person firing it would be protected, that didn't concern us. We grabbed a 6 volt lantern battery to set it off, and brought the apparatus down to the beach to play with. We looked around for an interesting place to put it; we had sealed it so that we could set it off underwater if we wanted to. While we were searching, we came across a dead sunflower starfish, a sea critter of the type that looks like a starfish with about 50 arms. It was lying on the rocks. Perhaps because our minds were working intently on finding something different to do with the device, we both had the same rather sick idea simultaneously. An exchange of pregnant “Hmmm!”s ensued.

Boredom makes one do odd things, and it wasn't long before we had slipped the cylinder under the deceased creature. I convinced Scott to be the “trigger man”, since I had provided the electrical materials, and he stretched the wire out toward the large rock formation that the starfish-thing lay next to. He planned to hide behind part of the rock when he set the device off, but since he wanted to be as far away as possible he put the battery out in front of the rock so that the wire would reach to the creature instead of moving the thing closer so that he could have the battery behind the rock with him. We attached one lead from the cable to one of the springs on top of the battery and let the other dangle, ready for Scott to press it to the other contact and make the connection. I put some distance between myself and the blasting site, and yelled to Scott that I was ready. He crouched down, reached his arm around the rock, and engaged our grisly contraption. It went off with a wet-sounding WHUMP!!! I emerged from my hiding place to observe the result. When I jumped down to where Scott was standing, I saw that he was staring at his arm with great revulsion. He held it out and I saw the reason; it was covered with globs of dark multicolored gelatinous protoplasm that had presumably previously constituted the thing's entrails. The vision of Scott standing before me, seemingly wishing that his well-decorated arm was not actually part of his body, stays with me to this day. He quickly washed it off in the ocean, and we refrained from such morbid activities in the future.

Though we had accidents like those when playing with electrical and electronic things, we also had fun using them in a degenerate way to create mini-explosions. Anyone who has ever shorted a capacitor knows the potential they have. A capacitor stores electrical energy and can release it in a very brief period of time. If a large capacitor is charged and then shorted by a very low resistance, the point of contact will superheat and explode with a nice bang. I bought a fairly large cap for this purpose. After much experimentation I found that rosin-core solder made a good shorting material. The solder melts at a low temperature so it explodes well by itself; the superheated solder also also vaporizes the rosin core which addes nicely to it. If a sufficiently capable power supply is used to charge the capacitor, a length of solder can be destroyed in a continuous series of explosions. Another interesting thing to do with electrolytic capacitors is to apply a large reverse voltage to them. Since they are polarized, current will flow through them and heat them up. They contain an electrolytic fluid, which eventually boils and builds up pressure in the metal or plastic capacitor cannister until it explodes. We usually did things like this when we were bored and didn't have any real pyrotechnic materials around.

We never did any oxygen devices larger than a gallon until one of us jokingly took note of the empty 22-gallon steel transmission fluid drum in Scott's driveway. As often was the case with us, the joke became reality. We filled the drum with water, overturned it in a garbage can lid also filled with water, and stuck the hose of the oxygen generator up into its opening. It took three pellets to fill it. It was such an absurdly large device that as we were filling it we began getting paranoid. It occurred to us that the drum already had fuel of a sort in it, since the inside was coated with transmission fluid. And, of course, there was a burning pellet in the generator… what would happen if, after a pellet ran out, the contracting air in the cooling generator sucked combustible fumes back down the tube to the still-glowing remnants of the pellet? I moved away from the contraption, and took to peering around the corner of the house at it except when changing pellets. Of course, nothing untoward happened, and we ended up with a colossal item which we proceeded to spray WD-40 into. I supplied a long piece of fuse, about six feet which meant that we would have approximately three minutes to get away. It was old stuff which I had had around my workshop for a long time, and the wax coating which normally waterproofs it had been cracked in several places because it had had been rolled up into a coil so many times. However, we didn't worry about it.

By this time, Luke was occasionally joining us in our pyrotechnic fun. His older brother Matt enjoyed our exploits so he volunteered to drive us down to the oceanfront in his Opal Cadet where we could set it off. Oddly enough, at this time the notion of doing something so large in the city limits did not seem too strange to us. We ended up putting it in a pool of water created by a culvert that ran under the city's oceanfront road and emptied into the ocean. We lit the fuse and climbed up to the railroad tracks and ran. The adrenaline pumped through our bodies as we waited, minute after minute.

Finally we realized it had failed. We went back and cautiously approached it, and then pulled the fuse out of the water and found that it had gone out. So, we lit it again and ran, and again went through the frustrating wait. It failed again; the fuse seemed to burn about a foot (30 cm) each time before being extinguished when it reached a point where the wax coating was broken, allowing the water to enter. I forget how many times we did this, but finally as we were returning an old man from a house across the street came over and threateningly told us that he had seen us running from something several times and he knew we were up to no good. He said that if we kept it up he would call the police. It was at roughly this point that we realized how incredibly stupid our act was, making this thing in the first place and then attempting to set it off in the city! If it had gone off it would have been so thunderous that the police would have been there in no time, and of course the old man would have given them descriptions of us. We could hardly imagine what our mindset had been just moments before. We removed the fuse from the drum, threw it in the ocean, and watched it drift away.

We tried some other chemical experiments that year. I wanted to make some concentrated sulphuric acid to use to try making some high explosives. I had read that a mixture of saltpeter and sugar would burn to produce sulphur trioxide, which if absorbed by water would create sulphuric acid. So, I mixed some up and put it in a fireproof container, with a tube leading from it to a beaker of water. When I lit it the mixture gave off great volumes of gas, but my absorption scheme was terribly inadequate. The bubbles rose to the surface without noticable dimunition and dissipated into the air of my workshop. Of course we breathed the gas, which upon contacting the water in our lungs finally formed sulphuric acid. This led to half an hour or so of very painful coughing and wheezing. The water became acidic enough to affect litmus paper, but was nowhere near what I needed.

I also tried making mercuric fulminate. I had a jar of mercury, which I dissolved in some nitric acid that my father had lying around (it had been left behind by a renter in one of his apartments.) I mixed this with ethyl alcohol, and was rewarded with a great mass of white precipitate. Since everything had gone perfectly, I supposed that the product was mercuric fulminate, a very powerful and sensitive high explosive that is used in primers. After I dried it out I cautiously tried to ignite a small amount, but it refused to even burn, let alone explode. I also tried detonating it by shock, but this too failed. I reluctantly decided that whatever I had was not mercuric fulminate and was completely inert. I was extremely disappointed; that was the last time I tried making any high explosives.

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