Popular Science Monthly/Volume 20/April 1882/Modern Explosives



IS any one noting the loss of life and property by explosions? Can not some improved measures of protection be suggested? There is great increase in the number, variety, and potential energy of explosives, and they are causing a startling number of disasters; and these involve not only the proprietors who have the control, and the hands who do the work of the magazine, mine, quarry, factory, steam-ship, locomotive, in which the explosion occurs, but also the general public—by-standers, persons walking, riding, or lodging near, passengers by train or steamboat, carriers or purchasers of dangerous goods improperly packed, and many others. Recall a score of the more novel and peculiar cases of the season of 1881, those which represent the advance in this peril, and see if they do not indicate that more stringent regulation of the subject is demanded for public safety.

There was wide-spread excitement in August when British customhouse officers discovered clock-work machines loaded with dynamite concealed in barrels of cement just imported from this country, and Irish revolutionary patriots in America avowed that they had sent them to be used against England, and that they hoped by similar devices to render English vessels unsafe and unprofitable. Many remembered the project of Thomassen, years ago, for blowing up in mid-ocean a vessel on which he had goods heavily insured, and wondered whether such plans could indeed be extended to the shipping of a whole nation. There were like alarms later. The officers of the Bothnia were naturally disturbed when two strangers prowled through her passage-ways and, a few moments afterward, the carpets over which they had passed burst into flames from some novel combustible smeared upon them. In Liverpool a second discovery was reported of dynamite cartridges concealed in bales of cotton received from America, and believed to be destined to destroy mills at Oldham. All these were merely alarms. More lately an explosion of dynamite on board the Glasgow steamer Severn is reported to have killed nine persons and injured forty-three, four of these fatally. These things have brought to public notice the want of any distinct, efficient law to punish the sending of explosives on board ship with the purpose of destroying her on her voyage. If an explosion occurs, if life or property is destroyed, the general laws against murder, piracy, or defrauding insurers, would probably apply. But suppose the infernal machine is detected before injury is done, so that the offender can be charged only with having sent it aboard. Is there any sufficient law against this? No doubt the practical danger is small. Aside from the hope that villains capable of forming such a plot are very few in number, it is well known that most of the cargo of ocean-bound steamers is received direct from responsible exporting houses, and a stranger could scarcely obtain access to their packing-rooms in order to conceal cartridges in their merchandise. Still there must always be some tons of miscellaneous parcels, and the ship-owners can know little or nothing of the senders of these. It must always be possible for a schemer, under pretense of taking passage, to send a trunk aboard containing an infernal machine. How could this be discovered? But difficulty of detection is no reason why the public should not have the protection of a severe law for cases which may be detected. Such laws as exist are designed rather to forbid concealing the character of explosives in order to avoid the ship-owner's objection to take them, or his demand of a higher freight on the score of the danger, than to prevent the heinous offense of plotting the destruction of the vessel. For example, in New York city the authorities discovered that hands on board the Havana steamship Saratoga were concealing gunpowder packed in fourteen fifty-pound cans (seven hundred pounds in all), underneath berths in state-rooms. On a canal-boat were found forty boxes, each marked "I. R. P.," believed to mean "Irish Revolutionary Party," and holding twenty-five tin cans, each containing a pound of gunpowder. Probably there was no intent in either case to injure vessel or passengers—the offender only desired to get his powder safely landed at the vessel's destination without paying duties or high freight charges. Present laws cover this species of fraud much better than they do the worse crime of plotting to destroy ship, crew, and passengers.

When explosions are mentioned, one naturally thinks first of gunpowder. Explosions in powder-factories in Maine and Missouri destroyed the entire building and killed, in one case one workman, in the other eleven. A similar disaster in Mexico destroyed a whole square, burying many families under the ruins, and about sixty bodies were recovered. Some mishap in firing the fog-gun at Bird Rocks Light-house, on the St. Lawrence, ignited a barrel of gunpowder near by, killing three persons. A Louisiana merchant, in his store, struck a match to light a cigarette, and a scintilla of the burning sulphur flew into a can containing twenty-five pounds of powder. The explosion demolished the building and stock of goods, killed the careless proprietor and injured two blameless by-standers. Now, gunpowder has been so long in use and is so familiarly known, that there ought to be an end of such carelessness as accounts like these indicate. Very rarely, a disaster by gunpowder occurs which may be called pure accident. In a room where drugs were ground in quantities, dust of sulphur, also of saltpeter, gradually settled on the beams, in corners and crevices, and in the various places where dust in such a work-room is wont to gather, and it was intermingled naturally with dust such as every breeze brings, supplying a modicum of carbon. The mixture was equivalent to gunpowder, and, when a workman dropped a lighted candle, the roof flew off in fragments. He was scarcely to blame. There is a "white gunpowder" about which a prudent person might make a mistake. But the majority of powder explosions are attributable to sheer carelessness. The trouble is that "familiarity breeds contempt"; yet how to induce greater care is a perplexing question.

Nitro-glycerine and dynamite have done their share of mischief. In Colorado, four out of five men, who were preparing a charge of nitro-glycerine for a mining blast, were killed by a premature discharge; and in Pennsylvania a magazine containing three hundred pounds of this substance exploded, doing immense damage. At Council Bluffs, just as the Garfield memorial exercises were closing, there was a fearful explosion of a car-load of blasting-powder, probably dynamite, which demolished the railroad company's buildings and nearly fifty of their cars, dug a hole in the ground forty-five feet across and fifteen feet deep, shattered buildings throughout the city and glass windows even in Omaha across the river, and made itself felt as far as Missouri Valley, twenty miles away. One can not judge from the brief accounts given what are the precise causes of such disasters, but there is reason to believe that ignorance is prolific; that many persons have only a vague knowledge of the qualities of nitro-glycerine, can not recognize it when they see it, and are not acquainted with the various forms in which it is compounded or with the peculiar dangers of handling it carelessly. Nitro-glycerine itself is a dense, yellowish liquid, but, in order to diminish the danger attending its use, fine earth, ground mica, sawdust, or some similar powder, is saturated with it, and thus the various blasting-powders known as dynamite, mica-powder, dualin, rend-rock, etc., are formed. These compounds can be transported with comparative safety. But the nitro-glycerine easily drains off from the powder and oozes from any crevice in the vessel in which the compound is kept. Drops of it thus bedewing the edges of a box may very easily be mistaken for oil escaping, and if workmen ignorantly endeavor to nail the box tighter or to open it for examination there will be a disastrous explosion. Several have occurred in past years in this way. The victims knew, no doubt, that nitro-glycerine (or the compounds) may be exploded by a blow (contact with fire is not needful), but they did not suspect that the innocent-looking oil was nitro-glycerine. Why should not youth be taught in the schools somewhat of the practical dangers of these substances which are coming into such common use? They would pursue the study with interest, especially if there were judicious experiments. A Missouri story is that a teacher confiscated a small metal box which a pupil was playing with in school hours, and, thinking it contained chewing-gum, tried to break it open with a hammer. It was a dynamite torpedo of the kind used on the railroad-track as a danger-signal, and large bits of it had to be cut out of the lady's cheek. Would it not have been well if she had known somewhat of the aspect of torpedoes? Was it not more important to the journeyman plumber who threw the lighted match into the pan of camphene, mistaking it for water, by which the great printing establishment of Franklin Square was burned some twenty-eight years ago, to know camphene by sight than to have memorized many of the matters prominent in a public-school course? Surely workmen, especially "raw hands" in establishments where these things are used, should be systematically instructed in advance, and the courts are now enforcing this principle. Two lawsuits were heard during 1880, where managers of mining companies introduced blasting-powder as a substitute for gunpowder, without specially instructing the workmen as to the change and the new precautions they ought to take. The workmen used the powder improperly, and some of them were badly hurt. The victims brought suit for damages, and the companies retorted that the disasters were due to carelessness of the men. Both courts said that the proprietors of mines have a right to introduce a more effective powder, but they are bound to give their men judicious instructions and cautions, and to furnish them with any implements or apparatus appropriate to diminish as much as possible the danger of using the new agent; and, for neglect of the superintendents to give these instructions, the proprietors were required in both cases to pay damages.

The importance of some education of the working classes on these matters is increased by the frequency with which new explosives are introduced. One, called "explosive jelly," was brought to notice early last summer. It is made by dissolving nitro-glycerine and gun-cotton in ether, and then evaporating the ether; and it is said to be the most powerful of the nitro-glycerine compounds, though it can be exploded only by a detonator, which fact diminishes danger. A novelty called "dynamoge" is mentioned in late European papers.

Folly of workmen solves many of this class of disasters. In Sawyer City, Pennsylvania, a gang of men digging a well were about to set a torpedo for blasting. The foreman, said to have been an intemperate man, hastily poured two quarts of nitro-glycerine into the shell, and then attempted to fit the cap to its place. It was tight, he gave it an angry blow with his fist, the charge exploded, and five men were killed, three others being badly hurt. Criminal use of dynamite has been detected in several cases. A Brooklyn man found a dynamite bomb-shell under the stoop of his house, apparently put there in the night by some enemy, and the fuse lighted; but a friendly rain-storm had extinguished the fuse. In Ohio a workman found a yellowish roll lying lengthwise on one of the rails of the Baltimore and Ohio road. He did not know what it was, but it was tested by the superintendent, and found to be dynamite in sufficient quantity to have blown any train to atoms. It was evidently placed to wreck an express train then nearly due. On the Great Northern Railway in Ireland the guard detected nine pounds of dynamite which a passenger was carrying for some unlawful purpose, and took it from him. In Central America, a merchant was murdered by a new and ingenious use of dynamite. The charge was placed in the large lock of his store-door, with the exploder arranged to be set off! by the door-key. He was instantly killed on attempting to unlock the door. When such an attempt is successful, the laws are efficient to punish it. But in most of the States the laws are defective in regard to mere attempts or plots. The statute books punish shooting at a person or administering poison, although he be not killed or even hurt; but, perhaps, say nothing about schemes fully as dangerous for destroying life or property by these explosives. Apparently the means are so novel that Legislatures have not had time to think of them. The advice to give instruction on these subjects to school pupils and workmen should probably be extended to embrace the lawmakers of the land.

There are curious infelicities in the laws as to carrying explosive powders about the country. Cities and towns very generally have ordinances which restrict carting them through the crowded streets, but these do not apply to long journeys. Before railroad days it was well understood that Congress controlled carriage of dangerous articles by water, for to regulate navigation was early understood to be a duty of-the Federal Government. But in those days nitro-glycerine was unknown, and the fulminates were little used. Hence both were ignored in the early laws of Congress regulating water-carriage of dangerous articles, which mentioned only gunpowder and acids, and the like. Recently it has been thought that the authority of Congress extends to railroad-trains running from State to State, for this is a branch of "commerce among the States." When Congress came, in 1868, to legislate as to carrying nitro-glycerine and its compounds, the law was made to apply equally to vessels, and to railroads extending from one State to another. But no one has noticed that the old laws as to gunpowder ought equally to be extended to through railroad-trains. Apparently there is no Federal law prescribing precautions for railroad-carriage of gunpowder across the country, and yet, according to the most advanced views, the States have not power to pass laws on the subject. Each State has, however, power to say how explosives shall be carried within her own boundaries; and this leads to another infelicity, which is, that the law of the Union and of a State may clash. For example, United States law requires the blasting-powders made from nitro-glycerine, and the oil itself, to be packed and labeled in a peculiar way, when they are to be sent by rail from one State to another. The law of Colorado imposes restriction on nitro-glycerine, but, as amended last summer, for the convenience of the miners, it exempts dynamite and other powders. Now, if a train in Colorado should be wrecked by explosion of dynamite in the loading, the victims will not derive much comfort from being told that the offending keg did not come from the eastward States, and so was not subject to the United States rule, but was put aboard at Denver. Whatever restriction is needful ought to be imposed by Federal and State laws alike, and for short journeys as well as upon long.

The subject of dynamite is "a cloud with a silver lining"—the topic has its lighter aspects. One journal narrates that workmen, employed in blasting, left about a hundred pounds of dynamite exposed in an open box. Two cows of a neighboring farmer drew near, looked, smelled, tasted, and, finding that the compound had a saltish flavor, began to regale themselves heartily: in a moment those cows were staggering without heads. At a certain military post there was a mule who had "outlived his usefulness," also a commanding general who desired to experiment in instantaneous photography. The animal was placed in position before a camera, his forehead bearing a cotton bag containing six ounces of dynamite; the slide of the camera was supported by a fuse, and this fuse and the dynamite were connected in the same electrical circuit, by wires leading to a battery placed at a safe distance. On pressing the key so as to send the electricity through the wires, both fuse and dynamite were fired simultaneously, and the camera slide fell so quickly after the mule's head vanished, that a good photograph was taken of the creature, standing headless, before its body had had time to fall. Shocking to the mule; but entertaining and instructive to the class of military students which assembled to witness the experiment. More shocking, perhaps, is a device reported from the Southwest, called "the torpedo-chicken." It looks like a chicken, and sits like one on the roost among live fowl. But when, at about midnight, the hand of the chicken-thief of the region grasps it, a catch is thrown out of place, a powerful spring moves, a hammer strikes a percussion cap, there is an explosion, and about four ounces of bird-shot are thrown in every direction. The finale is said to be that a dusky figure is seen running or limping down the alley, and a husky voice is heard: "Fo' de Lawd! but what has de white folks got hold of now?" The scientific accuracy of this description will be appreciated, when the reader learns that it is from the "Detroit Free Press." Evidently, here is a hint to inventors: what a variety of burglar-alarms, thief-catchers, and other detective devices may be developed! The account circulated a year or two ago, of the newly invented trunk, fitted with pockets of nitro-glycerine at the corners, which might operate by way of reward of merit for any super-active baggage-smasher, is but a forerunner.

One would suppose that the various forms of ordnance would be managed with peculiar skill and care, yet they give rise to many disasters. A workman intrusted with packing seventy-five thousand percussion-caps in boxes handled them roughly; they exploded, and he was killed. Another, who was charging a rocket in the ordnance fulminate-room at a navy-yard, was killed, his companions severely hurt, and the inner walls of the building demolished by a premature discharge. Several men were badly hurt by a like disaster, in the course of loading cartridges with fulminate, at the factory of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, in New Haven. A bomb-shell was sent among a quantity of old iron to a foundry in Brooklyn to be melted; but it was loaded, and within a few minutes after it was thrown into the furnace there was a disastrous explosion. The saddest case of the kind narrated during the summer is that in which Lieutenants Edes and Spalding lost their lives at Newport. They were sent to plant a torpedo, and full instructions were given them as to the precautions needful; but, through some error or neglect on their part, the electrical circuit was prematurely closed, and the torpedo fired while they were yet in their boat above it.

Not half of the casualties reported during the season have been mentioned, nor has anything boon said of the numerous fatalities from bursting of kerosene lamps and cans, of leaky gas-pipes, steam-boilers, revolving stones, inflammable dust, and other things not intended as explosives. Yet, surely ground has been shown for the suggestion that increased attention should be bestowed upon the improvement of the laws, and the instruction of the common people, relative to the modern explosives.