Popular Science Monthly/Volume 5/June 1874/The Atmosphere as an Anvil

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THE ATMOSPHERE AS AN ANVIL.[1]
By Professor J. P. COOKE, Jr.

THE office of the atmosphere, as an anvil upon which rocks are shattered for the protection of humanity, has sufficient novelty about it to require explanation. It has come to be pretty well understood now that rocky fragments of all sizes are flying through space, like the planets themselves. What the effect would be, if hard meteoric stones were to strike, with a velocity sixty times as great as that of a cannon-ball, the structures that man builds upon earth, it is not difficult to imagine. To say nothing of the larger stones, no ordinary buildings could afford shelter from the smallest particles striking with the velocity of eighteen miles per second. Even dust flying at such a rate would kill any animal exposed to it. How effectually we are guarded by the atmosphere, as with a shield, impenetrable in proportion to the violence of the assaults upon it, is admirably illustrated by Prof. Cooke in the following statement, condensed from Chapter X. of his "New Chemistry:"

"Within a few years our community have become familiar with the name and terrible effects of a new explosive agent, called nitro-glycerine, and I feel sure that you will be glad to be made acquainted with the remarkable qualities and relations of this truly wonderful, substance. Every one knows that clear, oily, and sweet-tasting liquid called glycerine, and probably most of you have eaten it for honey. But it has a great many valuable uses, which may reconcile you to its abuse for adulterating honey, and it is obtained in large quantities, as a secondary product of the manufacture of soap and candles, from our common fats. Now, nitro-glycerine bears the same relation to glycerine that saltpetre bears to caustic potash. Common saltpetre, which is the oxygenated ingredient of gunpowder, is called in chemistry potassic nitrate, and, although the commercial supply comes wholly from natural sources, it can easily be made by the action of nitric acid on caustic potash. My assistant will pour some nitric acid into a solution of caustic potash, and you will soon see crystals of saltpetre appear, shooting out from the sides of the dish, whose image we have projected on the screen. In a similar way we can prepare nitro-glycerine, by pouring glycerine in a fine stream into very strong nitric acid, rendered more active by being mixed with sulphuric acid—oil of vitriol.

"We could easily make the experiment, but you could see nothing. There is no apparent change, and it is a remarkable fact that, when pure, nitro-glycerine resembles, externally, very closely glycerine itself, and, like it, is a colorless, oily fluid—the reddish-yellow color of the commercial article being due to impurities. As soon as the chemical change is ended, the nitro-glycerine must be very carefully washed with water, until all adhering acid has been removed. The material thus obtained has most singular qualities, and not the least unexpected of these is its stability under ordinary conditions. After the terrible accidents that have happened, it would, perhaps, be rash to say that it did not readily explode; but I can assure you that it is not an easy matter to explode pure nitro-glycerine. It is not nearly so explosive as gunpowder, and I am told that the flame of an ordinary match can be quenched in it without danger, although I confess that I should be unwilling to try the experiment. Still, there can be no doubt that, under ordinary circumstances, a small flame will not ignite it. My knowledge of the matter is derived from Prof. Hill, of the Torpedo Station, at Newport, who has studied very carefully the preparation and application of the material. He is of opinion that most of the accidents which have given to nitro-glycerine such an unfortunate notoriety have been caused by the use of an impure article, and that proper care in its preparation would greatly lessen the danger attending its use. Nitro-glycerine is usually exploded, not by the direct application of heat, but by a sudden and violent concussion, which is obtained by firing in contact with it a fuse of some fulminating powder. The effects of this explosion are as peculiar as the method by which it is obtained, and I can best illustrate the subject by describing an experiment with nitro-glycerine which I witnessed myself at the Torpedo Station a few months since.

"It is so inconvenient to handle liquid nitro-glycerine that it is now usual to mix it with some inert and impalpable powder, and the names dualine and dynamite have been given to different mixtures of this kind; but in both of these the powder merely acts as a sponge. In the experiment referred to, a canister holding less than a pound of dynamite, and only a few ounces of nitro-glycerine, was placed on the top of a large bowlder-rock, weighing two or three tons. In order that you may fully appreciate the conditions, I repeat that this tin case was simply laid on the top of the bowlder, and not confined in any way. The nitro-glycerine was then exploded by an appropriate fuse fired from a distance by electricity. The report was not louder than from a heavy gun, but the rock on which the canister lay was broken into a thousand fragments.

"This experiment strikingly illustrates the peculiar action of nitroglycerine. In using gunpowder for blasting, it is necessary to confine it, by what is called tamping, in the hole prepared for it in the rock. Not so with nitro-glycerine. This, though it may be put up in small tin cartridges for convenience, is placed in the drill-holes without tamping of any kind. Sometimes the liquid itself has been poured into the hole, and then a little water poured on the top is the only means used to confine it. As an agent for blasting, nitro-glycerine is so vastly superior to gunpowder, that it must be regarded as one of the most valuable discoveries of our age. Already it is enabling men to open tracks for their iron roads through mountain-barriers, which, a few years ago, it would have been thought impracticable to pierce, and, although its introduction has been attended with such terrible accidents, those best acquainted with the material believe that, with proper care in its manufacture, and proper precautions in its use, it can be made as safe as or even safer than gunpowder, and the Government can do no better service toward developing the resources of the country than by carrying forward the experiments it has instituted at the Torpedo Station at Newport, until all the conditions required for the safe manufacture and use of this valuable agent are known, and, when this result is reached, imposing on the manufacturers, dealers, and carriers, such restrictions as the public safety requires. Of course, we cannot expect thus to prevent all accidents. Great power in the hands of ignorant or careless men implies great danger. Sleepless vigilance is the condition under which we wield all the great powers of modern civilization, and we cannot expect that the power of nitro-glycerine will be any exception to the general rule.

"But, while nitro-glycerine has such great rending power, it has no value whatever as a projectile agent. Exploded in the chamber of a gun, it would burst the breech before it started the ball. Indeed, there is a great popular misapprehension in regard to the limit of the projectile power of gunpowder, and inventors are constantly looking for more powerful projectile agents as the means of obtaining increased effects. But a study of the mechanical conditions of projection will show not only that gunpowder is most admirably adapted to this use, but also that its capabilities far exceed the strength of any known material, and the student will soon be convinced that what is wanted is not stronger powder, but stronger guns. I do not mean to say that we cannot conceive of a better powder than that now in use, but merely that its shortcoming is not want of strength.

"In gunpowder the grains of charcoal and nitre, although very small, have a sensible magnitude, and consist each of many thousand if not of many million molecules. The chemical union of the oxygen of the nitre with the carbon-atoms of the charcoal can take place only on the surface of charcoal-grains; the first layer of molecules must be consumed before the second can be reached, and so on. Hence the process, although very rapid, must take a sensible time. In the nitro-glycerine, on the other hand, the two sets of atoms, so far from being in different grains, are in one and the same molecule, and the internal combustion is essentially instantaneous. Now, this element of time will explain a great part of the difference in the effect of the two explosions, but a part is also due to the fact that nitro-glycerine yields fully nine hundred times its volume of gas, while with gunpowder the volume is only about three hundred times that of the solid grains. There is a further difference in favor of the nitro-glycerine in the amount of energy liberated, but this we will leave out of account, although it is worthy of notice that energy may be developed by internal molecular combustion as well as in the ordinary processes of burning.

"The conditions, then, are these: With gunpowder we have a volume of gas, which would normally occupy a space three hundred times as great as the grains used, liberated rapidly, but still in a perceptible interval. With nitro-glycerine a volume of gas, nine hundred times that of the liquid used, is set free, all but instantaneously. Now, in order to appreciate the difference of effect which would follow this difference of condition, you must remember that all our experiments are made in air, and that this air presses with an enormous weight on every surface. If a volume of gas is suddenly liberated, it must lift this whole weight, which, therefore, acts as so much tamping material. This weight, moreover, cannot be lifted without the expenditure of a large amount of work. Let us make a rough estimate of the amount in the case of nitro-glycerine. We will assume that in the experiment at Newport the quantity exploded yielded a cubic yard of gas. Had the air given way instead of the rock, the liberation of this volume of gas must have lifted the pressure on one square yard (about nine tons) one yard high, an amount of work which, using these large units, we will call nine yard-tons, or about sixty thousand foot-pounds. Moreover, this work must have been done during the excessively brief duration of the explosion, and, it being less work to split the rock, it was the rock that yielded, and not the atmosphere. Compare now, the case of gunpowder. The same weight of powder would yield only about one-third of the volume of gas, and would, therefore, raise the same weight to only one-third of the height; doing, therefore, but one-third of the amount of work, say twenty thousand foot-pounds. Moreover, the duration of the explosion being at least one hundred times longer than before, the work to be done in lifting the atmosphere during the same exceedingly short interval would be only 1100 of twenty thousand foot-pounds, or two hundred foot-pounds, and, under these circumstances, you can conceive that it might be easier to lift the air than to break the rock.[2]. . . . .

"If there are some who have not followed me through this simple calculation, they may, perhaps, be able to reach clear views upon the subject by looking at the phenomena in a somewhat different way. It can readily be seen that the sudden development of this large volume of gas, which becomes at once a part of the atmosphere, would be equivalent to a blow by the atmosphere against the rock; or, what would be a more accurate representation of the phenomenon, since the air is the larger mass, and acts as the anvil, a blow by the rock against the air. It may seem very singular that our atmosphere can act as an anvil, against which a rock can be split, and yet it is so, and, if the blow has velocity enough, the atmosphere presents as effective a resistance as would a granite ledge. The following consideration will, I think, convince you that this is the case: I have here a light wooden surface, say, one yard square; the pressure of the air against the surface is equal, as I just stated, to about nine tons; but the air presses equally on both sides, and the molecules have such great mobility that, when we move the surface slowly, they readily give way, and we encounter but little resistance. If, however, we push it rapidly forward, the resistance greatly increases, for the air-molecules must have time to change their position, and we encounter them in their passage. If, now, we increase the velocity of the motion to the highest speed ever attained by a locomotive—say, one and one-fifth mile per minute—we should encounter still more particles, and find a resistance which no human muscle could overcome. Increase that velocity ten times, to twelve miles a minute, the velocity of sound, and the air would oppose such a resistance that our wooden board would be shivered into splinters. Multiply again the velocity ten times, and not even a plate of boiler-iron could withstand the resistance. Multiply the velocity once more by ten, and we should reach the velocity of the earth in its orbit, about twelve hundred miles a minute, and, to a body moving with this velocity, the comparatively dense air at the surface of the earth would present an almost impenetrable barrier, against which the firmest rocks might be broken to fragments. Indeed, this effect has been several times seen, when meteoric masses, moving with these planetary velocities, penetrate our atmosphere. The explosions which have been witnessed are simply the effect of the concussion against the aëriform anvil at a point where the atmosphere is far less dense than it is here. So, in the case of the nitro-glycerine, the rock strikes the atmosphere with such a velocity that it has the effect of a solid mass, and the rock is shivered by the blow."

  1. Condensed from "The New Chemistry," Chapter X., "Gunpowder and Nitro-Glycerine"
  2. We here omit, for want of space, the beautiful explanation, afforded by the "New Chemistry," of the molecular constitution of nitro-glycerine, and the transformations in its combustion, which account for the terrific force of its explosion.––Ed.