Bathtub Nitroglycerine and Perpetual Motion Machines

Families are a great invention.  They allow us to remember stuff from long ago and be young again.  Case in point, I have a descendant who is in middle school.  He is forever describing to me machines he has invented that turn kinetic energy and wind and sunlight into potential energy stored in batteries and flywheels and allowing him to perpetually power the imaginary kingdom he rules with an iron hand.  On a fairly frequent interval I remind him of the three laws of thermodynamics and the scourge of entropy.  He laughs it off as fake news.  Apparently, his generation has formulated the fourth law, magic.

All of these flights of fancy reminded me of my own early technological history.  As a youngster, I had a fascination with chemistry.  I quickly graduated from the hobbyist set up with a few bottles of sodium bisulfate, test tubes and an alcohol lamp to a professional ground glass distillation set up, temperature controlled electric heating, reagent bottles full of mineral acids and even some formidable organic solvents.  I searched in arcane book stores for the organic chemistry recipes and set-ups that allowed for practical synthesis of various compounds that in my young mind were interesting.  At one point, I obtained an old organic chemistry text that was part of a medical school curriculum from the 1920s.  It included a number of compounds that interested me including nitroglycerine and trinitrotoluene.  I went as far as obtaining all the reagents, equipment and vessels I would need to perform the reaction.  On the day I had set for producing the first batch I was walking down to the supermarket to buy the fifty pounds of ice I needed to cool the reaction when it occurred to me that this might just possibly be a “bad idea.”  You see I remembered that nitroglycerine was a material that wasn’t just dangerous during production but remained sensitive to heat and vibration at all times.  Not owning a reinforced concrete bunker, I realized that after I manufactured the “soup” I had no place to keep it.  Well, no place that would survive a detonation.  Now you might think that this kind of rational evaluation would have steered me clear of all pyrotechnic and explosive materials.  You would be wrong.  The extent of my caution was to shift over to something less unstable but equally exothermic.  I started working with thermite.  In these post 9-11 days I imagine my experiments would probably fall under the heading of possible terror activity.  Back then they were the stuff of Fourth of July celebratory hijinks.  But even these relatively tame and successful forays into amateur pyrotechnics now give me pause.  Just precisely how stupid is a teenage boy when it comes to unsafe activities.  The answer comes back loud and clear.  Infinitely stupid.  I can remember what back then seemed to me to be failsafe precautions.  In hindsight what I see was ignorance and just plain dumb luck.  And that really frightens me.

Needless to say, these memories inform my present situation.  It occurs to me that the adults around when I was hatching my munitions program thought that my forays into chemistry were altogether benign and to be encouraged.  Hmmm.  Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?  Not just the Shadow.  Any man who was ever a fourteen year-old boy knows too.

I intend to monitor my young Archimedes’ progress with an eye for safety.  I have gotten him some books on electricity and machines that stress safety and standard components.  I know he has an interest in robotics.  And I know he enjoys BattleBots so I will keep an eye out for any indication that his creations will include cutting surfaces or kinetic devices such as circular saw blades or pneumatic hammers.  If my cautionary tale rings any bells in your own case, remember, the apple does not fall far from the tree.

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Joe Wooten
Joe Wooten
3 years ago

I told the wife one time about 20 years ago that if our 4 boys do only half of the stupidly insane stunts I pulled as a kid from ages 13-20, I’ll consider myself a lucky man. We were on a first name basis with the local ER though. All 4 are now grown and out of the house making a living on their own.

Tom Dulaney
3 years ago

Or the time that I boosted a stick of dynamite from an untended County work truck and experimented using M80’s as detonators.