Saturday 9 February 2013

Victorian Production of One Ounce of Nitrogen Trichloride

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A Discourse Relating to the Economical Production of the
Most Dangerously Explosive Substance Known,
Using Only Natural Minerals & Human Gastric Juice.

In the Royal Institution's empty lecture theatre at Albemarle Street, London, Hodges was in the early stages of starving to death. He was the living part of an apparatus designed by his Master, the Weardale experimentalist Ernest Glitch. Hodges was strapped to a Queen Anne mahogany restraint wheelchair, with only his forearms free. His arms alternately operated gastric fluid extraction and chlorine gas compression pumps, which were bolted to the chair. Rubber tubes led from his nostrils, and a thick copper pipe from his mouth. Laboratory glassware was strapped under and on the back of the chair, connected with glass and rubber tubing. On his lap was a silver platter heaped with slices of wild boar roasted with garlic. Alongside, a poached salmon with thyme and rosemary dressing, accompanied with a stottie bulging with lightly braised badger loin, fried songbird eggs, and drizzled with rancid hog fat. It was a repast of Hodges' dreams. While he pumped, Hodges' eyes were maniacally fixed upon the food and his mouth drooled out excess saliva. Funnels, strategically placed next to the plate of food, led air and aroma up rubber pipes into Hodges' nostrils. The tubes were multiply perforated at the point they passed his olfactory epithelium, on their way to his lungs.

It was Hodges' fifth day without food. The smell from the feasts, continually put in front of him every three hours, day and night, had driven him somewhat insane. He had almost succeeded in an act of cannibalism upon the Royal Institution's concierge, such was the extent of his hunger induced lunacy. During the journey to The Royal Institution, his wheelchair being dragged behind Ernest Glitch's handsome cab, he had worked one of his arms free of the sharkskin restraint strapping. He had then partially flayed the rather portly concierge, whilst being wheeled into the Royal Institution's grand entrance. His Master was furious about the savaging, until he realised that it was impossible for his assistant to have eaten, because his mouth was still blocked by the large diameter copper gastric extraction tube. Hodges' talon-like fingernails had merely torn the skin off the man's midriff. No concierge meat or skin had been ingested, therefore Hodges' body would continue producing the raw material for the evening's lecture demonstration. Glitch wiped the concierge blood from Hodges' contorted face, then beat some sense into his assistant with the silver gilt pommel of his air-cane. He gave the concierge enough coin for his uniform to be repaired, the address of his horse doctor for medical attention, ordered the injured man to wheel Hodges to the lecture theatre, and then headed to the bar.

While Hodges pumped out his own gastric juices into the under seat reaction chamber, and pressurised the evolved chlorine, his Master was pontificating in the saloon bar. The bar was packed with the crème de la crème of Europe's intelligentsia, all eager to witness a discourse and demonstration from the Northern Arms Magnate and polymath. Ernest Glitch expounded, "My early triumphs, with the Glitch Phosphine Bomb and Bufotoxic Shrapnel Shells, will pale into insignificance, regarding the use of science to resolve conflict with undesirable foreigners! My latest addition to the explosives our Queen Victoria can unleash, against those unwise enough to resist the might of The British Empire, will be the epitome of scientific subjugation!" He was asked by an attendee which explosive was to be prepared during the lecture. He didn't name it, saying only,

"My good man, the chemical compound I shall manufacture is both simple in it's composition, and devastatingly brutal in it's nature. The early researchers into it's properties did not have my experimental finesse and expertise; Humphry Davy was part-blinded and Dulong lost two fingers and an eye! Would you care to hazard a guess as to it's name?"

The man who had questioned Glitch was a reporter from the Illustrated London News, his knowledge of science was minimal and he said,

"Gunpowder sir, perchance?" 

Glitch looked incredulously at the man. After a moment of confusion, he realised that he was dealing with a mentally enfeebled commoner, and not an educated savant with whom such clues would have immediately enabled the correct deduction of nitrogen trichloride. He demanded,

"Have you got a ticket?"

The proffered ticket was snatched by Glitch and meticulously inspected.

Press ticket & Döbereiner's lamp

The ticket appeared legitimate, but indicated that the bearer was of the loathsome profession who occasionally strove to discredit Glitch Industries. Glitch paused for a moment, calming his psyche and consciously repressing his normal violent reaction to the Press. He was not successful. He took out his pocket Döbereiner's lamp, turned on the hydrogen, and set fire to the ticket. For good measure, he also ignited the man's waistcoat and facial hair. He then shouted,

"This plebeian autoarsonist is an impostor and pickpocket!" adding a second later, "And a Foreign Anarchist bent on destroying the reign of our Queen Victoria!" Finishing with, "A tailcoat lifter of the worst kind, no doubt!"

With that, he left the burning reporter in the bar and walked to the lecture theatre. Hodges, being incapable of locomotion, hadn't moved. Every few seconds he operated one or the other of his wheelchair mounted hand-pumps. Glitch looked at his manservant and assistant, marvelling for a moment at the man's constitution. Hodges not only hadn't eaten for five days, he hadn't been able to sleep in that time, as the pumps needed constant attention. Such an ordeal in the name of science, would have killed a lesser man.

"Not long now Hodges, then you can eat." He said to his man, as he read the chlorine pressure dial on the back of the wheelchair's head restraint. Very nearly up to the required one hundred pounds per square inch. He took a slice of roast wild boar from the plate, took a bite and wafted the remainder in front of Hodges' nostril tube intake funnels. Hodges stopped the leisurely alternate pumping, and began simultaneous frantic and vigorous operation of the pumps. It was a dangerous situation to have excess gastric fluid within him, in case he began digesting his own stomach. Equally dangerous was a build up of chlorine in the under seat reaction chamber - if it was not pumped out into the pressure vessel, a blow back of chlorine into his stomach could cause much unpleasantness.

Glitch covered Hodges and his explosives production restraint wheel-chair with a light silk sheet, and the audience began to filter into the lecture theatre. Men of Science, they were in fine spirits after their drinks, and with having witnessed the "anarchist" beaten to within an inch, by Schönbein, Liebig and Bunsen, as they enthusiastically stamped and punched out the man's burning clothes.


Schönbein, Liebig and Bunsen, Victorian Royal Institution Security (Deutsche faction)

When all were seated, Ernest Glitch began his discourse. "My Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen, I must first of all apologise for the earlier infiltration of this hallowed assembly by a possibly Foreign Anarchist. I'm sure you will concur with me that such scum can only be dealt with by our Great Britain, by our having the latest deterrents Natural Philosophy can provide us. Such as these..."

Glitch retired behind the lecture table and put on a thick leather mask, with stout round glass eye glasses covered with wire gauze. He then lit a long wax taper with his Döbereiner, and applied it to the pinch of mercury fulminate, sitting on an inch cube of compressed gun cotton resting on the table. It exploded with a huge bang, blowing a hole through the table top upon which Michael Faraday had demonstrated electromagnetic induction.


"Nitrated cotton wool." he exclaimed, when the resonance of the concussion died away. He nodded acknowledgement to it's discoverer in the audience, Schönbein, who was still nursing his knuckles from his security rôle. Glitch then lit a gas burner under a thin steel plate, supported by a brass tripod. Heaped on the plate was a pile of yellow powder - picric acid - with a small admixture of red lead. The picric acid quickly melted, combined with a little of the lead, and exploded with a sharp detonation.

lead picrate
© Danielchemik

"Nitrated botany bay gum." Glitch said, after picking up the steel plate with tongs and showing his audience the inch wide hole blown through it. He went on, when the polite applause had died away, "Such explosions are caused in a dual manner. An initial detonation is caused by the energetic decomposition of a primary explosive, in the first instance, fulminate of mercury; in the second, picrate of lead. These sharp initial detonations provide enough energy to split a quantity of the nitrated organics' molecules into a mixture of fuel and oxygen, which then combine with extreme rapidity and with the evolution of much caloric. The secondary explosive then detonates in a progressive manner at great velocity."

Glitch paused for a moment to uncover Hodges and quickly check the chlorine tank pressure. He picked some badger meat out from the stottie and wafted it in front of his assistant's breathing funnels. The resultant frenzy of pumping and grunting from Hodges caused some measure of muttered speculation and concern from the audience. Glitch reassured them, "Please don't become alarmed by my production equipment, all will be explained in due course, this is perfectly normal."

The audience were only minimally reassured however, as the "production equipment" looked more sinister than anything imaginable from the worst excesses of the Spanish Inquisition. They did not perceive a finely crafted biochemical reactor for the production of energetic materiel. What they saw was a man dressed in soiled rags, strapped into a chair seldom seen outside of Bedlam, operating chair-arm mounted brass pumps with his laboratory stained hands. They saw his head, horrendously scarred through years of experimental mishaps, with black rubber tubes rammed into his nostrils and a thick corroded copper pipe leading from his mouth to glassware under the seat. They saw the desperate, bloodshot gleam in his eyes, staring at the food in front of him, whilst green saliva drooled from the corners of his verdigris encrusted mouth and dripped onto his sackcloth shirt.

Ignoring the obvious consternation of his audience, Glitch proceeded with his lecture, "To continue, the nitrated organics - the secondary explosives - require complex chemical manipulation and production equipment to enable their successful manufacture. Whereas primary explosives are of such simplicity that they can be made much more directly. And so to the subject of our lecture tonight." 

Glitch casually slapped Hodges' head, whose pumping frenzy had somewhat subsided and who had stopped grunting. He walked over to the lecture table and opened an oak box containing mineral specimens. He picked out a fist sized black rock, which showed radiating crystal sprays on its fractured surfaces. "This is a magnificently crystallised specimen of pyrolusite from Botallack in Cornwall." Glitch said, as he held up the specimen.

photo Rob Lavinski

He put the rock in a leather sack and pulverised the museum quality specimen with a hammer. He emptied the black dust into a large beaker and poured hydrochloric acid onto it. Covering the beaker with a stiff card, he placed the beaker over a bunsen burner, and said, "Observe the vigorous production of chlorine gas from the reaction of manganese dioxide and muriatic acid." The audience saw the heavy green gas beginning to fill the beaker. Glitch went on, "The same reaction is taking place in the reaction vessel, heated by a small paraffin burner, you see under my assistant. At a much slower rate, however, since the concentration of muriatic acid in gastric juice is barely one half of one percent. Hence the requirement for my assistant to provide raw material for five days."

He went over to the mineral case again, and removed a jar of white powder, saying, "This is the mineral sal ammoniac, taken from a fumarole upon the Island of Vulcano. Sal ammoniac is of course the mineralogical name for the chemical ammonium chloride. It's original crystalline appearance when encrusting the volcanic vent was of great beauty. It is now reduced to this disappointing white powder, through slovenly collection by my assistant. He seemed unable to isolate and preserve even one of the dendritic crystal growths, the temperature and toxic nature of the gas roaring from the fumaroles being somewhat severe. The man was choking towards expiry, his shackles were visibly corroding, and I seem to remember some difficulty with molten sulphur burns."

Sal ammoniac dendritic crystals, La Fossa Crater, Vulcano. © Roger Curry 2007

Glitch poured the powder into a beaker of warm water, and stirred with a glass rod as it dissolved. "Fascinating place Vulcano. Within its shores you can find two minerals which are soluble, one mineral that will melt and burn, and rocks that float. Ah, the sal ammoniac is now in solution. I shall now pour it into the second reaction chamber and turn on the pressurised chlorine." He put his leather face mask back on and walked over to Hodges.

Glitch proceeded to charge the glassware mounted at the back of Hodges' wheelchair with ammonium chloride solution and high pressure chlorine. It was a tense process, with much muffled muttering from the mask, as Glitch finely adjusted the chlorine flow into the solution. Drops of an orange-yellow oily liquid started forming at the gas-liquid interface, sinking and collecting into a glass funnel, thence into a glass vial. Nitrogen trichloride had maimed most of the early experimenters discovering its properties. It could explode with shock, contact with organic substances, heat, bright light and spontaneously. Humphry Davy had once prepared a quantity "scarcely as large as a grain of mustard seed" and then spent an unpleasant afternoon removing glass shards from his cornea. Glitch was manufacturing an ounce of this "sweat of the devil" and was doing this in a packed lecture theatre, on the back of a starving man strapped to a wheelchair.

During the next few minutes the audience were visibly shaken with fear twice, when the wheelchair reaction chamber appeared to "bump", because of a slight exothermic runaway. No detonation ensued, but on each occasion Glitch had thrown himself wailing to the floor and Hodges had emitted high pitched grunts from his nasal tube funnels. Eventually Glitch turned off the chlorine, as the glass vial was full.

Taking off his mask, he said, "Now the reaction is complete! Not one of us has been blinded and we all possess the same quantity of digits we awoke with. In short, I have demonstrated that this explosive compound, once considered to be too dangerous to be manufactured, can be made in quantity and in perfect safety. And frugally; from the minerals of the earth and the bodily fluids we are all blessed with!"

Glitch examined the apparatus. One last drop of the yellow liquid was hanging on the funnel spout. He carefully took the drop onto a glass rod and threw it to the floor. It exploded into a cloud of shock-pulverised glass with a piercing bang. He then removed the vial from the wheelchair and held it aloft.

molecular structure of nitrogen trichloride

"This vial of fluid is, without doubt, the largest quantity of nitrogen trichloride ever made. It will travel with me to my Weardale laboratory, to be incorporated into a superior instrument of the art of warfare!" Glitch looked about until he saw the Royal Institution's lecture theatre assistant. "Coates! Take this out to my handsome cab and safely deposit it into the peregrine feather explosives chest." He handed the vial very carefully to Mr. Coates, who was well aware of the danger, and was shaking with anxiety. 

Glitch, and all in the lecture theatre, watched as Mr. Coates gingerly carried out the vial of explosive liquid from the room, to deliver it to Glitch's handsome cab. "Now that I have shown that nitrogen trichloride can be produced with ease, in bulk, and in perfect safety, I will describe the chemistry in detail. Also the engineering challenges for its use in battlefield conditions will be addressed. But before I begin the second part of my discourse, we will return to this beaker, where we were reacting some pyrolusite powder with muriatic acid. As you can see, it is now full of chlorine gas."

A small globe of chlorine gas
photo W. Oelen

"Deadly, but hardly of the volume necessary for use as a credible military poison." He considered for a moment, "Perhaps enough to send a Foreign Anarchist to Hades, by forcing the blackguard to re-breathe it a few times! Hah!"

Native arsenic
photo Ra'ike

He went to the mineral cabinet again, this time selecting a grey rock showing globular crystalline growth. "Native arsenic," he said, putting the specimen into the leather bag, "A particularly fine botryoidal specimen from Bohemia." Glitch casually powdered it, removed the card covering the beaker and threw the powdered arsenic into the chlorine gas.

There was a bright white flash and a whoosh as the fine arsenic spontaneously burned in the chlorine. Larger particles caused tiny fireballs trailing white smoke as they fell through the green gas. An ominous cloud of smoke rose from the beaker, and hung above the lecture table. Glitch got smartly out from the proximity of the spreading cloud, saying, "Arsenic trichloride, in a state of particulate suspension in air. An ideal war poison!"

Arsenic trichloride

The audience all shrank back in their seats. The white cloud hung like a noxious cumulus above them. Glitch went over to open a window, saying, "Knock down a nest of Foreign Anarchists in next to no time, will that miasma! We'll have the air clear shortly Gentlemen, please don't be alarmed." The fresh air entered the lecture room and the cloud swirled and dissipated through the back room door-way. A collective sigh of relief issued from those well aware of the particularly toxic properties of halogenated arsenic. 

At this moment Mr Coates returned in fine spirits. He looked mightily relieved, nodded to Glitch that the job was done, and jauntily walked into the back room, coughing a little upon entry. Glitch said, "The vial of liquid nitrogen trichloride is now safely ensconced in my handsome cab, where, because is it completely stabilised, it is perfectly safe. I will now elaborate upon the conditions of equilibri..." He was interrupted by an distracting racket issuing from his manservant.

Hodges had started rocking his chair from side to side and moaning in a most alarming manner. Glitch hissed at him to keep quiet. The moaning stopped but the rocking increased in amplitude. Glitch sighed, and addressed his audience, "I will presently return to the subject, but my assistant appears to be desirous to be removed from the production equipment. Please excuse me for a moment." 

Hodges looked up at his Master with his bulging eyes, the anticipation in his expression obvious to all. Glitch said, "Yes Hodges, time to remove the copper pipe from your stomach, so you can eat a last!"

Hodges beamed as best he could through his facial tubing, and showed his excitement by operating his pumps rhythmically and emitting a high keening noise from his nostril tube funnels. Glitch slapped him over the back of the head and said, "Show some decorum you nematode! Remember where you are. Now brace yourself!"

Glitch got his foot on Hodges' emaciated  chest, shouted "Stop drooling you filthy ingrate!" and yanked out the tracheal rubber hoses from Hodges' nostrils. The copper gut pipe was more difficult, Glitch had to wiggle it from side to side to break the build-up of copper compounds encrusting the pipe onto Hodges' epiglottis. As soon as the corroded and bloodied metal pipe was out of his gullet, Hodges began barking. And he wouldn't stop barking, even when Glitch began to give him a good thrashing. Hodges' oesophagus had turned leathery over the past days. It was dessicated, and had been rubbed raw during the pipe removal. The pipe had doubled as the method Hodges received water every six hours. Now Hodges was literally crying out for a drink to sooth his gullet. He could only bark however, since his vocal chords, bypassed by the rubber tracheal tubes, had solidified with biogenic copper secondary minerals, including azurite.

Copper secondary minerals
photo Rob Lavinski

Glitch eventually fathomed what Hodges wanted, and stopped using the dog whip. He shouted for the Royal Institution's lecture theatre assistant, "Mr. Coates, get this man a drink!"

Mr. Coates unsteadily came from the back room, looking very pale. He shakily walked over to the sink, and Glitch shouted, "Not water you fool! Newcastle Brown Ale from the bar!" Coates left the theatre, holding his head and shuffling bent over a little, as though suffering stomach discomfort.

Hodges' barking became more pleading, with interludes of the high keening noises. Glitch addressed his audience, shouting to making himself heard over the animal noises from his assistant, "Please accept my most abject apologies for the behaviour of my assistant. I am afraid the man just wasn't mentally built for such a non-invasive, and I might say, trivial, digestive intervention in the name of science. I'm sure the Father of Gastric Physiology, that Yankee Beaumont, didn't have to endure this level of incompetence with his experimental animal,.. er, I mean man. And that poor bastard St. Martin had his stomach laid open to the air! Be assured gentlemen, my assistant will be punished for this bestial performance!"

On June 6, 1822 Alexis St. Martin was shot in the gut with a musket at close range. The hole into his stomach did not heal over, so William Beaumont, a US Army surgeon, used him as an experimental subject and  "common servant." Beaumont dangled lumps of meat on string directly into St. Martin's stomach through the hole, to observe digestion directly.

Slowly Mr. Coates, his eyes ringed leaden grey, re-entered the room, whimpering and dry heaving. He was doubled over with pain, but managed to drag the crate of bottles over to Hodges' wheel-chair. Then, after a moment of confusion, he gave out a yelp, and shuffled off to the back room to use the staff Thomas Crapper facilities.

Glitch unstrapped his assistant from the Queen Anne restraint wheel-chair. Hodges immediately lunged from the chair onto the crate, and began power-drinking brown ale on an empty stomach. A hobby popular in the North East of England, this held the audience enthralled. Mr. Coates re-emerged from the back room without trousers, and from his screaming and general demeanour, appeared to be dying in a most distressing manner.

Glitch knew his lecture was in disarray, and that he was losing the attention of the audience. He said, "Returning to the most interesting subject of..." Suddenly a huge explosion outside blew all the windows in, and shards of glass scattered into the theatre at high velocity towards the audience, followed by half a cartwheel and a large portion of twitching horse flesh.

As the dust began to settle, Glitch ran to a former window, to view what was left of Albemarle Street, and shouted over the screaming from Coates and moaning from the injured, "Good Grief! Foreign Anarchists have blown up someone's handsome cab!"

Copyright © 2013 Roger Curry
All Rights Reserved

More on-line articles concerning Ernest Glitch can be found here

"Victorian Production of One Ounce of Nitrogen Trichloride" is the first chapter of -

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(or PC, ipad, smart phone with free reader) 
UK (77p
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The Ernest Glitch Chronicles. A Novel by Roger Curry

Anarchic Experimental Science in
Victorian Weardale &
Event Horizon Powered Lotus

Ernest Glitch. Wealthy Victorian experimentalist, armaments mogul, aficionado of intoxication and big game hunting. His mansion in Weardale, England, had laboratory facilities second to none in the mid eighteen hundreds. In them Glitch, with his assistant Hodges, performed scientific experimentation of a most eclectic nature, and always with concentrated disregard to safety issues.

An eccentric and volatile person, his pursuit of knowledge was accompanied by the sort of hedonism only the very rich can enjoy. The results of experiments he and his assistant Hodges undertook were never published. As he kept no log-book, the main record of the discoveries they made are the letters he wrote to Michael Faraday.

In this book, those letters are presented, together with contemporary reports, a journal Glitch made of his expedition to Africa, and several narratives of his life. Also, reference is made to both his ancestors and, in detail, his descendants. This novel has two threads. One details the horrific experiments performed by Victorian Ernest Glitch and his assistant Hodges. The other is set in the near future, where Glitch and Hodges' descendants wreak havoc, with a device capable of generating enormous power from the annihilation of nuclear waste.

More Information & Sample Chapters here

WARNING - Contains very strong language. The letters and accounts of the work of Ernest Glitch are of an appalling nature in parts, containing references to animal and human experimentation, extreme violence, Victorian drug abuse, and complete disregard for the dignity of native peoples. 135 thousand words. Buy it for the Kindle - UK  here, USA  here

IMPORTANT - Please don't try any of the described experiments. In particular, any attempt to prepare nitrogen trichloride will most certainly be disastrous. See disclaimer at  the bottom of this page.

Supplementary information -

Nitrogen Trichloride
A collection of nitrogen trichloride information can be found here

Döbereiner's lamp
Chemical technology By Friedrich Ludwig Knapp, 1848

The details of Dulong's accident with nitrogen trichloride are unclear, with the number of fingers he blew off varying between one and three, depending upon which text is referred to.

246 Trinitrophenol, or picric acid, was prepared in Victorian times from the gum found in certain Aussie plants. For further information see here

An elementary chemistry experiment, powdered arsenic sprinkled into chlorine gas
Leçons élémentaires de chimie (B.Bussard, H.Dubois) 1906 page 115

Samuel Hahnemann (1755 - 1843), founder of homeopathy, describes the horrific death caused by the injestion of a large dose of arsenic trioxide -

A New and comprehensive system of materia medica and therapeutics, Volume 1
 By Charles Julius Hempel, 1864

Excellent arsenic article from New Scientist. Use magnify button.

"The man was choking towards expiry, his shackles were visibly corroding, and I seem to remember some difficulty with molten sulphur burns." 

Fumarole with molten sulphur, crystalline sulphur & sal ammoniac
La Fossa Crater, Vulcano. © Roger Curry 2007

Stainless steel blade after brief digging at a fumarole

Mr. Coates, the Royal Institution's lecture assistant in the above, has no connection to the 20th Century William Coates, of whom a video can be found here

The pyrolusite mineral sample shown is not from Cornwall. It's from Thuringia, Germany.

Here's the book Beaumont wrote about his gastric experimentation on his servant. Click on the magnify button a couple of times and use the scrollbar -

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Unrelated to this post, below is an example of
eclectic science esoterica 

"Ballon à col sinueux employé par M. Pasteur dans ses expériences contre la génération spontanée"

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WARNING - Many subjects outlined within this site are extremely dangerous and are provided here for information only. Please don`t experiment with high voltages or chemicals unless you are fully conversant with safe laboratory practices. No liability will be accepted for death, injury or damage arising from experimentation using any information or materials supplied.