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Boy Chemist
or Fire, Noise, Smells and Smoke

by Ed Thelen - a Dilbert clone

Just for fun :-))
"Mad Science" by Theodore Gray

Table of Contents
    - Chemistry
    - Electroplating adventure
    - Rayon at the Science Fair
    - Postscript

At some tender age, my parents gave me a chemistry set.

That was fun but somewhat limited -
I think I used all the chemicals in a few days -
Started going to the local drugstore - a lot -
- a pound of "Flowers of Sulfur"
- a way too large mortar and pestle
- 1/4 pound iodine crystals
Fire, the famous Bunsen burner, was always a problem. Our house was not equipped with gas - and my $0.10/week allowance (when granted) did not go far - so I "borrowed" some of my father's "Paul Bunyan" hair oil and used that (burning from a wick) to heat test tubes. Soon my father noticed the "leakage" from his bottle - and after inquiries about the missing hair oil, bought me a bottle.

Fire, test tubes, boiling (and "bumping") - water on a small scale does not boil smoothly - small quantities super-heat, and "bump" (explode). I learned about that - I heard that butyric acid stinks, like vomit - obviously I must make some - boil sulfuric acid and butter in a test tube was the recipe - mix, heat, and boil
A sudden sharp noise - test tube knocked down out of test tube holder- stinky contents of test tube flies up in opposite direction - wetting the ceiling of my room.
For several days after that I slept in the living room until the stink abated somewhat -

CASH, or lack thereof, after failing at
- bowling alley pin boy - mother heard they sold liquor and wouldn't let me go again
- a paper route (the route owner did the collections and kept most money)
- magazine subscriptions (the neighbors got tired of seeing me)
I started baby sitting - a steady income :-))

With cash, and library chemistry books, my horizons expanded. Ah fire works,
- red (strontium) fire, yellow (sodium) fire, violet (potassium) fire
- I gave colored fire demos to the neighbors.
and "Gun Powder" - classical potassium nitrate, sulfur, charcoal :-))
- I never was patient enough to do the proper grinding, so got "Rocket Powder" ;-))

OK - "Rocket Powder" goes to rockets. Found a number expended 12 gauge shot gun shells, knocked out the expended primers, which left a nice nozzle, Scotch Tape fins, and we had flying shotgun shells all over the neighborhood :-))
Tolerant neighbors, and life is good ;-))

And a floor sprinkled with drying Nitrogen Iodide ;-))
- my poor long suffering mother !!
You walk into my room, - snap, crackle, pop under foot - and sweeping is "interesting" ;-))

I tended to put surplus or poor rocket powders and fires into a can 3" diameter 8" tall can. When it got full I took it out into the back yard, and lit it - there was a bit of noise, and a huge cloud of evil looking smoke, like a mushroom cloud. My mother got quite excited, but Mrs. Lehman from next door said that was all right. "Boys will be boys."

Electroplating adventure
Long ago ( several generations ) and far away ( OK, Minnesota ) there lived a bookish kid who read in Popular Science that you could electroplate copper and make ( OK, copper plated baby shoes).

Having some imagination, the kid imagined fabricating wax, applying a dusting of some conductive material, and forming a metal (useful) object - a little like 3D "printing" today.

The kid's knowledge of electrical quantities such as volts and currents was "limited", the kid was not even aware of volt meters.

Since batteries were very expensive, the source of all electricity was the house voltage, 110 volts. Fortunately, nothing fatal happened and the kid learned of using 60 watt light bulbs as current limiting devices. (Some blown fuses later - )

Electroplating seemed to need "direct" current, as opposed to the "alternating" current "freely" available. Then the kid hear/read of "rectifiers" that allowed current to flow in only one direction - the definition of "direct" current.

Three types of "rectifiers" seemed available
     a) big industrial mercury vapor rectifiers
     b) big industrial motor-generator sets
     c) more moderate sized chemical rectifiers
( this was before the days of wonderful semi-conductor rectifiers (diodes) )

Using available materials
     a) glass "Mason Jar" used by mother in canning
     b) sheet lead from roof repairs
     c) boric acid for eye wash solutions
     d) aluminum roofing
the kid tried to electoplate using the above rectifier in electrical series with
     a) current limiting light bulb
     b) the electroplating setup

Unfortunately, the copper electroplating did not work :-((
     a) a white sluge deposited at the bottom of the rectifier solution
     b) the rectifier solution go warm, and warmer
     c) nothing good happened in the electroplating setup

The kid realize that the large line voltage maybe overwhelmed the weak rectifier and experimented re-winding junked radio transformers. This does not work unless you have some idea of magnetic properties and alternating current - missing in the kid at the time.



Theory and performance of rectifiers. - NIST Page Proxy Highlight
October 9, 1924

included an aluminum and a tantalum electrolytic rectifier, two thermionic or ionized .... [Vol. 18. The electrodes used opposite the aluminum are usually lead,.
Interesting Patent Disclosures
1,640,335 Unidirectional Current Carrying Device - O.L. Grondahl
1,924,300 Copper Oxide Rectifier - Alfred L. Atherton
2,205,263 Copper Oxide Rectifier - Carl C. Hein
2,793,968 Method of Making Copper Oxide Rectifier Cells - William Irby
One object of this invention is to generally improve upon devices of this character by taking advantage of the fact that an electric current passes with comparatively slight resistance from an ammonium-sulphate solution or the like to an aluminum terminal submerged in the solution and passes with far greater resistance from the aluminum to the solution.

Rayon at the Science Fair
Science Fair to be in the Twin Cities. I heard folks could make rayon. Cellulose does not dissolve in many things, but - will in a mixture of ammonia, lye and copper sulfate. see here. Pushing the mixture out through a little nozzle into dilute sulfuric acid neutralizes the lye and the cellulose forms a weak wet thread. Just drying the wet thread gives a very stiff brittle thread, won't bend, breaks. My demo/display did not win any prizes or notice - but I found a much larger world of really talented informed high school "chemists". The winner gave a lengthy description how he synthesized vitamin K. The Science Fair was a real eye-opener !!
- I later heard that if the weak wet thread is properly stretched, "molecules" get aligned and a much more useful thread can be produced.

Some excitements while doing the above project:

  • Sucked on a tube to get a syphon going
    - got some of that cuprammonium lye mixture in my mouth
    - - couldn't taste anything for weeks -
  • Wanted to heat the cuprammonium gently in an Erlenmeyer Flask
    - made a paraffin wax bath - on an electric heater on the front porch
    - cuprammonium suddenly boiled over into the paraffin wax bath
    - massive boiling in paraffin causes over flow onto the hot coils of the stove
    - paraffin catches fire and runs down the porch
Raising kids can be interesting - mine could have been worse - me -

More library chemistry books -
should I try for nitroglycerine?
- got a pound of concentrated sulfuric acid
- and a pound of concentrated nitric acid
all from that same tolerant drug store :-))
- but the books said the reaction was exothermic, gets hot -
- decided to keep my fingers and face and do other things
I wonder what my mother did with all those hot chemicals??

I took Inorganic Chemistry in college
- aced the class work
- did miserably in the lab - as did everyone else -
- - we figured someone screwed up the "unknown" solutions, never got approved results
heard that the only employer of chemists was DuPont - that did not seem an economically wise course.
Also heard Organic Chemistry - next in sequence - was TOUGH - lots of memorization :-((
- decided that there must be other things to do - but what?????

Drifted aimlessly for several years - During my senior year of engineering school, I met digital computers - AH the lost is found :-))
Just wonderful to get pay for play !! How lucky can you get ??

by Ed Thelen