Editor Popular Science Monthly:
SIR: The article in Number 180, "Popular Science Monthly," from the pen of Professor L. R. F. Griffin, is a somewhat marked instance of the freedom with which some authors are willing to assume the responsibility of becoming instructors of the public upon topics of interest by expression of authoritative opinion based upon observation of a single phenomenon.
That Professor Griffin has taken this position is clearly indicated, not alone by his erroneous statements of the properties of explosives, but by the freedom with which he charges ignorance on the part of the manufacturers and owners of the explosives stored near Chicago, the explosion of part of which he makes the subject of his article.
Inquiry would doubtless have convinced him that the methods he characterizes as "very strange," are those which the experiences of manufacturers, many of whom are skillful, intelligent, and highly educated, who have had added to their own personal experience the experience of generations of predecessors for their guidance, have taught them to be safest of which we have knowledge. That all methods now in use are the best possible, no one would be so bold as to maintain, but the manufacture of so staple articles as gunpowder, and its recent substitute, dynamite, could not be long successfully conducted by ignorant persons while so many highly intelligent men with necessary capital at command are ever ready to avail themselves of the opportunity for commercial success that would be thus offered; and had Professor Griffin sought information on the subject he treats, from those who have life and large capital staked upon the issue of intended skillful control of explosives during manufacture, transportation, and while stored for distribution and sale, he might easily have avoided the publication of errors that are obvious to a greater number of readers than he may have supposed.
Nitro-glycerine is not "commonly absorbed in Richmond infusorial earth," when compounded into what is then known as dynamite, and it is doubtful if, of the millions of pounds of dynamite annually made and sold in the United States, there are one thousand pounds made by the use of infusorial earth; and it would practically be impossible to find offered for sale by any manufacturer or dealer any dynamite, in the compounding of which earth or any other inert matter had been used.
Nitro-glycerine is absorbed and made into dynamite not "for convenience," but solely for safety, and in order to make it commercially practicable to transport from place of production to place of consumption in a form that it may be used—nitro-glycerine, which, as such, no transportation company would receive into its custody.
Any manufacturer of gunpowder who built a magazine depending upon "strong walls and a very light roof" to prevent damage in case of accidental explosion, must have intended to store only a very small quantity, or have been fortunate enough never to have seen or known of the disastrous results of any such futile attempt to restrain or direct the force of the explosion of any quantity such as is usually so stored. Where conditions of the absence of exposure to possible fire, or to the acts of ignorant trespassers would permit, a light frame structure would invariably be chosen for storage of gunpowder. The different properties of dynamite demand structures of a material that will resist or diminish the speed of a stray bullet; but the less resistance from the building within which any accidental explosion may occur, the less will be the damage to surrounding property either by atmospheric effect or by flying missiles.
The simplest knowledge of the properties of dynamite would have prevented Professor Griffin from attributing the non-explosion of other magazines in the vicinity to the fact of their being beyond the "limits where displacement would not appear"—referring to the bodily mass of air; and personal presence in the immediate vicinity of a number of accidental explosions of either gunpowder or dynamite would probably induce him to change his opinion that "the mass bodily displaced must be confined within comparatively narrow limits."
To correct the manifest errors in this short article would require many times the space it occupies, and be less gratification to curiosity than the article itself; and it would seem to have been rather curiosity than desire for investigation or instruction that was inspired in the mind of the author by the explosion of which he has written.
|Yours truly,A. O. Fay.|
|Xenia, Ohio, March 29, 1887.|