Monday 15 June 2015

George Gore on scientific research & Mr. Hennell's chest laid entirely open by a fulminate explosion

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The Scientific Basis of National Progress, by G. Gore 1882

To succeed in research, a man must set aside all human pride, and approach the subject with perfect humility; and this is not an easy task, men cannot so readily abandon preconceived and cherished notions. Many researches are moreover extremely dangerous. Thilorier was killed by the explosion of a vessel of liquefied carbonic anhydride; Dulong lost an eye and finger, and Sir Humphrey Davy was wounded by an explosion of chloride of nitrogen. Faraday was near being blinded by an experiment with oxygen. Nickl├Ęs of Nancy, and Louyet of Brussels, lost their lives, and two other chemists were seriously injured in health by exposure to the excessively dangerous fumes of hydrofluoric acid. Bunsen lost the sight of an eye and was nearly poisoned by an explosion whilst analysing cyanide of cacodyl. Hennel was killed by an explosion of fulminate of silver, and Chapman by one of nitrate of methyl; and nearly every chemical investigator could tell of some narrow escape of life in his own experience. Any one who wishes to know whether it is "very nice to be always making experiments" should attempt the isolation of fluorine, the chemical examination of some offensive substance, or the determination of some difficult physical, or chemical problem.


A horrific account of Hennell's mishap follows, here the fulminate is described as that of mercury, not of silver -

An inquest was held in the court-room of Apothcaries Hall, on Monday, on the body of Mr. Hennell, principal Chemical Operator to the Society of Apothecaries ; who met with his death while engaged in the preparation of some detonating powder, which exploded as he was testing it. The body was shattered to pieces ; the head was completely smashed, and the chest laid entirely open, exposing the heart and lungs. The right arm and four of the fingers of the left hand were torn off. It was stated in the evidence, that a quantity of detonating powder had been made at the urgent desire of the East India Directors for shipment on Saturday, at too short a notice to procure more than half the desired quantity, which was six pounds; and Mr. Hennell, wishing to oblige the Company, determined to prepare the composition himself. He said he would only make a small portion at a time, and in the open air, in order to prevent any explosion. Some gentlemen on the establishment endeavoured to dissuade him from making the attempt, on account of the danger; but he persisted: he was accounted a person of great skill and science. The first witness examined, Charles Rivers, an assistant to Mr. Hennell, described the manner in which the accident happened-

"I had been with him in the early part of the morning, but had left him between eight and nine for the purpose of going to breakfast. When be came down, about half-past seven in the morning, he examined the preparation of fulminating mercury upon which he had been engaged the previous evening, and which had been left during the night under cover in the yard. At nine o'clock, he weighed a small portion that had been subjected to a heat of 115 degrees in a steam drying-stove, in order to ascertain the quantity of moisture it contained. When Mr. Rennet went to breakfast, he left it in a pan on a block in the yard. It was understood between deceased and myself, that when the composition was sufficiently dry two grains should be tested by striking it with a hammer. The bulk was afterwards to he weighed. Deceased was not so long as usual at his breakfast, but returned to watch the progress of the preparation. Before I returned to the premises, I heard a loud report, and hastened to the spot, suspecting the cause. I there saw deceased lying in the yard in the mutilated state in which the Jury have seen the body. No part of the composition could be found after the explosion. It is impossible to state positively how the explosion took place. Having prepared the necessary quantity, he resolved upon mixing it with the three pounds that had been purchased, in order to produce uniformity of colour. To this admixture I attribute the explosion. From the known skill and experience of Mr. Hennell, I cannot conceive that the accident originated from carelessness. The composition would not explode in a moist state, but a slight pressure when dry would produce combustion."

George Angell actually saw the occurrence from a window— Mr. Hennell commenced stirring the contents of the dish with his right hand. In three or four minutes afterwards the explosion took place. He was in the act of stirring the contents of the dish at the time the explosion took place. He was blown about two yards from the block. I was at a window at the time, and was nearly forced off my legs by the explosion. I ran out, and saw the deceased lying on the stones with all his upper part shattered to pieces.

The Jury returned a verdict of " Accidental Death," accompanied by a strong recommendation that no experiments of a dangerous nature should for the future be made on the premises, situate as they are in a very crowded neighbourhood.

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"Hodges emitted a scream the like of which
I hadn't heard since his scrotum was burned off
during my experiment with fluorine gas last year."

The Exotic Experimentation of Ernest Glitch,
Victorian Science with a Smile

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

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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.