Monday 10 August 2015

Chapman is Unaware of Methyl Nitrate's Propensity for Ease of Detonation - 1872

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Ernest Theophron Chapman was blown to smithereens during manufacture of a large quantity of methyl nitrate, whilst under the impression that the chemical was difficult to detonate.

"a brave and loyal soldier of
science slain on the battle-field of the laboratory"

The Year-book of Facts in Science and Art, 1872

ERNEST T. CHAPMAN has met his death by an
explosion in his laboratory at Riibeland in the Hartz.
A letter containing this sad news has the following

  "As you are probably aware, Mr. Chapman's work was
always in the laboratory, and it was there on the 25th
inst. (June) that the accident occurred. On the morning
of that day Mr. Chapman had a conversation with the
gentlemen here, and shortly after this, at 11am, the
bomb-proof building in which he was with three workmen
exploded with a tremendous crash. Mr. Chapman may
perhaps have informed you that latterly he has been
chiefly engaged with the production of nitric methyl-
aether, with which he has been making various experi-
ments, and we cannot explain the catastrophe otherwise
than that he was not thoroughly aware of the great ex-
plosibility of this substance.  The workmen present
having also all perished, it is unfortunately not possible
to obtain any details. The force of the explosion was so
tremendous that all the surrounding buildings have been
more or less injured, and about ten people seriously

  The substance I presume was nitrate of methyl. If so,
this lamentable accident furnishes another proof of the
treacherous nature of explosives which, like nitro-glycerine
and gun-cotton, contain hydrogen and carbon associated
with nitrogen oxides.

  Mr. Chapman was only in his twenty-seventh year
when his career was thus prematurely closed. A pupil
of Hoffmann and Kolbe, he was a prolific author of
original researches in organic chemistry.  Perhaps the
best known of Mr. Chapman's researches is his study
of limited oxidation. This process, in his hands and
those of others, furnished chemists with a valuable method
of chemical diagnosis. The little work on the Analysis
of Potable Waters, by Mr. Chapman and Mr. Wanklyn,
is a well-known work of reference on this important

  Mr. Chapman was an enthusiastic worker. His
manipulative skill was of a high order, and his ac-
quaintance with organic chemistry very extensive, his
researches in this branch of science being very nu-
merous.   If he had lived, and had an opportunity of
continuous scientific work, it is impossible to doubt
that he would have contributed his quota towards
rescuing our country from the too just reproach of
rapidly becoming more and more sterile in chemical

  His intimate friends esteemed him highly, for he was a
man of varied culture and singular conversational power.
It was always a matter of regret to all true friends of
science that a man of such proved ability and promise
should have been compelled in a manner to banish him-
self in order to gain a livelihood. His letters show
that even in the remote place of his exile his brain
was busy with chemical and physical questions. He
must have been killed instantly, and therefore without
pain. And certainly as a brave and loyal soldier of
science slain on the battle-field of the laboratory, his
death, like his life, showed his unwearied devotion to
science. We can ill afford to lose such men.
                               FREDERICK GUTHRTE, NatureThursday, July 4, 1872

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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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