Underground Chemistry

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"I don't tell anyone about what I do at home," writes one anonymous high schooler….."A lot of ignorant people at my school will just spread rumors about me…The teacher will hear about them and I will get into legal trouble…I have so much [*********] at my house, any excuse will not cut it. So I keep my mouth shut."

What do the nine letters I've redacted from a Wired article spell?

Neither "pot plants" nor "child porn," but….glassware.

The article is an overview of where the federal war on terror meets the Bush administration's vaunted war on science and war on drugs: the fight against equipment and chemicals that can be used for making either explosives or drugs. As the article points out:

The lure of do-it-ourself chemistry has always been the most potent recruiting tool science has to offer. Many kids attracted by the promise of filling the garage with clouds of ammonium sulfide–the proverbial stink bomb–went on to brilliant careers in mathematics, biology, programming, and medicine……"There's no question that stinks and bangs and crystals and colors are what drew kids–particularly boys–to science," says Roald Hoffmann of Cornell University, who won the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1981. "Now the potential for stinks and bangs has been legislated out."

The article is worth reading in full. It begins with a full-on M-16-loaded two-dozen officer raid on a seller of home chemistry kits, and goes on to detail the sad death of old-fashioned kid's chemistry sets and hands-on lab work in high schools. But for the good news, the article also touches on the irrepressible rise of an information-about-cool-stuff-wants-to-be-free underground keeping the glories of backyard booms and home lab fun times–even with a soupcon of danger–alive against the odds.

As someone with a deep and abiding interest in colorful and intense explosions from nonprofessionals, I wrote back in May 2005 in Reason about a Consumer Product Safety Commission ongoing crackdown on sellers of things that could become fireworks.

NEXT: From Beltway Bungler to Oldest Rookie: Charles Moose's American Odyssey

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  1. Hmm, I guess handloading supplies are going to be on the fed blacklist soon. Fuck that.

  2. Jeez. I grew up on the Gilbert Chemistry Set – successor to Gilbert’s Erector set. Spent a lot of time trying to make gunpowder, and had no problem getting the corner drug store to special-order potassium nitrate for me. No questions asked, and me ten years old. Hell in a handbasket, no doubt about it.

  3. If such laws had been in place when Goddard was a kid we’d still be debating whether or not a rocket can work in a vacuum.

  4. First they came for the exothermic chemists…

  5. Nitrogen triodide. Nuttin’ like it.

    I was also a Gilbert kid. 12151.

  6. What a minute… BOB LAZAR??? The UFO kook???

  7. Back in the day, my dad used to play with the dynamite that his grandpa kept in the basement – blowing out stumps and other cool farmboy shit. You could drive on down to the hardware store and buy a case of it, no questions asked.

    Sigh. America must have kicked ass back when it was still free.

  8. America must have kicked ass back when it was free

    I have my grandfather’s early 1900’s Sears Roebuck catalog. It has a recipe for dynamite in it. The farmers appreciated it.

  9. Thanks so much for the link, Brian. Your piece on the CPSC turned out to be very prescient. I really enjoy Reason, by the way.

  10. I could handle invisible ink and other kitchen chemistry. But when it came to a chemistry set and actual lab work, I was lost. I was a Radio Shack 101 electronic circuits kind of boy.

  11. Rockets: ZnS. Ammonium perchlorate and polybutadiene. LOX and a Presto Log. Kaboom: blowing the sumps with dynamite. Tipping propane cylinders down abandoned mineshafts in the desert. Hefty bags filled with acetylene and oxygen. And of course Nitrogen Triiodide…..damn, love that purple cloud!

    Oh well, I guess only the bad guys will get to learn this stuff now.

    America: Land of the regulated and controlled, and home of the fearful and suspicious. RIP.

  12. *hums Firefly theme song*

    You can’t take the sky from me….

  13. That’s messed up. Especially considering private industry has been funding youth camps to identify and develop good talent. Apparently, enjoying playing with chemistry sets is the potential mark of a biologist or chemist. I loved my old chem set (my parents and babysitter, not as much). Taking the hands on stuff out of the classroom as well? Geez, how do they expect people to become interested in the subject, if they don’t even show it.

    When I took chem, we made an unofficial safety video playing with chemistry and doing what you “shouldn’t do at home” and our chem teacher loved it and showed it to the class. Those days are over I suppose.

    *sigh* This is what it sounds like, when doves cry.

  14. “I have my grandfather’s early 1900’s Sears Roebuck catalog. It has a recipe for dynamite in it. The farmers appreciated it.”

    Okay, I now get the joke behind the Celebrity Farm Blow-Up skit on SNL. I always thought it was weird that farmers where obsessing about explosives. It makes more sense now.

    “Boy, that blowed up REAL good!”

  15. I always thought it was weird that farmers where obsessing about explosives

    Really? They’re a class of people who are a) generally male b) own a large amount of unpopulated land c) are stuck miles away from anything fun such as towns – of course they’re going to blow things up!

  16. “I now get the joke behind the Celebrity Farm Blow-Up skit on SNL.”

    You mean SCTV, correct?

  17. My father had a book, which is now in my possession, from the 30s or 40s called Fortunes and Formulas.

    In it there seem to be recipes or formulas for everything from bluing gun barrels to sheep dip.

    It is amazing from the vantage point of the 21st Century nanny state to see how many chemicals were freely available for sale to anyone. And they could be had in many cases by walking or perhaps a short streecar ride from your home.

    America: Land of the regulated and controlled, and home of the fearful and suspicious.

    Yes another slogan to go with my “America, just doesn’t suck as bad as everyplace else”.

    Sigh. America must have kicked ass back when it was still free.

    Sad, ain’t it? At one time there seemed to be a basic belief that free people taking chances and exploring all the unknown places would be happy and prosperous.

  18. Sad. This used to be a free country. Homer Hickom today would end up a hillbilly instead of a rocket scientist.

  19. Something like that book: Search Amazon for Bennett’s book with the super-long title that begins “Two Thousand Formulas.”

  20. Sad, I had lots of fun and learned from my chemistry set, as well as electronics, microscope, telescope, model rockets, etc …

    Do we really want to ban everything that is potentially harmful?

  21. Chemistry made Hagerstown, Maryland famous

  22. Why don’t they do something socially enriching, like raiding the homes of kids who want to be lawyers. Take away their books and make them do math and science.

    Yes, I’m bitter.

  23. Remember the good ole days when a 6 year old could go into a pharmacy and buy all the herion they wanted.

  24. Remember the good ole days when a 6 year old could go into a pharmacy and buy all the herion they wanted.

    Those were good days, you sarcastic prick.

  25. Who’s being sarcastic?

  26. “What a minute… BOB LAZAR??? The UFO kook???”

    Holy crap, I think you’re right. They even mention that he “worked at Los Alamos.” And the wikipedia article you linked mentions that he owns that company.

    The involvement of Lazar puts a whole ‘nother spin of weirdness on this story. Crazy.

  27. My dad and I accidentally launched a kit rocket into the NASA installation on the west side of Cleveland when I was a kid. I’m glad we didn’t do that today!

  28. Correction, the name of the book was

    Fortunes in Formulas, for home, farm, and workshop; the modern authority for amateur and professional; containing up-to-date selected scientific formulas, trade secrets, processes, and money-saving ideas
    by Gardner Dexter Hiscox; T O’Conor Sloane

    It was in print from 1907 to the fifties. My Dad’s copy was from 1946.

  29. Ah, nitrogen tri-iodide. Nitrocellulous. zinc and sulfur rockets. Pot. nitrate and sugar smoke bombs, and rockets. Homemade black powder. (We could get pot. nitrate over the counter–it was sold in pound bottles as a diuretic). Even thermite (iron oxide as paint pigment, find someone to sell you aluminum powder). Potassium chlorate and perchlorate (had to be real careful with those). Those were good times, free times.

    Some students here had fun generating hydrogen by reacting aluminum foil with lye. They’d use it to fill dry cleaning bags, then attach a long parafine-soaked string. Light the string and release it at night. Newspapers releasing stories asking people to stop calling the air base about those UFOs drifting over the city at night and suddenly exploding in flame.

  30. > America must have kicked ass back when it was free

    The only reason the U.S. is the hyperpower it is today, is because of the freedom to think and innovate that was the hallmark of America. Using the law to stamp out a “dangerous” interest in science doesn’t bode well for the future of America.

    It occurred to me when reading this article that the very same arguments could be applied to software technology. Our world runs on computers, and we all know how vulnerable it is to malware. How long until the feds decide this is a security issue and move to restrict access to software development tools?

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