Thursday, August 10, 2006

Rocket Boy

A little while after my tunnelling exploits, I discovered chemistry. One of my chemistry teachers had worked in an explosives research laboratory during the Second World War, and showed us how to make thermite, what happened when you dropped potassium metal into water, and why it isn’t a good idea to hit lead azide with a hammer. And in those days (back when there was still a space race), you could go to a chemist’s shop and buy strips of magnesium, hydrochloric and sulphuric acids, aluminium powder, both kinds of iron oxide . . .

And then there was the mix of a certain weedkiller (now outlawed) and sugar that formed a junior but potent version of thermite. With a length of guttering as a Fireball XL5 style launch pad, lightly modified plastic bottles, and my weedkiller/sugar mix, I was in the rocket business. Some of the rocket bottles flew a surprising distance; one certainly surprised me by shooting about a hundred feet into the air in a graceful arc that carried it over the brook into a trash pile in the yard of the blast furnace. Like Wernher von Braun, I had aimed for the stars, but hit a civilian target instead. Luckily the small fire that the burning rocket bottle started went out before I had to wade across the brook to deal with it. Even more luckily, I still have all my fingers and thumbs; the only souvenir of my rocketry experiments is a small oval scar at the base of my right thumb.


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