Monthly Archives: December 2016

Chemistry 001

A merry chemistry-set Christmas to all and each. God spare us, every one!


A green and yellow exhaust-fuming bus stopped at the top of Glenroy Avenue, just across from the mailbox (still painted red, white and blue) — a very short walk from the Poe house and across from the once and future Haneberg house of Rick fame. There was a corner house with detached garage and level-as-a-dream driveway — more on driveway slopes in a minute. But you might not want to look at a topographic map of 315 geography to discover something the contour lines reveal — water flows downhill. And all waterways lead to Schroer.

It might not ever be a good time to read about Schroer, unless  you have four minutes remaining ’til the microwave beeps three times…

Hey Bill, you haven’t even started to talk about chemistry and the microwave is beeping.


Anyway, dad drove 100,000 miles a year for Pittsburgh Paint and Glass and he liked to park his car in the toasty garage. My memory-favorite is the schoolbus-yellow ’55 Chevy. Look at the photo above and imagine the steeply descending driveway chock-full of snow. Envision shoveling from the top of that stone wall down to the garage door. When the car made it to sidewalk level we watched dad drive the rear tires onto chains. Whoa, or something; my brain cells are suffering frostbite.

Since we’re not on topic, was that in the days before studded tires made tire chains as obsolete as laser discs?

Yes. yellow-school-bus

So, back to the fuming bus — don’t confuse it with yellow Kissel Brother school buses of rusted-floorboard lore. Seriously, you could see asphalt passing below the bus. Well it stopped at the John Shillito Department Store. Now long gutted and converted into upscale condominiums. There was an amazing toy department that stocked chemistry sets.

Holy crap, finally, a hint of your topic. 


Mad scientists of 1950’s film fame inspire young mad scientist wannabes such as this writer. A spirited collision of science-fiction reading, household chemicals, periodic table of the elements, sulphur and ignitable materials then sold at the drugstore in Storetown (Greenwell and Delhi area). There was even a Dot Food. Storetown is a few miles northwest of Sacred Mountain, in case that datum helps you orient.

Wasn’t The Gunpowder God published in Analog around 1964?


Written by H. Beam Piper. Premise: Pennsylvania highway patrol officer runs into a Möbius warp of the kind that sweeps you into alternate histories — in this case a gunpowder-free culture. Same geography, different history. That story piqued my interest in the flash-points of various combustible compounds.

Hey, it was even better than that. Piper provided the exact steps for the sulphur, charcoal and sodium nitrate — including the evaporation and precipitation steps. Stuff that a normal mad scientist might miss.

Any other 315 trivia we don’t want to know?

Yes. An ancient bottle of boric acid was still in the hall closet after dad died in 2012. It probably hadn’t been opened since the 60’s, when it joined my personal chemistry lab and darkroom. Things accreted in that basement. Layers and layers of family life in remnant form.

We just want to know about the chemistry experiments there, and we’re tapping our shoes off.

Yes. There was a refrigerator with its compressor on top, a gas stove to supplement the denatured alcohol burner, an old dresser to lend mad scientist flavor. Hot and cold running water.

Wow…or something.

Everything on the periodic table was fair play. Acids in the form of vinegar (acetic acid), bases in the form of Drano (sodium hydroxide). Look at ammonia from an open-ion perspective. Force some burning sulphur fumes into a concocted plastic container holding a little water. Shake it up and hope the resulting sulphuric acid melts through the plastic.

My attempt was somewhat more primitive than this inspiring page clearly illustrates

Fortunately for the other inhabitants of 315, I never got that far. I would pour a mixture of Drano and water onto aluminum foil and try to figure out how the bubbles could be captured and stored.

The 315 vicinity produced a team of neighborhood firework freaks who could find their way to Al’s in Covington, a Ma and Al shop that sold interstate fireworks to the likes of us. All very nice, but wasn’t it better to slice up cherry bombs and M80’s, stuff the ignitable into a bamboo pole? How to do it. That was another question. Severe burns and severed limbs? Hey, don’t change the subject. Bold scientist at work

Enter a caption

Bill, don’t you have a deadline or anything. It’s Christmas Eve tomorrow and, quite frankly, we are bored to frazzle. Do you know what that’s like?

No, but I’ll wrap this up for now and unwrap it later. And that reminds me: have a grand time unwrapping recyclable paper. Reuse.

And allow your cat(s) to help.

Merry Christmas, and all that stuff!

Thanks for reading.