10 Dangerous Ways to Amuse Yourself from an 1820 Book

The second edition of Endless Amusement, published in 1820, promises “nearly 400 entertaining experiments in various branches of science.” It’s not clear who, exactly, the book was for, but we can assume it wasn’t for kids: A number of these experiments sound pretty dangerous, and that's not even including the section devoted to DIY fireworks, “so clearly explained, as to be within the reach of the most limited capacity." Here are a few experiments the publisher advocated trying at home—though you probably shouldn’t.

1. Artificial Earthquake and Volcano

This fun party trick required a person to bury 30 pounds of iron filings and sulfur, and wait for their mini-Vesuvius to rise. What could go wrong?

Grind an equal quantity of fresh iron filings with pure sulphur, till the whole be reduced to a fine powder. Be careful not to let any wet come near it. Then bury about thirty pounds of it a foot deep in the earth, and in about six or eight hours the ground will heave and swell, and shortly after send forth smoke and flames like a burning mountain.

“If the earth is raised in a conical shape,” the instructions conclude, “it will be no bad miniature resemblance of one of the burning mountains.” Fun! (?)

2. The Fiery Fountain

Is there a purpose, scientific or otherwise, for turning a traditional fountain into a fiery one? Who knows, but it probably looked pretty cool. Readers could pull off the affect by following these instructions:

If twenty grains of phosphorus, cut very small, and mixed with forty grains of powder of zinc, be put into four drachms of water ; and two drachms of concentrated sulphuric acid, be added thereto, bubbles of inflamed phosphorated hydrogen gas will quickly cover the whole surface of the fluid in succession, forming a real fountain of fire.

3. To Cause a Brilliant Explosion Under Water

To create what sounds like a mini-explosion, readers simply had to “drop a piece of phosphorus, the size of a pea, into a tumbler of hot water.” Using a bladder “furnished with a stop cock,” they forced oxygen onto the phosphorus. Doing so created "a most brilliant combustion under water.”

4. To set Fire to a combustible Body by Reflection

Presumably, ants were the first victims of the people who came up with this experiment. When insects became boring, they moved on to coal and gunpowder:

Place two concave mirrors at about twelve feet distance from each other, and let the axis of each be in the same line. In the focus of one of them place a live coal, and in the focus of the other some gunpowder. With a pair of strong bellows keep blowing the coal, and notwithstanding the distance between them, the powder will presently take fire. The mirror may be either made of glass, metal or pasteboard gilt.

5. Bottles Broken By Air

This experiment is filed under a section called “interesting experiments with an airpump.” “We shall not occupy the time of our readers by describing the form and nature of the air pump,” the publisher notes, “since those persons whose circumstances will enable them to have it, can purchase it properly made at an optician's, at less expense, and with far less trouble, than they can construct, or cause it to be constructed, themselves.”

So what, exactly, do you use an air pump for? Breaking things, including bottles. For science:

Take a square bottle of thin glass, and of any size. Apply it to the hole in the air pump, and exhaust the air. The bottle will sustain the weight of the external air as long as it is able, but at length it will suddenly burst into very small particles, and with a loud explosion.

An opposite effect will be produced, if the mouth of a bottle be sealed so close that no air can escape ; then place it in the receiver, and exhaust the air from its surface. The air which is confined within the bottle, when the external air is drawn off, will act so powerfully as to break the bottle into pieces.

6. Candle Bombs

This one—sort of like a modified Molotov cocktail—required “some small glass bubbles, having a neck about an inch long, with very slender bores.” The reader poured a small quantity of water through the bores, then sealed them up. When he put the "stalk through the wick of a burning candle, the flame boils the water into a steam, and the glass is broken with a loud explosion.”

7. Magical Explosion

There are many explosions in the book, but this one is labeled magical probably because it was caused by electricity:

Make up some gunpowder, in the form of a small cartridge, in each end of which put a blunt wire, so that the ends inside of the cartridge be about half an inch of each other ; then joining the chain that proceeds from one side of the electrifying battery, to the wire at the other end, the shock will instantly pass through the powder, and set it on fire.

8. The Unconscious Incendiary

Mercy on the poor soul who served as the subject of this totally safe-sounding experiment:

Let a person stand upon a stool made of baked wood, or upon a cake of wax, and hold a chain which communicates with the branch. On turning the wheel he will become electrified ; his whole body forming part of the prime conductor ; and he will emit sparks whenever he is touched by a person standing on the floor.

If the electrified person put his finger, or a rod of iron, into a dish containing warm spirits of wine, it will be immediately in a blaze ; and, if there be a wick or thread in the spirit, that communicates with a train of gunpowder, he may be made to blow up a magazine, or set a city on fire, with a piece of cold iron, and at the same time be ignorant of the mischief he is doing.

9. Exploding Bubble

Though this experiment involves glass that shatters, the publisher swears that it won’t harm anyone involved:

If you take up a small quantity of melted glass with a tube, (the bowl of a common tobacco pipe will do,) and let a drop fall into a vessel of water, it will chill and condense with a fine spiral tail, which being broken, the whole substance will burst with a loud explosion, without injury either to the party that holds it, or him that breaks it ; but if the thick end is struck even with a hammer, it will not break.

10. Exploding Salt

This experiment promises not just a “considerable explosion” but a “strong odour,” probably making it a favorite among boys and men alike:

If a small quantity of powdered charcoal and hyperoxymuriate of potash be rubbed together in a mortar, an explosion will be produced, and the charcoal inflamed. Three-parts of this salt, and one of sulphur, rubbed together in a mortar, produce a violent detonation. If struck with a hammer on an anvil, there is an explosion like the report of a pistol.

When concentrated sulfuric acid is poured upon this salt, there is a considerable explosion ; it is thrown about to a great distance, sometimes with a red flame ; and there is exhaled a brown vapour, accompanied with a strong odour.

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June 18, 2014 - 11:00am
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