Progress Through Chemistry

When in high school, my brother and I had a very sophisticated chemistry laboratory in our basement, more advanced than the local high school's and probably equal to the local college.

We did a lot of serious chemistry, but we also liked to make rockets, explosives and fireworks. One of the chemical combinations we used to experiment with quite a bit was red phosphorus and potassium permanganate. The two, when mixed together and ignited, very rapidly produce an astonishing amount of smoke.

One day we decided to take advantage of this rapid smoke production to use the pressure produced to launch a marble from the end of a four-foot piece of conduit. We loaded a couple of inches of the mixture into the bottom of the tube, put a fuse in through a hole we'd drilled in the side, and placed a marble on the mouth at the top.

We lit the fuse, expecting a rush of smoke and a fair launch of the marble, and stepped back about 20 feet. We hadn't counted on the effect that constraining the expansion in a tube would produce.

What followed was the loudest explosion I had ever heard in my life and at that point, I had already heard quite a few. The concussion lifted both my brother and me off of our feet and pushed us backward through the air. It was so loud it was heard literally for miles. People for blocks around rushed out of their houses to see what had happened. It sounded like an atomic bomb had gone off.

Remember that I said red phosphorus and potassium permanganate make an astonishing amount of smoke? They did. And it all shot straight up into the air, and formed an immense mushroom cloud high above our house. There was no doubt where the explosion had come from.

And there was no doubt in the minds of our neighbors who was responsible. Our neighbors across the street, the Wilkins, who had also held my brother and me in low esteem, and who'd regularly said as much to my folks, never spoke to us again. Never.

Which my parents thought was quite wonderful. Progress through chemistry!