Thomas Arnow

Buzz Pop - Stink Bang

Growing up with no other kids other than my big sister, I discovered solitary hobbies. Seeing an ad for a “Wham-O Flying Disk,” an early plastic Frisbee, I talked my parents into buying one because a kid could play catch by himself by throwing the disk into a breeze. By practicing different throws in varying winds, I learned to make a long looping trajectory which returned the Frisbee to a few feet from where it started. I would also throw a basketball into a hoop nailed up to the rear wall of Mama's breezeway: an easy game with no opponents.

            Starting in second or third grade, I grew a fascination, first with electronics, then chemistry, a touch of astronomy, and even a little invertebrate zoology. Lacking playmates made of protoplasm I needed sources of amusement other than Frisbee boomerang and reading.

            As an added plus, Mama knew nothing about technology and Dad precious little. I observed them through an imaginary one-way mirror, learning about their world, while they had no idea what I was doing. This became a pattern for the rest of my life. I learned enough about law, medicine, aviation and other fields to make intelligent (to a point) conversation with experts, most of whom knew nothing of what I did for a living. Consciously or unconsciously, I avoided anything of interest to Mama including geology, birds (except hummingbirds, with their magical aerobatics), and botany. Her bulbs grew into flowers; mine gave light.

            My electronics hobby might have started with Christmas decorations – colored light bulbs and the thin metal foil tinsel hung over the tree branches. I collected light bulbs in various shapes and colors.

            In those days, hardware stores sold Godzilla-sized versions of the batteries used in flashlights. About a foot and a half tall, they had screw terminals on top for attaching wires. Stringing a piece of tinsel over the contacts made it vanish with a tiny pop as the electrical heat vaporized them. Coiling a few turns of wire around a nail and connecting them to the big battery would make a little electromagnet, able to swing a compass needle or pick up bits of iron. Removing the wires from the battery shut off the field.

            These ideas came from books I cajoled my parents into buying, with titles such as T
he Boy’s First Book of Science Experiments or Electricity. Curious, I recently searched for modern versions of such books, replacing “Boys” with “Kids.” I found several but they seemed to be essentially textbooks with experiments to be done with parents or teachers, a horrible notion after spending day after day, year after year, imprisoned in school.

            Playing with batteries lost its thrill as I ran out of things to try with them.  With Dad’s help I set up a wooden stand like an artist’s easel. Attaching sockets and switches to the thing, I learned to wire light bulbs into strange combinations making some glow dimly, some bright, dimming the bright ones and visa versa by flipping switches. The thing ran on potentially lethal electricity from the wall but nobody seemed bothered about it. I took apart my sister Marcella’s record player, could not put it back together, and no longer remember her reaction to the device’s demise.

            As I continued, the dangers became more real than anything an adult could have lectured about. Mama let me eviscerate her old electric sewing machine. Ignoring the mechanical maze of gears and cams, I extracted the motor, took it apart and studied the copper wires in tight windings around soft iron cores. An insulating varnish gave the copper a sickly brown color instead of its normal metallic red, to me the prettiest of all metals. With the help of my book learning, I figured out how to slow down the motor and make it go backwards. I could look inside while it ran and see a ring of fire, sparks around the commutator, a circle of copper bars where electricity enters the spinning part. The motor rewarded my inquisitiveness with my first bad shock, a long grinding buzz that left a numb arm and a warning.

            Another warning came from a newspaper article describing the death of a little girl by a shock from a defective store cooler. I imagined the cooler as resembling the one in a little store where Mama would buy me the occasional Popsicle—a long chest freezer on a bare plank floor. After the girl died, a fireman touched the cooler and felt the shock. I thought him a fool for acting as a human voltmeter but the girl probably had wet hands from handling frozen treats and stood on a floor damp from condensation, thus making an electrical pathway through her torso. I later learned from internet research that a child needs a far weaker jolt than an adult to achieve eternal rest.

            One day, without telling my parents, I looked up the word “electrocution” in the Encyclopedia Britannica—twenty-four heavy, deep burgundy volumes that sat in the dining room in a bookcase Dad had built for them. I wanted to find out how much electrical voltage and current might hinder my arrival to adulthood. The article yielded a brief history of the electric chair but no useful information. I found out much later that electrocution is a portmanteau of electricity and execution.

            Mama fretted over my survival to adulthood, though she never understood the greatest danger to my existence—me. Her fears came from the fact that I was born with a heart defect, untreatable at the time, and two of my siblings had died at birth. I had one surviving sister so my death would have pushed Mama down to a 25% success rate in raising children to adulthood—a poor showing in most endeavors. While she worried about cold winds impregnating me with pneumonia or stirring up some fatal complication of my heart condition, I knew that the electricity I played with could kill me quicker than a hungry pet tiger could turn his owner into an afternoon snack.

            My parents remained mainly oblivious to my hobby, to a great extent, an escape from our small isolated house in the country. Once in a while one of them would fuss about me damaging my eyesight by reading fine print and examining small parts, many of which contained either tiny numbers or narrow colored bands. Dad told me the reading and close up work would make me nearsighted. At the time, I heard that this was not true but later decided that he might have been right. Up close viewing causes muscles to elongate the elastic eyeball. With time and constant looking a few inches in front of the face, the eyeball gets less flexible and ends up permanently elongated making its owner nearsighted. I ended up with a prescription around minus 7 diopters, legally blind without correction, meaning that I see clearly about 5 inches in front of my face.

            No ancient human, ape, or other mammal could have survived with such vision. Hunting a big Aurochs, my last words could have been, “Oops, that’s a saber toothed tiger.” As a kid, I had to wear glasses “as thick as Coke bottles.” The weight from the heavy lenses would slide them down my nose so I had to push them back up every so often. The temples dug into my ears causing sores, which I named, “earritation.” Later, lenses with light plastic of high refractive index appeared on the market and the thick heavy ones disappeared, unmourned.

            I read about batteries such as the lead and sulfuric acid ones developed in the 1800s and still used in cars to this day. I made my own battery by sticking a penny and nickel into some vinegar and holding wires to them, producing a tiny flow of electricity.

            The batteries made a sort of bridge between electronics and chemistry and I tried simple chemistry experiments such as adding baking soda to vinegar creating invisible carbon dioxide which foams up with tiny bubbles. A match or little candle held near the liquid would go out as the heavy carbon dioxide pushed out the air. Once in a while this happens to a person, death from a nontoxic gas displacing oxygen. People have walked into large helium balloons on the ground: making their voices sound like Donald Duck for a few seconds before greeting Saint Peter.

            Putting a drop of a chemical called phenolphthalein into baking soda dissolved in water turns the solution pink. Baking soda is alkaline, making the phenolphthalein change color. Adding enough vinegar will make the solution clear and the bubbles will stop. At that point, all the baking soda will have been neutralized.

            Looking for something more interesting, I found a chemical supply house in downtown Ann Arbor that seemed to sell anything to anybody. Dad went with me to buy stuff. I later wondered what would have happened had we tried to buy deadly poisons such as arsenic or potassium cyanide. Eating cyanide kills in minutes. Dumping it in acid causes hydrogen cyanide gas to bubble, fatal in seconds. Several states used this for executions before the current lethal injection fad. The gas is supposed to have a bitter almond smell, but I never investigated this first hand.

            Now, sales of many chemicals and equipment are restricted as part of the long lost “war against drugs;” stopping would-be terrorists from getting bomb components and young experimenters from burning half their faces off. Potential buyers of such controlled items have to prove a legitimate need. Chemicals used in synthesis of drugs such as methyl amphetamine have been known to vanish from university lab stores.

            Seeing nitric acid for sale over the internet gave me a start. Besides burning skin and turning it yellow, it can be used to make many explosives—an easy one being ammonium nitrate, a common fertilizer, by reacting nitric acid with ammonia. Ammonium nitrate explosions killed hundreds of people in Texas City in 1947, destroyed the Oklahoma City Federal Building in 1995, and a portion of the town of West Texas in 2013. I had trouble grasping the fact that people in that town had been living next to a fertilizer plant for years. Texas high schools might save lives by teaching less football and more science.

            Kids always learn about the dangers of combining electricity with water, yet that interaction forms part of our nervous systems, muscles, in fact, our entire bodies. Knowing none of this at the time, I first learned from kid’s science books how to break water down into hydrogen and oxygen. Dissolve some baking soda in the water to make it conduct electricity, and dunk wires from a battery into the solution. Hydrogen bubbles up from one wire, oxygen from the other. The two gasses can be caught in upside down test tubes. Hydrogen, colorless, makes a little pop if you light it with a match. Putting a glowing matchstick in the oxygen makes it flame up.

            Dissolving table salt in the water instead of baking soda, little whiffs of pale green chlorine bubble up instead of oxygen, giving the clean smell of bleach. Big clouds of the stuff brought death and blindness to thousands of soldiers in World War I. A friend of mine whom I met in middle age was a far more serious boy chemist that I had been. He made chlorine in his attic using a different process than I did. It overcame him and his mother had to go up and drag him out of there.

            I bought copper sulfate, a bright blue crystal, at the chemical supply house. Throwing some into a fire makes intense blue flames. (Different metals give different colors in a flame: throwing in table salt gives yellow from the sodium.) Copper sulfate dissolved in water turns it bluer than any ocean. Connecting two copper wires to battery terminals and sticking the wires in the liquid makes the negative wire grow fat with new copper while the positive wire wastes away, dissolving into the solution. This process called electroplating is used commercially to coat all sorts of products with metal finishes such as chrome or silver. I would plate little things such as steel nails, though mine always came out horribly pitted. 

            Not counting kitchen staples such as table salt and vinegar, copper sulfate is the only chemical from my boyhood that I use to this day. I pour bright blue solutions of it down drains to prevent clogging by killing roots. The old stuff came as deep blue crystals; the new is a lighter colored powder, which can give off dust when poured irritating the nose. Once dissolved, it is exactly as I remember it, though running electricity through it no longer tickles my fancy.

            Sulfur, called brimstone by hellfire preachers, is an essential element of protein, hence life itself. It has no smell but in compound form it can produce two of the stinkiest gasses known to man: hydrogen sulfide and sulfur dioxide.

            I got a little bottle of sulfur in a chemistry set when I was perhaps 10 or 12. The element comes in many forms. Mine, a pale yellow powder, turned into a sticky mess when burned and gave off sulfur dioxide, which reacts with moisture in the lungs, as does chlorine.

            I also made a little hydrogen sulfide, another poison gas with a characteristic stink of rotten eggs. I had only smelled bad eggs once or twice in my life, but the gas I made hit me like a fist in the face. Some primeval system must be built into the nose and brain from millions of years ago, telling us that that smell means death. Keep away! Do not eat, do not touch.

            This little demonstration required caution—the concentrated acid treats flesh, eyeballs, and clothing in the same way as it does the sugar. I had a garden hose available in case of accident. 

            An impressive but simple experiment was to pour concentrated sulfuric acid into a beaker half full of sugar. A science teacher did this in a class some years after I did it at home. The experiment is useful to get a few minutes’ attention from a bevy of bored kids. A steaming black volcano rises up out of the beaker and grows several inches tall. The phenomenon takes place because the concentrated sulfuric is hydrophilic (literally “loves water”) to such an extent that pouring water into a container of the acid can cause a little explosion showering the feckless experimenter with something that might feel like liquid fire. Sugar molecules have carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. The acid tears apart the sugar molecules like a bulldozer crushing a dollhouse. The hydrogen and oxygen combine to make boiling water. The black carbon remains and rises up pushed by the steam.

            This little demonstration required caution—the concentrated acid treats flesh, eyeballs, and clothing in the same way as it does the sugar. I had a garden hose available in case of accident. Chemistry labs have eye washers resembling double drinking fountains and emergency showers in the halls, rarely used so they don’t have drains. I did not see these until college.

            The chemical supply house also sold glass tubing used as “plumbing” in labs, since few chemicals react with it. Wanting to play with glass blowing, I set up a little brass alcohol blowtorch on the driveway in front of the garage, safe from fire and Mama. I did experiments that might look dangerous or stink up the house outside.

            Glass does not turn quickly from solid to liquid like ice, it softens as it heats, a bit like ice cream. I got some ¼ inch diameter glass tubes, the smallest made, and held one in the blue tip of the flame, turning it to distribute the heat. The almost invisible flame turned bright yellow because of sodium in the glass. The tube would turn red hot, glowing while still transparent, an odd sight in those days, though easily achieved on a modern computer display. At that point it was soft enough to work.

            Pulling on both ends would draw the hot part into a thread, which remained flexible after cooling. The easiest trick that might lead to something useful was bending the tube, carefully so it would not kink shut. Heating it on one end would fuse the glass into a blob, close the end, and prepare it for blowing and bending.

            Next, I would heat the middle of the tube in the flame and start blowing. Irregular heating would make one side of the tube bulge out like one of those little frogs whose throat gets gigantic when it croaks. Blowing too hard created glass as thin as paper. Turning the tube while heating it allowed me to make a tube with a decent symmetrical bulge in the center.

            The glass needed time to cool. Dunking it in water while hot would create stress and shatter it. After it stopped glowing, it looked like a normal piece of glass but remained hot enough for some time to give a nasty burn. Skilled glass blowers could make striking works of art or complex custom lab ware with its own beauty. Besides making a vase big enough for a blade of grass, I never got past the threads, bends, and bulges.

            I could have made explosives. With forty acres in the country there was nobody to hurt but myself, but I never did. Mama, who had read about pioneers who made their own black gunpowder, told me that it requires mixing ground charcoal, sulfur, and saltpeter. The latter is potassium nitrate, the oxidizer, which people extracted from guano found in caves.

            Black powder gave out so much smoke that it became almost impossible to tell friend from foe during battles in the past creating a literal “fog of war,” a possible reason for British soldiers to wear their “red coats.”

            A different kind of explosive, called nitrocellulose or guncotton, gives off far less smoke than the old stuff. Packed into a cartridge, it will fire a bullet. I thought about making some by soaking cotton balls in a mixture of concentrated nitric and sulfuric acids. I figured that without being compressed, it would vanish with a whoosh if ignited, but I never made any. In elementary school, teachers warned us about blasting caps being left around construction sites blowing off fingers or putting out eyes. Cherry bombs would do the same. Rumors circulated about kids lighting one in a bathroom, flushing it down the toilet and wrecking pipes below the floor.

            I had some idea of how to make nitroglycerin, a liquid explosive. Pharmacies sold glycerin, a viscous sweet, substance. I figured that mixing it with nitric acid would make the explosive, though I did not know enough chemistry to separate them. Messing with the stuff never crossed my mind.

            Mama told me stories she heard from her father, Thomas, who gave me the name; he was a teacher and sometimes oil field worker. The workers used to explode nitroglycerin canisters at the bottoms of wells to loosen the rock and allow more oil to flow—an ancestor of modern day fracking. Horse-drawn wagons delivered the stuff, an unstable liquid, often rolling over rocky terrain. Every so often the shaking would detonate a load. She never told me what remained—probably more of the horse than the wagon and driver.

            I did think about making thermite, a mixture of powdered aluminum and iron oxide (rust). The stuff does not explode but when ignited with something very hot such as a strip of burning magnesium, it turns into white-hot molten iron as the aluminum rips the oxygen away from the oxide. Bank robbers would put some on top of a safe and it would burn through to the inside like an upside down volcano though one might have expected valueless cash and jewelry flambés.

            Pulverizing enough aluminum and collecting enough rust to make a satisfying reaction seemed like much work for momentary fun. It never occurred to me to try to buy materials at the chemical supply store. YouTube has dozens of videos of people playing with thermite including melting through car engine blocks. I should have tried to make a little. Strange to say, the stuff is available on the internet, even the magnesium fuses. For reasons of safety, the two powders are shipped separately and must be mixed in situ. People would look askance at streams of white hot metal flowing out of packages or through the floors of delivery trucks.

            I did not pursue chemistry to any great depth until college though I knew far more than my high school teacher. I read about interesting stuff, some fairly advanced but could do nothing which required creativity without advanced training and a well equipped lab, not something in a driveway.

            I also played with optics, ordering lenses and a prism from an optical supply house—burning things with a magnifying lens by concentrating sunlight, and using the same lens to project an upside down image of a scene on to a wall. I created crude microscopes and telescopes with the lenses and broke sunlight into rainbow colors. The knowledge came in handy, helping with a first year physics course in college, but I could go no further in my childhood studies. I continued electronics through high school and dreamed up all sorts of projects. They did not always work but failure without serious bodily harm is a good teacher.


The son of Harriette Simpson Arnow, Thomas Arnow worked as a programmer and computer consultant for many years and has a bachelor's degree in chemistry, two computer-related master's degrees, and a Ph.D. in electrical and computer engineering from the University of Texas at Austin. He was most interested in human and computer vision and the similarities and differences between the two. A few years ago in his 60s, he decided it was time to start some sort of career, and he has concentrated on writing since. He lives in San Antonio, Texas.


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