Thursday, February 02, 2006

My Chemistry set

In an earlier post I had told about being removed from my cozy nursery room to the basement. The basement became my bedroom and I soon found out that it was a good thing not a bad thing. I had reached an age where I would just as soon be away from the older members of my family as much as possible. Not that I disliked them but because everything I did was followed with the postscript NO! But down in my bedroom, I was the king. My brother was occasionally down, working on his chemistry set, and that was cool. My mom came down once in a while to gather food from the root cellar or from the storage boxes for other items such as ketchup and toilet paper. The huge appetites of my two older brothers and myself had forced her into buying food and cleaning supplies by the case.

I wasn’t allowed to touch my brothers chemistry set but I could sure imagine how neat it would be when I became a world renowned chemist with my own lab and staff all working together solving problems. Finally I got my own “Gilbert” chemistry set. The photograph doesn’t do it justice. It wasn’t nearly as great as my brother’s set but then he was 6 years older than I was. That would all change very soon. His interests in life were changing and chemistry was not nearly as important to him as girls [yuk], sports and cars. I was right there to pick up the abandoned chemistry set along with his notes. At about the same time, my older brothers friend brought over another chemistry set for me that he no longer used. My basement was quietly being transformed into a world-class chemistry lab. LET THE EXPERIMENTS BEGIN!!!!! My friend Steve was my lab partner. We were very short of glass wear and things like that so we went to our local Dr’s office and asked what we might have that they didn’t need anymore. The head nurse always gave us access to a drawer in one of the cabinets where all of the used needles, syringes, IV bottles, etc. were kept awaiting disposal. We even had some partially filled bottles of things like Polio vaccine, penicillin to add to our chemistry sets for some reason or other. Things have changed a bit since then. We used the syringes and needles mostly for oiling things.

We went through our books doing experiments with our sets until there were no more to do. So we turned to Gunpowder!A local pharmacists was very interested in furthering our adventures in the world of chemistry and helped us any way that he could. He would teach us about what was happening in our chemical reactions and with the ingredients if we were running out. He would help us with designing new ones, buying ingredients and with purchasing lab ware. He even got us the charcoal, sulfur and saltpeter to make gunpowder the old Chinese way and we were off and running. We made it in large quantities constantly experimenting with different formulas to get the right mix. We would light long piles of it and watch it crawl across the floor like a fuse [just like in the cowboy movies] or add different chemicals making the flame yellow or green or red as we chose. We found we could melt sulfur and use it to make molds. We heard that saltpeter was put in the food at camp so that young boys left the young girls alone. When we went to church camp we were the chemistry wizards with all of the answers. “Of course that was true”. The biggest problems with the gunpowder experiments were that they stunk really badly. Soon we were banned outside to burn the gunpowder. We made brightly glowing crystals and things that even grew in the test tubes. We did pretty well with our experimenting until lighting struck my house one summer afternoon. Immediately the neighbors thought lightning struck because of our experiments in the basement. The local Volunteer Fire Department showed up and the Chief quizzed me as to what we were doing in the basement. The nice old lady from across the street yelled at me because lightning and fire were dancing on her stove and it was my fault. Even our friendly Pharmacists quizzed me, the next time I was in the store with “Just what were you and Steve making down there”. At least the police never came by but we were forced to cool our heels for a while.

Our interests turned to Potassium Nitrate as a possible ingredient to add to the gunpowder mixture. We started putting the new mixture in used shotgun shells, along with a fuse. We would light the fuse and run like hell. Nothing! We were able to make small firecrackers out of our gunpowder mixture by wrapping them very tightly in newspaper with a wick but that was about it. What we really didn’t understand was that our new ingredient Potassium Nitrate was also known as saltpeter which we were already adding.

We attempted to make a pipe bomb for a while, not because we knew what a pipe bomb was but the “filling the shotgun shell thing wasn’t working” and we had to try something different. We had a piece of threaded pipe and a cap but we didn’t know how to seal up the other end with the fuse in it. Bingo….fill it with lead but we didn’t have any lead we could melt and use. It never dawned on us to take a fishing sinker and melt it down. All we could think of was the lead in our .22 shells would work. While I was gone, Steve decided to melt some lead for our bomb. He put some .22 shells in his mother’s skillet and turned on the heat [you have to know how this is going to come out don’t you]. The heat exploded one of the .22 shells and it dented the frying pan and while Steve was ducking the bullet entered a cabinet door. Steve’s mother never did figure out what happened to her frying pan. By this time, Steve and I both had become very adept at distorting the truth. Einstein’s we were not. The world and we were probably very lucky we couldn’t make our “Bombs” work. There was no Internet to get advice from, our friendly Pharmacists would not help and the library didn’t have any books on the subject. We were left stocking up with M-80’s and Cherry Bombs on the 4th of July instead. As bad as those things are they were probably a lot safer than what we would have created.

Steve and I both, some how lived to, advanced to High School and more Chemistry along with Biology. What we were most interested in was access to all of the chemicals and experiments. Best of all, MERCURY. We had no access to mercury except we knew that the Chemistry supply room had it in stock. We immediately managed to borrow some for our experiments. There really weren’t very many experiments that we could do that were outside the classroom so we just did those. We would also roll it around on the desk and then notice that it turned our coins shiny and if you carried one of the shiny coins in your pocket it turned the rest of you coins shiny also. It probably also gave us some high levels of mercury poisoning while we were doing it. Please read the following warning. Warning: Mercury is the second most toxic element on earth to plutonium. Toxicity of mercury has been linked to many different diseases, including autism, learning disabilities, Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia, lupus, chronic fatigue syndrome, arthritis, depression, and bipolar disorder. The amount of mercury found in one mercury thermometer is enough to pollute a small lake. Why we didn’t lose a hand or a finger or were poison to death was beyond me but we didn’t. The God of immortality, childhood recklessness and stupidity was always with us and more than once, in the years since, I have found fit to thank him for letting us keep all of our limbs, fingers and lives. Many times including right now as I remember all of this.

Steve went on to become teacher and taught kids for years in Nevada along with fighting fires with the BLM during his off time. Steve is now retired. In 1962 I entered the USN, volunteered for submarines and became an Engineering Lab Technician. ELT’s took care of radiation control and monitoring and responsible for all of the Nuclear water chemistry for the reactor as well as all of the steam chemistry. In fact I became Leading ELT for the USS Snook (ssn592). Kinda scary isn’t it?


Denise said...

Ted, I laughed right out loud at the part where Steve is going to melt down the 22 shells in the frying pan. So, so, so lucky he didn't end up with it in his body instead of the cabinet!

Ted said...

Hi Denise
I still keep in contact with Steve and just sent him a hyperlink. We will see what he has to say.

Anonymous said...

WOW, what memories. I'm 63 now and I still remember my Gilbert chemistry set. It was a metal cabinet which opened into four sections.

I supplemented the equipment and chemicals via various trips to lower manhattan NYC. I only lived 12 miles away and in the 1950's it was no sweat for a couple of 15 yr olds to go there.

One of my favorite concoctions was thermite. It burned so hot it would burn through steel.

I bought aluminum powder and iron filings at the hardware store and mixed them half and half. In order to ignite this mixture you needed a very hot source so I put a liberal amount of black powder on top of a big pile of home made thermite. Then I put about a tablespoon of Potassium Permanganate on top of that.

An eyedropper of glycerine was squeezed onto the Potassium Permanginate and then you backed off. Soon the chemical reaction between the Potassium Permanginate and Glycerine (I never understood why)ignited the black powder and soon the incredible white glare of the thermite was burning itself into my retinas.

All of the chemicals were available to a 15 year old either at the hardware store or the local pharmacy.

Ted said...

Hi anonymous
I missed the experiment with Thermite. Most of the good experiments were passed on from friends or adults and not from the books that came from the sets. It is amazing that as youth we had such access to the chemicals. My brother had an experiment where he made "Iodine Crystals" and he taught me but I can't remember how to make it. We would sprinkle them on the floor and when you walked on them they would explode. Wished I knew about Thermite though. Thanks for the comment.

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Anonymous said...

Had an old Gilbert chemistry set that was on legs with wooden box and all the chemicals were held in the lid when opened had great fun with that way back when It was given to me by my uncle in 1940 soyou know it was quite old a couple of years ago when I donated it the the St Pete. college to be shown in their history room.

Anonymous said...

I am a highschool student in Seattle, and for a chemistry project my partner and I decided to research the very scientific question of why gunpowder goes boom. We are curious as to some of the experiements you have done regarding the substance, as we need to create and perform an experiment for ourselves.

Ted said...

Sorry Anonymous
Steve and I never managed to make any type of Bomb so I cannot help you. We tried but the only thing we really made was chinease gunpowder that burned different colors.
Thanks for the interest

virginia said...

You don't mention how old you are, my friend born in 1931 had a chemistry set ( I'm not sure if it was Gilbert) and had sey up a lab in the basement, one day when his mother was entertaining church ladies something ecploded in the basement and smoke billowed into the upper floor to which his mom Clara
calmly explained "Thats just Paul expermenting"
The ladies very quickly took their leave.