Another favourite teacher
Mr Bell was a different type of teacher. He was quiet and unassuming and not at all alternative but he loved explosions.
I loved explosions.
As a kid we did all sorts of dangerous stunts with gunpowder. Once we’d exhausted all the possibilities of blowing things up with penny bangers (tying them to rockets, blowing up apples, dams and dropping them into milk bottles) we had ‘banger wars’ throwing them at each other. Then we discovered that if you undid the stitching on a jumping jack and straightened it out you created a really explosive banger. It went off with one huge bang.
The fun of bangers became limited. It had its moments, like when one of our rockets, equipped with banger bomb, failed to get off the ground and snaked off over the grass and on to the road where the banger exploded under a passing cyclist causing him to fall off. He chased us a long way.
After that we took the bangers apart and extracted the gunpowder. We loaded up lengths of tubing that we nailed on to lumps of wood to create rudimentary cannons from which we fired ball bearings. That was fun. We never got killed once!
So it was quite a revelation to find a teacher who liked blowing things up. He got away with it because he was a chemistry teacher. He’d start each lesson with his ‘Tin Can Terrors’. Back then the gas was coal gas. Mr Bell would have five or six different size tins with lids. He’d made holes in the lid and bottom. He filled the tins with gas and lit them. As we came into the classroom all the tins would have flames coming out the top hole. When the contents of the tin reached the correct ratio of oxygen and gas it exploded blowing the lid off. We entered the classroom to a series of explosions.
I can’t think of a better way to start a lesson.
Mr Bell always wanted to do this with one of the big galvanised dustbins. He set that up on the school field and blew that up very successfully.
In the Sixth Form Mr Bell was not content to stick with gas. He taught us to make explosive such as gun cotton and the contact explosive triiodotoluene.
Triiodotoluene was great fun. It was a black paste that was perfectly safe until it dried out. We made loads of it. To start with we smeared it on the bottoms of stools in the laboratory and on the rollers on the blackboard. It took a day or two to dry out then, whenever someone sat down or shuffled a stool, or when a teacher pulled the roller-board down, there would be a series of crackles and small bangs.
Off course that is where it got a bit out of hand.
We were not satisfied with small crackles and bangs. We started mass producing. It was simple. The laboratory was well equipped with all the ingredients. There were rows of bottles of reagents, concentrated acids and we had easy access.
We started leaving dollops of black paste all over the place. It came to a head (and we came to a Head) when the laboratory technician trod on a big lump which promptly did what it did best and exploded. He dropped the glass trough of assorted glassware on the floor and broke a lot of equipment.
Somehow Mr Bell managed to persuade the Headteacher that it was an accident and we were not intentionally blowing people up.
That brought our explosives club to an abrupt halt.
Just think – if we’d been doing any of this now we’d probably be interrogated as potential terrorists!