5.  Tales of Destruction...Frozen Nitroglycerin

He put the glycerin to thaw, the water too hot, the stuff let go; it was the man, and not the well, was shot.--Anonymous

It is important to note that nitroglycerin freezes solid at 45-55 degrees Fahrenheit, depending on purity, and contracts upon freezing, unlike water which expands (water being an exception to the general rule).  It is extremely insensitive to detonation in the frozen state as many stories in this series illustrate.  However, there is tremendous hazard in its thawing as the Brophy tale illustrates.

Mowbray, a very respected explosives chemist of his day with scores of patents, relates the following about frozen nitroglycerin:  "During the severe winter of 1867 and 1868, the Deerfield dam became obstructed with ice, and it was important that it should be cleared out without delay.  W.P. Granger, Esq., engineer in charge, determined to attempt its removal by a blast of nitroglycerin.  In order to appreciate the following details, it must be borne in mind that the current literature of this explosive distinctly asserted that, when congealed, the slightest touch or jar was sufficient to explode nitroglycerin.  Mr. Granger desired for me to prepare for him ten cartridges, and as he had to carry them in his sleigh from the west end of the Adams tunnel to the east end of Deerfield dam, a distance of nine miles over the mountain, he requested them to be packed in such a way that they would not be affected by the inclement weather.  I therefore caused the nitroglycerin to be warmed up to ninety degrees, warmed the cartridges, and, after charging them, packed them in a box with saw dust that had been heated to the same temperature; the box was tied to the back of the sleigh, with a buffalo robe thrown over it.  In floundering across the divide where banks, road, hedge, and water courses were indistinguishable beneath the drifted snow, horse, sleigh and driver were upset, the box of cartridges got loose, and were spread indiscriminately over the snow.  After rectifying this mishap, picking up the various contents of the sleigh, and getting ready to start again, it occurred to Mr. Granger to examine his cartridges; his feelings may be imagined when he discovered the nitroglycerin frozen solid.  To have left them behind and proceeded to the dam, where miners, engineers, and laborers were waiting to use this then much dreaded explosive, would never do; so accepting the situation, he replaced them in the case, and, laying it between his feet, proceeded on his way, thinking a heap but saying nothing.  Arrived, he forthwith attached fuse, exploder, powder, and some gun cotton, and inserted the cartridge in the ice.  Lighting the fuse, he retired to a proper distance, to watch the explosion.  Presently a sharp crack indicated that the fuse had done its work, and, on proceeding to the hole drilled in the ice, it was found that fragments of the copper cap were embedded in the solid cylinder of congealed nitroglycerin, which was driven through and out of the tin cartridge into the anchor ice beneath, but not exploded.  A second attempt was attended with like results.  Foiled in attempting to explode the frozen nitroglycerin, Mr. Granger thawed the contents of another cartridge, attached the fuse and exploder as before; this time the explosion was entirely successful.  From that day I have never transported nitroglycerin except in a frozen condition, and to that lesson are we indebted for the safe transmission of more that two hundred and fifty thousand pounds of this explosive, over the roughest roads of New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, New York, and the coal and oil regions of Pennsylvania, in spring wagons with our own teams."

Mowbray also relates the following story:  "On March 12, 1871, a magazine containing 1600 pounds of nitroglycerin blew up.  Within twelve feet of the magazine was a shed, sixteen feet by eight, containing twelve fifty-pound cans of congealed nitroglycerin ready for shipment.  This shed was utterly destroyed, the floor blasted to splinters, the joists rent to fragments, the cans of congealed nitroglycerin driven into the ground, the tin of which they were composed perforated, contorted, battered, and portions of tin and nitroglycerin sliced off but not exploded."

And this headline and story from The Titusville Morning Herald of December 31, 1869:


"A vendor of nitroglycerine walked into an engine house on the Henderson Farm (Shamburg) a day or two since, and setting down a can near the fire, said, 'I want to leave this glycerine here a while so it thaws out'.  The startled occupants of the shebang politely invited him to 'thaw off' from that lease-or, in plain English, to 'get up and git' and he got".

Contact us with questions or comments.
Copyright © 2000-2008 The Otto Cupler Torpedo Co. & AnaLog Services, Inc.

| AnaLog Home | Tales of Destruction Index | Previous Page | Next Page |

Last 05-26-00