Dangerous fireworks from my youth

Dangerous fireworks from my youth

In the 1960s we lived in Burlington Ontario in Canada and my dad was an athlete. He and some folks had organized an amateur athletics competition with the town of Burlington Vermont called the BIG - Burlington International Games. In odd years they were in Ontario, in even years they were in Vermont. Families billeted their counterparts every year and in the first year we stayed right on Lake Champlain. That was fun and I learned to fish there. I was 8 or 9.

The next year they came up to Ontario and stayed at our place and on the first night the dad of the other family wanted to show us a little trick. He'd gone to the drug store and bought a four ounce can of potassium nitrate - "saltpeter". Mixed with icing sugar, two parts sugar one part saltpeter, this was made into a little mound and lit. It burned with a pink flame and made tons of sweet smelling smoke. Ok, I was impressed. I'd been obsessed with fireworks for as long as I could remember and the idea one could pop into a drugstore and buy stuff to make fireworks was a big of a mind blower.

This was the sixties, and I was eight. Things were a bit looser then with regards to dangerous chemicals. I'd had a chemistry set, which contained potassium ferrocynanide, apparently this was deemed safe for young children.

Seventy five cents was a lot of money back then - comic books were twelve cents, so spending three weeks allowance wasn't the best value for money. So I didn't do it that often.

One the back of the can of saltpeter it explained how to use it - it was meant for farm animals and gave directions that told you how much to put in a trough. So if I was challenged as to why a young kid was buying an explosive chemical I had my story ready "we raise pigs and mah pappy tole me to get some saltpeter". I never was questioned though.

I bought some every few months, raided my mums icing sugar and had a merry time with it. Until they ran out. I was about 12 by this time; I asked the pharmacist if he was getting any more saltpeter. He asked why I wanted it and I explained "farm animals". He looked a bit suspicious but I guess didn't want to challenge a customer and told me had had a pound of it how much did I want. He sold me seventy five cents worth, but this was eight ounces now, nor four ounces. I used up all his saltpeter in a few months.

By this time I'd learned that potassium chlorate was much more reactive than potassium nitrate and I had to make a science project for grade 8. This was 1969. I knew what I was gong to make - a volcano. And not on of those crap vinegar and baking soda ones either.

I told my dad what I was going to so - build a paper mache volcano but explained I wasn't sure what I was going to do for the core as I couldn't have it burn up. He worked as a major projects controller at a steelworks and said he'd find something for me to use at work.

The next day be brought home a cylinder about 10 inches tall and about 2 inches in diameter, hollow, a little under a quarter inch thick. Ideal. Even better, for my high temperature application it was made from pure titanium. Nice.

I built the volcano around this thing, the volcano was about an inch taller than the titanium cylinder - it was ok if the top inch or so burned away. I painted it, it looked very volcano like.

Next was the chemical composition of the powder to fill the volcano. Because this was a grace 9 term science project my perfectly reasonable request for three dollars was granted without a hitch, and I rode my bike the mile down to the drug store and asked the pharmacist for a pound of Potassium chlorate. I'd asked before of he had it and what the price was. He said no, it was too dangerous. I explained I'd been handling potassium nitrate for years and knew how to handle it safely. "were you making fireworks with it? to which I should have said "nooooooooo" but instead I said "yes, but this is for a SCIENCE PROJECT" - like that mattered. He told me he wasn't allowed to sell this to a minor which I'm pretty sire he'd just made up on the spot.

The next day I returned with my mother. She was used to my mad scientist was and was supportive. I said I was back for the pound of potassium chlorate. The pharmacist looked seriously annoyed, passed it over and muttered under his breath as we walked away "he's gonna blow himself up one day". Nooooooooo, don't be silly. Back off man, I'm a scientist.

So the next day I almost blew myself up. Now, a pound of potassium chlorate is a lot. And I'd managed to get away with the lie that I needed to "test" this new mixture as I'd never worked with potassium chlorate before, just potassium nitrate and needed to get it right. I just wanted to see this stuff go, that's all. So, I half filled a quart jar with potassium chlorate, which took about half my precious pound of chlorate and filled the rest with icing sugar and mixed it up. I went into the garage with this and put an ounce or two onto a pile on the concrete floor.

Yup, this stuff burned (much) more vigorously that the same stuff made with potassium nitrate. In fact bits of stuff were popping around and one chunk hopped into the quart jar that now held about fifteen ounces of perchlorate/sugar mixture.

The obvious thing happened. Because it wasn't sealed, it didn't explode. It just burned. Very very quickly. It shot up a solid column or pink flame, 6 inches in diameter, all the way up to the sheet rock ceiling. My immediate thought was "am I going to set fire to the garage?" as in "how long will this last?". It lasted an eternity, somewhere on the order of 15 seconds, then it simply went out leaving a broken glass jar full of black crusty ask, a black charred patch on the ceiling, and smoke. A LOT of smoke. So much smoke the neighbors came running out asking if they should call the fire department.

Now, keep in mind this was a Sunday afternoon and my parents were watching TV or something and had no idea I was doing this. Damage control. I explained to the frightened nighbors that no, everything was alright I was just doing a simple chemistry experiment and everytning was fine which seemed to satisfy them and they went away.

My folks had noticed the smoke by this point and I went inside and said "well the test went ok, I think I know the right ratio of icing sugar to potassium chlorate to use now" - which in fact was he same one I'd always used and that ended that. As far as I know there's still a black charred circle at 499 Forestwood crescent to this day.

The next day was my science project demonstration. I usually walked to the half mile to Frontenac public school but this morning got a ride as I had my paper mache volcano with a titanium core, half pound of potassium chlorate and half pound of icing sugar - I knew enough to not mix them until they needed to be mixed for safety reasons.

When science class came around and it was my turn to demonstrate my volcano I suggested to the teacher that it would be safer outside and without question the teacher instructed two other students to carry the volcano outside while I mixed the chlorate with the icing sugar and followed them.

I hadn't thought about it but at this point I'm fairly certain the teacher still thought this was a vinegar/baking soda model. I'd never been asked, I'd never said. I came out dumped the powder into the titanium core in front of the class that stood in a circle around the volcano. I suggested they step back a bit and they stepped back a foot or so. It didn't look to me like they'd stepped back enough, but I figured they would once this thing started burning.

I'd forgot to bring matches. This was an eights grade class. I knew several of the, um, bad kids smoked and asked "does anybody have a match?" which brought an immediate look of concern on the teachers face, but a much quicker response from one Leslie Ferris. I opened the book of matches ignoring the teacher who by this time was saying "hang on wait a min..." but it was too late, I'd just lit it.

Predictably it worked really really well. It shot up a pink flame about 15 feet into the air and filled the football field with smoke. The class loved it and cheered while the teacher looked rather green and seemed to be thinking something on the order of "I'm gonna be fired.".

It was 11:45 by this time, lunch started at noon, so I just quietly slipped away in the smoke and walked home for lunch as I always did.

I didn't retrieve the volcano, I was terrified I's be in trouble for what I'd done, I just left. After lunch I went back and it was still there, I think people were scared to go near it. I pulled the now cooled titanium core out, and went to my one o'clock class.

The next time I had science the teacher didn't say a thing. I didn't say a thing. I got an A.

I still have that titanium core to this day, I've been carrying it around for 40 years. It was some sort of bearing race that had become worn, scrap presumably.

I trid to buy some potassium nitrate two years ago to show my kids. No drug store stocks it any more. One drug store would order it if I signed some forms and wanted to pay $7 for an ounce. I passed on that wonderful opportunity and went to the hardware store and bought some stump remover which was pure potassium nitrate, mixed it with icing sugar and showed my kids that pink flame and oh so memorable sweet smoke. They were impressed.

Richard Sexton
May 10, 2010