The infamous firecracker experiment
When you’re young, there’s no such thing as a bad idea. This eternal truth was never more obvious than when I attempted my first chemical experiment at the age of 8. Fascinated with anything that might possibly explode, I delved into the making of gunpowder. It seemed simple enough – sulfur, charcoal, and saltpeter.
But how could I make a mere pile of combustible powder explode? I pondered this for a while, and then a brilliant idea came to mind. Maybe I could make a firecracker. That seemed like a reasonable task. Mix the ingredients, stick a fuse in it, wrap it in paper, and then light the fuse. What could be simpler?
It was about 9 a.m. Saturday morning and I was ready. Stevie and his younger brother Dale should have been out of bed by then, so I dialed them on the telephone. Stevie answered.
“Hi, Stevie, I’ve got a neat idea. How about making a firecracker?”
Stevie was an accommodating neighbor, although not too bright, nor was his brother.
“Ooh, that’s a great idea. Dale and I will be right over.”
The sulfur wasn’t hard to find because it was in my dad’s garden supplies. And charcoal? All we had to do was burn a little wood. A string should certainly suffice for a fuse, but saltpeter was nowhere to be found. Then it dawned on me.
Grandpa Ned had told me that during the Civil War, the Confederate Army would make gunpowder using niter, a natural saltpeter found in caves. It was extracted from the dried urine droppings from thousands of resident bats.
But in the absence of bats, the soldiers would contribute their own liquid essence into a giant iron kettle which would then be boiled down into a concentrate from which the saltpeter was derived.
Huh, just boil some pee. That seemed simple enough.
We found an old tin can into which our trio contributed a deposit. Starting a small fire with dried grass and sticks, we attempted to boil the concentrate, but it soon became pretty obvious we needed more heat.
Knowing that attempting to boil this brew in my mother’s kitchen was definitely ill advised, I made the obvious alternative suggestion.
“Stevie, let’s go over to your house and cook this on your stove.” This was where these boys being “not too bright” really kicked in.
We proceeded into their kitchen, set the can gingerly on the stovetop, put the burner on high, and watched expectantly. As the concoction began to boil, evidence of the doubtful wisdom of this adventure began to erupt from the can.
Tears came to our eyes as the acrid fumes enveloped the kitchen, and then gradually wafted through the house. At that point, my compatriots’ mother, well known for her colorful language, shouted from the living room, “What the hell are you kids cooking in there?”
My parents were always very circumspect about the language they used around me. I had no doubt that their mom meant business. Rather than face her and admit that we were boiling pee on her kitchen stove, we turned off the burner, retrieved the preparation, and retreated to the back yard where we examined the icky residue in the can.
Could this experiment still be rescued, or was it doomed to failure? As Stevie and Dale watched, I sprinkled in some sulfur followed by crunched up charcoal. Stirring the goo with a stick, I had my doubts. Nonetheless, when it looked sufficiently blended, I gathered a gob, poked one end of a short piece of string into it, wrapped the concoction in several layers of paper, and set it on a rock.
Accompanied by eager expectations from my two companions, I lit a match and my shaky hand touched the flame to the string. We all expectantly stood back with our fingers in our ears. The flame reached the end of the firecracker, started the paper burning, and…went out.
They say there’s no such thing as a failed experiment, but if there were, this was one of them. On the bright side, we all lived another day, and Stevie and Dale were allowed back into their house again.