Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 14.djvu/171

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By Professor L. W. PECK.

I WISH to demonstrate to you this evening, by a few simple experiments, the fact that all combustible material when finely divided forming a dust or powder, will, under proper conditions, burn with explosive rapidity.

If a large log of wood were ignited it might burn a week before being entirely consumed; split it up into cord-wood, and pile it up loosely, and it would burn in a couple of hours; again, split it into kindling-wood, pile loosely as before, and perhaps it would burn in less than an hour; cut it up into shavings and allow a strong wind to throw them into the air, or in any way keep the chips comparatively well separated from each other, and it might be entirely consumed in two or three minutes; or, finally, grind it up into a fine dust or powder, blow it in such a manner that every particle is surrounded by air, and it would burn in less than a second.

Perhaps you have noticed that shavings and fine kindlings will sometimes ignite so quickly in a stove that the covers will be slightly raised, the door forced open, or perhaps small flames will shoot out through the front damper. You have, in such a case, an explosion on a very small scale similar to that of the Washburn, Diamond, and Humboldt Mills of this city, on the night of May 2d—upon which occasion the rapid burning of hundreds of tons of flour, bran, etc., completely demolished the solid-masonry walls, six feet thick, of the mills, and threw sheets of iron from the roof of the Washburn so high into the air that they were carried two miles by the wind before striking the ground.

Let us see now why such explosions occur. Wood has in it a large amount of carbon, the material of which charcoal is composed, and the air is about one-fifth oxygen. Now, at the ordinary temperature, the carbon of the wood and the oxygen of the air do not combine; but, when they are heated, as by friction, concentration of the sun's rays, chemical action as from a match, or in any other way, they combine to form carbonic-acid gas. This chemical action produces a large additional amount of heat which keeps up the action as long as there is any carbon and oxygen left to unite, and also makes the temperature of the gas which is formed very high.

As the space occupied by the carbonic-acid gas and that occupied by the oxygen which entered into the combination is the same at the same temperature, there would be no bursting if, after combination, the

  1. Lecture delivered June 1, 1878, at Association Hall, Minneapolis, Minnesota, at the request of the millers of the city.