Interview with Albert Rider "Slick" Ely, 1988 September 24 [audio](part 1)

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  • Gunpowder testing equipment; using an eprouvette; differences between black powder and blasting powder
    Keywords: ballistic pendulums; black powder; blasting powder; Chile saltpeter; dynamite; eprouvette; Fort Delaware; Hazleton, Pennsylvania; North Birmingham, Alabama; potassium nitrate; saltpeter; sodium nitrate; testing
    Transcript: Benjamin: This is Saturday, September 24, 1988, and I'm on my way to interview Slick Ely of Wilmington, Delaware, and we're going to talk about ballistic pendulums and other gunpowder testing devices.

    This is Saturday, September 24, 1988, and I'm in the home of Slick Ely and he's in Wilmington, Delaware and we'll be talking about ballistic pendulums and other gun powder testing devices. First I thought you might like to know the information I found out about your black powder testing eprouvette. I talked to Frank yesterday and he took this picture of it and showed it to me. And he said that it hasn't been displayed yet, but in my class we're working on an exhibit of gun powder testing devices and we will be exhibiting it next year.

    Ely: Well I'll show you something, I have a picture of that myself, some I took, I wouldn't know how to find it though. There's one - I drew this from memory.

    Benjamin: Oh, this is a drawing you made, when did you make this, a drawing of the eprouvette?

    Ely: Oh, about the time I called, oh just after I was talking with Mr. McKelvey. It isn't quite right.

    Benjamin: It looks very close to what I saw. Did you actually use any eprouvettes like this, or did you use that one that you donated?

    Ely: I just tried it. I tried it out one time. There's a letter that accompanied this when I gave it to them. It's probably in the files.

    Benjamin: I imagine it is, I didn't see that.

    Ely: I think, well I know I gave them a copy of a letter from one of our former black powder plant supervisors that probably used that very machine.

    Benjamin: Oh really.

    Ely: I got it out of the back room in the sales office in Hazleton, Pennsylvania. I worked up there for about a year one time.

    Benjamin: Was that a Hercules plant also?

    Ely: That was an explosives sales office for the coal mines, in Hazleton, in the anthracite district.

    Benjamin: So did they use those there to test powder?

    Ely: They used those to test black powder at a plant near Hazleton, Ringtown, Pennsylvania, and I always thought that's probably where this particular rig came from, and it ended up in the Hazleton office.

    Benjamin: Did they ever use any black powder testing devices where you worked, at the Hercules plant?

    Ely: No, but I worked at a black powder plant as well. I was chief chemist at the plant and they made both dynamite and black powder down in North Birmingham, Alabama.

    Benjamin: When was that?

    Ely: Well that was 1922 to 1924, and then the plant was abandoned and they built a new plant, didn't make any more black powder down there. But the man that was the operating head of the black powder department of Hercules was down there and they were having some trouble and he said he wished he had an eprouvette. I said, "What's an eprouvette?" And he described this thing to me and then, oh I'd say, it must have been fifteen years later, up in this office at Hazleton I saw this and I said, "My goodness, there's an eprouvette."

    Benjamin: So did they use these on a regular basis?

    Ely: No, it was just there - had been used no doubt. You see black powder was fading out of the picture then. It's all gone now as I understand it.

    Benjamin: I think there's a couple places left that make it for the historic reenactments where people use the old guns. And they use it at Hagley sometimes.

    Ely: The only time I ever went to Fort Delaware, I was talking to the man that shoots that big canon down there, and I think they were having to use imported powder. Said it wasn't very good. What they did down there was take coffee cans and fill them full of concrete and used them instead of wadding the canon, just to insure enough pressure so the black powder would burn properly. He said it was terrible stuff.

    Benjamin: It sounds like it wouldn't work too well. Did you know when did they use these before that time? Were they used in the plants or did people use these in the sales office just to show how the powder worked, or do you know how they were used?

    Ely: It was used in the plant. This letter is quite interesting, you might want to dig it up.

    Benjamin: All right, that sounds like a good idea?

    Ely: It was from well he used an expression, said he'd, indicating he'd used it all his life, you might say, and it wasn't until later he found out it didn't mean anything. Which is more or less the truth.

    Benjamin: Oh really, it wasn't very accurate?

    Ely: Well, see this was filled with black powder, this was hollow.

    Benjamin: A chamber.

    Ely: This is not a good drawing. It's kind of a combination of sections. This is cylindrical here, see that.

    Benjamin: Looks like a chamber there.

    Ely: A chamber. This is an ignition hole here, and a little pan where you put some priming powder. You put the black powder in here, put this flap down over there.

    Benjamin: Okay, I remember seeing that little lid on the end of it.

    Ely: Yeah. And then he said they touched this off with a red hot poker, and that fired, threw this lid up. See, there's a very poor seal there and it was giving them an indication of both the strength of the powder and no doubt the speed of the powder they used to call it. See there were all sorts of granulations from very fine to coarse and the coarser, see all of the black powder and also the smokeless powder burned from the surface only and for a given weight of powder, the larger the granulation is, the less surface there is, and the longer it takes it to burn. That means it's a slower powder, it's all quite fast, but there are degrees of speed, and this gave you a combination probably of speed and actual energy. Probably very useful.

    Benjamin: They used this just as a comparison and we didn't notice any markings on this, so they probably just gauged it.

    Ely: What?

    Benjamin: We didn't notice any scale markings or anything on this ratchet part, so it was just a...

    Ely: Oh no, I think they just counted the notches. That's what this one man I first heard talk about it indicated to me. He gave me a good description, so that the first time I saw one I knew what it was, so that's an accomplishment of itself.

    Benjamin: Did you ever see any of the other kinds, like the pistol eprouvettes, or any of the other...

    Ely: Only out here one time, I made one trip out there.

    Benjamin: To Hagley?

    Ely: Oh I've been out there a couple of times, but that's the only time I saw those displays. Some of them looked like pistols. One of them I seen there stood up on little legs.

    Benjamin: There's a variety of them.

    Ely: Yeah, they had all sorts of them.

    Benjamin: We were wondering where they used them, if they used them in the plants or just out in the field.

    Ely: I would guess most of those were- I'm just guessing - I imagine most of them were used for rifle powder, I mean gun powder propellants, as opposed to blasting powder. You know the difference?

    Benjamin: Not formally I don't.

    Ely: Well, the propellant powder, the gunpowder, was made with potassium nitrate, sulfur and charcoal.

    Benjamin: Right.

    Ely: And the blasting powder was made with sodium nitrate. Often called, at that time at least, Chile saltpeter which came from Chile actually.

    Benjamin: What was the difference in that?

    Ely: Well, the sodium nitrate was a great deal cheaper than the other, which is potassium nitrate. They called that saltpeter.

    Benjamin: Right.

    Ely: Well all potassium salts are more expensive than the sodium salts. They're harder to -well potassium is not so widely distributed in nature as the sodium. Sodium just occurs in - oh huge beds of impure material in Chile. Now all this is, what I'm telling you, that goes way back 'cause the last - oh at least the last fifty years, I guess there's been more of it made synthetically, most of it made in this country now.

    Benjamin: So they don't...

    Ely: A great deal of it's made in this country, I think a lot of it's still made in Chile, I mean it's still drawn from those Chilean beds, but it arrives in this country in a much purer form. It was pretty crude stuff the way the other used to come in.

    Benjamin: That's what I understood from some of the displays they had over there.

    Ely: That's what you know the Soda House out here?

    Benjamin: Right.

    Ely: That was the storage house for the sodium nitrate. It didn't look anything like it does now.
  • Wood lathe from the Hercules plant in Kenvil, New Jersey; ballistic pendulums; testing the strength of dynamite and other high explosives
    Keywords: ballistic pendulums; dynamite; Hercules Powder Company; high explosives; Kenvil, New Jersey
    Transcript: Benjamin: No, I wouldn't think so. Kind of fancy now. The other thing I wanted to ask you about was the wood lathe that you have and where you got it from.

    Ely: Oh, that came from the Hercules Powder Company, the plant at Kenvil, New Jersey, K-E-N-V-I-L. That was a DuPont plant at the time of the dissolution. It was a dynamite plant. After the dissolution they built a smokeless powder plant there too and it was run as a dynamite plant and smokeless powder plant from 1914 - well the smokeless powder is still running; dynamite started there in 1868, I think, yeah 1868 and was abandoned just about an even hundred years, 1970, 1968 or 1970, something like that. I forget just when it was closed.

    Benjamin: Was that something that was-the lathe, was it something that was made there at the plant?

    Ely: Well, I started to work there in 1914 and I'm quite sure this lathe was there then. I got it about, I'd hate to same when, perhaps 1950 or something like that. I worked there several times. The last time I was there I was there about 18 years. Most of the time I was, most of which time I was Works Manager there. I found this in an old building that was used for a storehouse and just brought it home. It had been there, it had probably been there since, oh 1918 I guess. They built some new shops during World War I, but this may have been there long before that, this might have been, might date clear into the 1800's.

    Benjamin: Does it have a name or anything on it of who made it?

    Ely: I don't think so. It's right down in the cellar, you're welcome to look at it.

    Benjamin: Okay, I'd like to take a look at it.

    Ely: Well we got to that - whenever you're ready.

    Benjamin: Alright, well why don't we do you want to take a little about the ballistic pendulum then? This is a picture of one that was supposedly what they called the DuPont Ballistic Pendulum that they used at the DuPont plant and used it outside. Are you familiar with that one?

    Ely: No. That looks a good bit like the first one I ever saw, which was at Kenvil.

    Benjamin: Was that the one you said was before the one we have now? These are pictures of the one that they have at Hagley, the one that was in the Hercules plant.

    Ely: Yeah, this is the one that I remember best. There was one at Kenvil that resembled this one.

    Benjamin: The outdoor one?

    Ely: Yes. Do you have any more pictures of this? Oh here.

    Benjamin: Yeah, I have these three pictures of the one they have at Hagley.

    Ely: Yeah, that's a pretty good picture. Are they dated?

    Benjamin: Um-m, let's see, no, I don't think so. No, but I could find out, probably, when these were taken.

    Ely: Well, they're obviously - I could...

    Benjamin: This was still while it was installed there.

    Ely: Well the one that I first remember, that was a duplicate of this.

    Benjamin: Of this outdoor kind- was it used outdoors also, or was it set up inside?

    Ely: No, this was in a corrugated iron shed, a long shed. I forget just how it was mounted.

    Benjamin: Did you use it ever, do you remember using it?

    Ely: Yes, I used it. I never really used habitually, most of the time we had - I suppose you'd call them technicians now, used to call them experimental operators. They did most of the actual testing. I don't know, this appears to be the projectile that was used there.

    Benjamin: Do you know what this was used for testing, this was the high explosives?

    Ely: High explosives, yeah. We didn't ever make any black powder at Kenvil and I don't think this was ever used, at least not habitually. It was never used for anything else except high explosives. This was, I don't see...

    Benjamin: No, I don't think the pictures of the second one show any of the projectiles.

    Ely: I don't think they show any projectile.

    Benjamin: They did show this plate, though, and that's what we were wondering about, how the recording system worked.

    Ely: Well, I think I can show you that, tell you that, rather.

    Benjamin: 'Cause we weren't sure if they put paper or a graph on there or how it was recorded.

    Ely: They put paper on this side. This was an aluminum plate.

    Benjamin: Right, they put paper facing the mortar.

    Ely: Yeah. And it was graph paper, I forgot the calibration. This was a screw arrangement which raised or lowered this plate. You can see, I guess, how that - see this plate is mounted on to where it will slide up and down on a couple of rods.

    Benjamin: Okay, so you could adjust it.

    Ely: So you could adjust the height. This mortar itself was swung on- I was going to say swung on knife edges.

    Benjamin: It does, I saw it, it has the knife edges.

    Ely: Are they knife edges?

    Benjamin: Yes.

    Ely: Yeah, I can't remember that too clearly, but this was- I suppose you young folks would say this was much more sophisticated. I detest the word, I always thought sophisticated meant you were supposed to have brains, like people are supposed to have. It's descriptive enough. That was just probably a cast steel block with a board.

    Benjamin: On this outdoor one they didn't use a they didn't have a chart, they just had a...

    Ely: Just a scale, this had a slide on it as I recall it.

    Benjamin: Okay, and so it moved a slide that stayed where the...

    Ely: The slide would stay where recalled, that was actuated by a little rod or something, that caught this slide and sent it up that arc. The are would, was no doubt graduated.

    Benjamin: Now on this other model, or the more recent model, what did they have, a marking pen or something, that marked on the paper?

    Ely: They had a pencil.

    Benjamin: A pencil attached to it?

    Ely: Pencil, I suppose it would have been a ballpoint in later days, but this was a mechanical pencil with a retractable lead, or graphite, rather. As it came back it left an arc. This was quadrangular paper. it wasn't as it should have been, it wasn't radial.

    Benjamin: Oh. so you're saying it should have been a round chart?

    Ely: To be accurate, to be completely accurate, when you have a - when your pencil is swinging in an arc and you want to get a comparison of what deflections you're getting in degrees, your paper should be ruled radially. This is the center, see.

    Benjamin: Can you make a picture here so I can understand?

    Ely: Well, didn't get it straight, but there's your bearing, your fulcrum, I guess. That swings in this are- now if you're making a comparison in degrees, the ruling on the paper should be radial with that.

    Benjamin: Goes back up to the fulcrum.

    Ely: But actually they put it on - ruled that way. But, bearing in mind that it worked against standards, it doesn't make that much difference. The lines on the paper were arced like that, but they used to read, they had a line, as I remember, sixteen degrees which meant that this...

    Benjamin: That was a sixteen degree angle from where the fulcrum point was down to the paper.

    Ely: And you had this line and then the paper was graduated so that the different lines read in degrees, you were getting a very close approximation of the angle - of this angle, see.

    Benjamin: All right.

    Ely: I may be getting ahead of myself a little bit. But we'll finish on the marking. They put the charge in the cannon and fired it and recorded the deflection in angular measure, so many degrees.

    Benjamin: So what would that tell them, the smaller the angle was then, the more powerful it was?

    Ely: What they were after is measuring the they called it the strength of the dynamite. I'll tell you more about that later. Really what they're after is the work done by a given weight of dynamite. Let's go back to the- I guess this isn't much of a drawing.

    Benjamin: Looks good enough, I can get the idea from that.

    Ely: This is the way this one, I think, worked.

    Benjamin: The first one operated.
  • Projectiles used in testing powder strength
    Keywords: black powder; dynamite; high explosives; mortar; projectiles; testing powder strength
    Transcript: Ely: That had a projectile that fit rather closely. As I remember it, it was it came out a little bit and then went through a little boss on there, I guess you would call it.

    Benjamin: So it stuck out of the front of the mortar?

    Ely: Yeah. That was more for convenience in handling than anything else. I forget the weight, it was -oh might have weighed fifteen-twenty pounds perhaps, it was solid. This one, I think, had a hole drilled through the projectile, a small hole. It's been a long time, but I think they used a cap and fuse for that, a blasting cap, a No. 6 blasting cap probably, and a piece of safety fuse. You familiar?

    Benjamin: I haven't seen them, no.

    Ely: But you lit the fuse and the cap was stuck through there and would shoot when the fire in the fuse reached the explosive material in the cap. They used a charge of high explosives, I think it was ten grams. That will make quite a pop. Take little squares of tinfoil about four or five inches square, put their high explosive on it, put the cap in it and then crimp the tinfoil around and you had some- thing you could handle. You threaded the fuse through here and you ended up with...

    Benjamin: Through the center of the projectile Was this made out of cast iron, the projectile?

    Ely: Probably steel, cast iron probably wouldn't have been strong enough.

    Benjamin: So this is a picture of them inside the mortar?

    Ely: Yeah, and this may have had an offset to keep from shoving it in too far, otherwise it would have come right back out in your lap. But the explosive material ended up in a little wad of tinfoil with a cap in there.

    Benjamin: And so they stuck that at the back and then put the projectile on top of it?

    Ely: Yeah, you stuck that through and then put this in there. It probably did have a stop there of some sort. Then lit the fuse and it would burn in and detonate this; the cap would detonate, and that detonated the high explosive. Shot this out, they had a bin of old bags, old sacks, burlap sacks and that would catch this projectile without injuring it.

    Benjamin: How far were they shooting it?

    Ely: Oh, half the distance to the fireplace, maybe.

    Benjamin: So, what would you say, like ten feet?

    Ely: Well, you can- in this one here, this door opened and this had a pile of sacks in there that doesn't look to be more than seven or eight feet.

    Benjamin: That looks about right.

    Ely: That's just a guess. This was a little room back there, a little shed full of old bags, most of them soda bags, the sodium nitrate came in from Chile when you come down to it, any old bags they could find. And then this would ride back, and this would leave a record of the angular displacement, and on here leave it on the paper.

    Benjamin: Okay. So this one would just leave the scale there and you'd read off the scale, and the other one would show it on the paper?

    Ely: Yeah. There's your sheet of paper.

    Benjamin: I think that one's just got the plate without a paper on it.

    Ely: That's got marks on it, see it?

    Benjamin: Yeah, it does have marks on it. So what did it kind of dig in to the plate a little?

    Ely: No, just on the paper. There are pencil marks on a paper, see, like that, see, and leaves a mark and then you move your paper up, and the next one, and then you could take the paper off - you had this line indicating, you aligned it so that this sixteen degree mark, as I recall it, was there and then you could just read off the angle. Well they used to code these, I think, code these lines, they could take the record, put it in their notebook, see.

    Benjamin: So that they could compare them. So, like when you're looking at this picture of the DuPont tester, so would it be the greater the angle, the higher the powder hit?

    Ely: Yeah, well I'll get to that as well, it's a good time to do it. When this swings back, it's raising, elevating this weight, which is quite heavy, oh this must have weighed a couple hundred pounds, probably more.

    Benjamin: The mortar.

    Ely: It was about like that, you can see that part of it is steel. And you're raising that rather large weight...

    Benjamin: So this mortar on the bottom was made of steel, or the part that held it?

    Ely: This.

    Benjamin: When we looked at it, this pendulum part looked like it might have been aluminum.

    Ely: It was aluminum.

    Benjamin: Was aluminum but this mortar...

    Ely: The mortar is, well I'd say steel and quite heavy, and very heavy in comparison with this...

    Benjamin: The aluminum pendulum?

    Ely: Oh suspension, you might say, yeah the arm of the pendulum, whatever you call it. So that neglecting the friction that you may get in the bearing, which is pretty low on a knife edge, and neglecting the weight, which is really negligible, that's the reason this was made of aluminum, see these were steel rods.

    Benjamin: Oh, the old kind used the steel rods so that made it less accurate because it had more weight to kick...

    Ely: Well what you're after, you're after work done and you're measuring the height to which this - this is elevated by swinging back, see, there's your base line, that's up, that's your fulcrum, you swing the mortar from there to there...

    Benjamin: Okay, and it's going up as it goes.

    Ely: You elevated it that much, and done that much work. Now nobody that I ever knew ever tried to reduce that to foot bounds or whatever it is or ergs - don't ask me, I studied that a long time ago, if I studied it at all. But you're doing work by lifting this rather large mass that distance. You're measuring the angular well here, you're measuring this angle, see.

    Benjamin: Okay, between where it was and where it ended.
  • Measuring angles in explosive testing; rating the strength of dynamite; making dynamite
    Keywords: diatomaceous earth; dynamite; kieselguhr; nitroglycerin; potassium nitrate; sodium nitrate
    Transcript: Ely: The scientific lads always do things the hard way, as probably you know by this time. Instead of figuring a way to measure the height to which it was lifted, it suited them better to measure the angle, and then determine the height by one minus cosine alpha with this angle here, see, alpha. Your cosine is adjacent side over the hypotenuse. Called the hypotenuse one, this is the adjacent- I'll move this down here. The cosine of this angle is one, which is this or this, see.

    Benjamin: Alright, the hypotenuse is one.

    Ely: The cosine is this distance.

    Benjamin: The side across from the hypotenuse.

    Ely: Yeah, across from the hypotenuse. This is one, this is one, so the height to which it is raised is one, minus the cosine of the angle.

    Benjamin: And so you're saying they could have just measured this height instead?

    Ely: Yeah.

    Benjamin: That does sound a lot easier.

    Ely: If they'd just read the paper the other way, but you have to remember that they wanted to get a lot of lines on the paper, and that would have meant measuring - you'd have had to raise your zero axis, so it was probably as easy a way as any, because you could make a table, you just read the angle, get the height from the angle, see. You had there a measure of work done, see. Now, I guess it's time to go a little bit into the way the strength of the dynamite is thought of, let's say. I don't think anybody ever- oh I've seen a lot of attempts to put it into figures, but nobody that I know ever used them. The strength of the dynamite is rated in percent do you know anything about dynamite?

    Benjamin: Just what you told me the other day-no, I don't know that much about dynamite. I know the other day you said that originally it had been a patented substance, it was a very specific substance.

    Ely: Yeah, it was. Well, nitroglycerin was discovered in about 1848, as I recall, by an Italian. Maybe you know that?

    Benjamin: No, I hadn't done any research on dynamite.

    Ely: It's a liquid. It looks very much like glycerine, it isn't quite as viscous, but you couldn't tell them apart to look at them. It was very useful and violent explosive, quite sensitive. Difficult to use because it's liquid and hard to handle and very hard to use in a hole drilled horizontally like a great many are in mines hard to locate, you'd have to have your hole, get down and look through it.

    Benjamin: At an angle.

    Ely: It was used a lot, but never came into much use 'til it was quite by accident discovered there were certain materials that would absorb it in large quantities and when it was taken up in absorbents, you ended up with a material much easier to handle and a great deal safer - that was probably the main thing. You know what kieselguhr is?

    Benjamin: No.

    Ely: Diatomaceous earth?

    Benjamin: Yes, I know that.

    Ely: It's supposed to be the skeletons of millions of little

    Benjamin: Dead marine...

    Ely: ...aquatic creatures, and it's very high absorbent, it will take up - oh the best grades take up about 75% oh I hate to say it, I think it's about 75 percent, something like that, maybe a little more.

    Benjamin: So they used diatomaceous earth for the...

    Ely: They discovered quite by accident, according to the story, that was used for quite a while. I think that was Nobels' original patent, the use of nitroglycerin absorbed in kieselguhr.

    Benjamin: And now is that kieselguhr the same as diatomaceous earth or is that...

    Ely: Yeah, yeah. That's the German name for it. The diatomaceous earth is what they call it. And they call it kieselguhr in this country too, or they used to. But that detracted from the strength of the nitroglycerin because...(tape ends) ...work that the dynamite would do. I can't remember the exact dates on this, but they found that a mixture of wood pulp, and I don't know whether they started out with potassium nitrate or sodium nitrate, I think probably the sodium nitrate. You had a combustible mixture there which would take part in the explosion and add strength to the strength of what nitroglycerin had. Well the maximum strength that you could get that way was a mixture of sixty percent nitroglycerin and about twenty, twenty-one percent of sodium nitrate and about the same amount of carbonaceous materials, wood pulp, principally. Pretty high grade wood pulp it took, too. And you got a substance which was known as dynamite. Of course they called the kieselguhr stuff dynamite too. That didn't last very long, this other was much more economical. At any rate, that became, I think that was dynamite No. 1, or sixty per cent dynamite. Then from that they began to make the No. 2 dynamite as I recall it. It was forty per cent nitroglycerin.

    Benjamin: Why did they want it smaller, so they could control it better?

    Ely: Well, they just didn't need - well it was cheaper and it wouldn't do as much work, but still enough cheaper that you could use more of it, let's say, more economical overall, and a good bit safer. The sixty percent dynamite, really after oh, a long, long time ago they virtually quit making sixty percent dynamite. We made very little, oh for a great many years now it would be - fifty per cent was about a top limit. Sixty per cent was always right on the edge of where it was gonna whether it would hold the nitroglycerin or leaks. If it leaked, why you had a mess on your hands.

    Benjamin: Did you make those kinds while you were at the Hercules plant - both kinds?

    Ely: Oh yeah. There must be hundreds of kinds. Well we had a formula book that was about this thick and about like that and there were hundreds of formulas in that. I said if you had a blind idiot mixing up the dry ingredients by feel and another one weighing nitroglycerin, put them together, you'd have something that would be very close to one of our brands. There were just about that many, I mean, all silly when you came down to it.
  • Selling dynamite; detonating dynamite and black powder; rating dynamite
    Keywords: detonation; diatomaceous earth; dynamite; kieselguhr; rating dynamite
    Transcript: Benjamin: Well did people think they needed different kinds for different jobs?

    Ely: Yeah. Salesmen didn't know any better, most of them. I used to be one, so I know.

    Benjamin: So what? You'd go and recommend the different kind for various things they wanted to do?

    Ely: Yeah, and there was a great deal of difference in- well, you needed quite a variety to cover the range of things that you did with dynamite, but there were probably at least ten times as many as you needed. A lot of which was foolishness.

    Benjamin: When you were a salesman, did you use these ballistic pendulum tests to help sell the powder, or was that mostly for the plant to know what they were making?

    Ely: That's a good question. I did, myself, but I don't think- well put it this way, this did give you a good idea of what the powder would do. Now you have to bear in mind that it didn't tell the whole thing because there's a very wide range of what they call right of detonation, or fast and slow dynamites. Now imagine the- I keep getting ahead of myself I'm afraid. But you take the a column of dynamite, of sticks end to end, and about the minimum speed you can get is something like, oh 1500 meters per second, what's that, about five thousand feet isn't it?

    Benjamin: Handy calculator, huh?

    Ely: Yeah, about 5,000 on up to 25,000 and some places you wanted to use it as slow as you can. You wanted slow ones like in mining soft coal, they used to like to get big lumps and if you used the fast dynamite that would break it loose, but it would just reduce it to dust almost. So you need the different speeds for different jobs. And the same with a very hard rock. Unless you used a very high speed powder, it won't break it fine enough and you can't end up with your steam shovels and things like that, just bring it out in great chunks. Black powder is very slow anyway, black powder, when you blasted with that, that wasn't much good in hard rock, it would just blow it out in big hunks and you had to break it up with a hammer afterwards. And it's not only the strength that counts, it's the speed so you have really an infinite variety of dynamites. Maybe a thousand, I always claimed that fifteen or twenty would be enough.

    Benjamin: But you had a little more choice than that.

    Ely: Well now let's see.

    Benjamin: Do you think that there's any of these graphs or charts left over there at the Hercules plant that would show some of the tests or maybe even the tests that you ran remember on the phone you told me how you and a friend had done tests?

    Ely: Oh I doubt it, those were probably destroyed as soon as they- they were never saved, they would be reduced to records you know. Well better back track a little bit. They had the sixty percent dynamite, then you had the forty, I think, was the next one that was made. Then they began to fill in between, well they didn't extrapolate too much on the high side with dynamite because sixty was about the highest you could get, but they had fifty and forty and then on down to as low as five percent which really was nothing much except a low-grade black powder with about five per cent of nitroglycerin added which made it detonate it. You know what detonation is to compared to burning?

    Benjamin: Detonating - setting it off?

    Ely: Well, I don't know that anybody knows, what it is, some people know a lot more than I do, but I think of it this way, you take a cupful of black powder, put it down on the ground, light it with a fuse or squib or something and it would burn anywhere from a relatively slow flare from some of the coarser grades of blasting powder to a very quick, violent puff with rifle powder with a finer grain and maybe potassium nitrate. That goes off pretty fast, but it still doesn't make much noise. Now you take your cup of dynamite and shoot it with a blasting cap and it would give you quite a violent explosion and a lot of noise. In other words, it changes from a solid state to a gaseous state so quickly, they say the noise comes from the air coming back together after the gases expanded it, as it cools it (makes a clap). They say that's what makes the noise in a thunder clap, the lightning heats the air, you get a tremendous volume of hot air which collapses like that, and that's what makes the noise. And they call that oh, furthermore, you string out a train of black powder along the ground, light one end of it, it would burn anywhere from just very slowly with a coarser grained material with perhaps quite a flash on some of the finer stuff, but rather quietly. You put the dynamite out and it travels at very high rates of speed and with a violent action, see. Oh it will break solid sock by just laying the stick on top, some of the faster ones, that's what the sixty percent used to be used for quite a bit to break up rocks without drilling them. So just measuring the strength on the ballistic mortar doesn't tell you the whole story, you have to know something about the rate of detonation they call it to know what - after.

    Benjamin: Then how did they figure that?

    Ely: We've gotten side tracked, but it's hard to explain after all these years. But the way they expressed the strength of the dynamite is by making comparisons with a given unknown dynamite that has the energy of a mixture which contains the given percentage of nitroglycerin for instance. Nitroglycerin dynamite with sixty per cent nitroglycerin, they arbitrarily call that sixty per cent, with fifty per cent of nitroglycerin, they call that fifty per cent strength dynamite, with twenty, they call that twenty per cent strength, ten or five, whatever. But since they've started using these things, other than kieselguhr, which is known as active base dynamite because the kieselguhr took no part in the explosion, that detracted from it. These add to it, so think of it this way: if you have sixty percent dynamite on this half, you have thirty percent dynamite here; the thirty percent is more than half as strong as the sixty because in addition to the thirty percent that you don't have, you have thirty percent of this active base, which Of itself gives strength, see.

    Benjamin: I see. So, just because they're rated sixty or thirty...

    Ely: They're rated, well if an unknown dynamite is said to have thirty percent strength, it is a dynamite that is equal, pound for pound, with a dynamite that has thirty percent nitroglycerin. Am I making myself clear?

    Benjamin: Yes, I understand that. So it has the equal weight, but it has more force because it has the other material in with it.

    Ely: Yes. So there were two ways that they used to translate the mortar findings, let's say, into measures. into expressions, or ratings of strength. Hard to get the right words. The one that I first remember that was in use when I first came in contact with, well the subject, let's say. They made comparisons with an explosive of constant strength, trinitrotoluene, you know? You know what that is, TNT?
  • Rating dynamite; comparing dynamite to TNT
    Keywords: dynamite; rating dynamite; TNT; trinitrotoluene
    Transcript: Benjamin: Okay.

    Ely: That's a chemical compound. You talk about TNT, everybody thinks that a miracle of strength. Well actually it's kind of a - it's about the equivalent of a forty percent dynamite as I recall it, forty or fifty percent at the most. But they would take known weights of dynamite, for instance, ten grams of dynamite and shoot several charges. And you used to get surprisingly accurate, oh consistent results I mean. And then they'd shoot TNT in various quantities until they got the same deflection, see they are making no attempt to measure the energy in scientific terms like so many ergs or so many what-ever-you-call-thems.

    Benjamin: Just as long as the two graphs matched up?

    Ely: Yeah, and they used to call them TNT values. Now it just so happens if you were to shoot ten grams of pure nitroglycerin in this, which I guess has been done, I never knew anybody that tried it, but it would take fifteen grams of TNT to give you the same deflection. Again, just by chance, the fifty percent dynamite, took about ten grams of TNT, ten grams of fifty percent dynamite gave the same deflection as ten grams of TNT. Within just a few tenths of a gram, I just used - I guess a lot of people did five percent they called zero strength which really is, when you come down to it, is about the strength that if you could get black powder to react in this mortar the right way that you'd get from ten grams of black powder, but that is zero strength. Actually your mixture of sodium nitrate plus wood pulp, almost anything, any carbonaceous material, gives you something that is equivalent in strength, if you could only shoot it, with black powder, see. And in the presence of nitroglycerin it reacts about the same, so you have this curve, they call it, of TNT values. Starting out with five at zero, six is about ten percent, seven is about twenty and so on up to - sixty comes at about eleven and fifteen for nitroglycerin - you have from five to fifteen, it just happens to match up with your...

    Benjamin: The dynamite and the TNT match.

    Ely: The dynamite from zero to a hundred, see.

    Benjamin: Yeah, I see what you're saying.

    Ely: You got it, you're a bright girl.

    Benjamin: Well you know one other thing I want to ask you about before I forget, about this one, about this pendulum at Hagley, see it had this electric cord running on it, do you know what that was for? It had an electric cord attached to it.

    Ely: Oh yeah, I'll get to that.

    Benjamin: Alright, good. You're leading up to that.

    Ely: I hope I am, if I'm not, why just tell me. That was what we used to call TNT values. Actually for the last good many years that I was working with such things, used to make up what they called standard, well standard dynamites let's say. We'd make up very carefully, using specially prepared ingredients and very carefully mixed for uniformity, we'd make up a sixty percent dynamite and we'd made up a fifty, and make up a forty and so on, and keep them, renew them as they aged. Whenever we tested an unknown dynamite, we would shoot it and measure the deflections, then take several charges, I think I used to use about five charges of one of these known standards that was below it in strength, in deflection, and one that was above it, and then use these angles to interpolate. See it was all done against known standards. In the first instance where we were talking about TNT against charges of difference weights of a known constant explosive, like TNT, a single chemical compound, see, and in the case of these standard dynamites against mixtures of known strength. You got me?

    Benjamin: Yes, I see what you're saying there. I don't think I understand where the TNT values are used.

    Ely: It's just two different methods I'm describing.

    Benjamin: Of comparing...

    Ely: Of comparing strength. The standard dynamites were better thought of, maybe just because it was more trouble. You know how scientists get. They do everything the hard way they say.

    Benjamin: So would you also compare an unknown dynamite against TNT, or only against another dynamite?

    Ely: You could do it either way. When I first became, well at all familiar with this whole subject of the mortar, they were using TNT values. Later on they thought it was better to use these dynamites of known strength, well these standard dynamites they called them. Or dynamite standards, I guess you called them. Oh, incidentally, the term dynamite, the way I use it mostly, is damn near any of these things, of these thousands of things that's what I meant when I said it was incorrectly used. The name - it really belongs only to this original mixture, except for common usage.

    Benjamin: Common to use it for all the mixes?

    Ely: Yeah. I hope I just haven't served to confuse you.

    Benjamin: No, I think I understand it, what you are saying. Which one did you think was more accurate? Did you get a better idea by comparing it to TNT or the dynamite, or why would you use the different ones? What would be the difference between the two comparisons?

    Ely: Really no difference, all comes out with the same answer.

    Benjamin: It's just to give you some idea how strong...

    Ely: Just two techniques, let's say. One probably as good as the other. Well, getting back now to this one that you have, this new one. This thing was, this was built, well as a refinement, let's say, of this, this whole thing was rather crude.

    Benjamin: The DuPont one?

    Ely: Well, it was everybody's. This particular one...

    Benjamin: Were these made at the plant, or were they made somewhere else?
  • Mortar used to test dynamite and powder strength
    Keywords: black powder; dynamite; gunpowder; Hercules Powder Company; Kenvil, New Jersey; mortar; nitroglycerin; testing
    Transcript: Ely: This was probably made at Kenvil plant, and the casting, I suppose, was purchased, the casting, probably from a steel foundry because they couldn't have, they didn't have the casting facilities.

    Benjamin: Need a new sheet?

    Ely: Yeah.

    Benjamin: Is this a picture of the mortar?

    Ely: Yeah, a section of it.

    Benjamin: A section of the mortar.

    Ely: Not to scale, I guess. This is a steel casting, of course then machined out. The projectile...

    Benjamin: So this is a picture of the cross section?

    Ely: Cross section, yes. This is the projectile, the slug. It fit in there quite accurately, usually with a little lubricant. All this was done in an attempt to cut out unknowns in the firing procedure. That one being solid, it didn't last too long before it got very much pitted up.

    Benjamin: The inside got pitted up?

    Ely: Yeah, it's pretty violent action in there. It gave erratic results. There was also a question of residue. It wasn't always a clean burning and you'd get buildups of stuff that might still interfere with the reaction in total, and absorb energy. They had these, forget what the called them liners, they called them, that would fit in this rear part. This represents a heavy bolt, it's still in place.

    Benjamin: Okay, that's the bolt holding the mortar onto the swing part?

    Ely: No, the axle with the mortar.

    Benjamin: Oh, these bolts along the side.

    Ely: Those are just for suspension. This was rigid, this was rigidly attached to that. One of these pictures-See the head of a bolt?

    Benjamin: All right, the bolt that comes out the back of the mortar.

    Ely: And that was, that had a hole through it. You used electric blasting caps. They used to have a wire, like a long needle with an eye, they end they put through this bolt and bring it clear out here.

    Benjamin: Did this have a hollow place in the projectile?

    Ely: No, this was removed, see.

    Benjamin: Oh, that's before it was put in there?

    Ely: Yeah.

    Benjamin: You'd bring the cord all the way out through the front port.

    Ely: They fired this electrically, that's where your wire comes in, see. With an electric blasting cap instead of a cap and fuse. This, again, was taking out one variable - the fuse itself is combustible and probably part of that entered into the reaction, see. They were just trying to eliminate everything except the dynamite itself. Of course the cap was there too. They threaded the wires through, made up their little packet, like I showed you before with the tinfoil, and the electric blasting cap, pulled the wires through to where they protruded here, see, and then in here you had this little, oh packet, if you want to call it that, which had an electric blasting cap filled with dynamite. Then this liner here was made of a special high-strength, tough steel, whereas this is cast steel, this was forged and pretty rugged stuff.

    Benjamin: 'Cause that's where the explosive was.

    Ely: This was long enough so that this liner could be, by twisting this, liner could be taken out, it drove, forced the liner out. See that's a pretty tight fit here.

    Benjamin: Oh, so the bolt would actually be used to push the liner out?

    Ely: Yeah, for replacement. They used to wash it out carefully and dry it between shots to get rid of all the residue. And they used to get pretty good, accurate results most of the time. It was all meant as a refinement on...

    Benjamin: This first one.

    Ely: The first one, yeah. I don't know if DuPont may have had, they had done the same thing, although I think this was all done by one of our engineers, always got credit for it, I guess he did it himself, he was a pretty good man.

    Benjamin: Do you remember his name?

    Ely: Bill Ayre. He was a drunken son-of-a-gun if one ever lived. He used to leave the office at ten o'clock every morning, go across the street there at the English Grille and get a couple shots of whiskey and come back to work. One of the best engineers, one of the best design men ever lived.

    Benjamin: And they're the ones that said designed this...

    Ely: He's the one that I think designed that whole thing.

    Benjamin: So is this why they went- why did the change from this first one, you said...

    Ely: Just in an effort to get more consistent, accurate results. And they used to, I had a great deal of confidence in it myself. On the very slow powders, it sometimes gave inconsistent results, in those small quantities, they didn't always detonate completely. But that was a minor manner.

    Benjamin: If they didn't detonate completely, would you still get a decent reading or not?

    Ely: Well, you'd just get a poorer estimated strength. Actually, when in a very wide range, you didn't need this test because based on data that you accumulated over the years, you could take a formula out of the formula book and by knowing what was in it, the amount of each one, very simple calculation, you could predict the results you were gonna get.

    Benjamin: And how close would you get, very close?

    Ely: Pretty close, yeah. I'd say close enough to work with, I mean.

    Benjamin: So did they run these tests very often did they test everything going out of the plant, or did they just use the estimates and test occasionally?

    Ely: This was used mostly on one of the main things was we used to spend quite a bit of money. Any time anybody had anything new, we, by one means or another, legal or illegal, we'd get a sample of it and test it and see what they were up to. I remember one time another man and I, we visited a strip out in Illinois that was in operation around the dock. The crew drilling holes, blast holes, and this friend of mine engaged this man in conversation and asked him questions about his drill. Finally got the driller flat on his back under the rig explaining how the rig worked and while he was doing that I stole a case of dynamite, put it in the back of my car and said, "Let's go," and up we went. You had to do it.

    Benjamin: Keep up with the competition.

    Ely: Yeah. But I'd say it was used less and less, as you gained experience. As a routine, it was never used as a routine test; used for evaluating new materials and keeping up with new developments that came on. I guess we spent probably about as much, almost as much money testing these competitive powders as we did on anything else up there.

    Benjamin: If we wanted to try and get a hold of the Hercules people and see if they had any surviving records or graphs or anything, do you know of anyone there that might be familiar with the records?

    Ely: Well, it wouldn't be there because that whole- see we haven't made - we're completely out of the dynamite business now.

    Benjamin: What are they manufacturing now? The plant still exists doesn't it?

    Ely: Oh yeah. Mostly sporting, shotgun powder and rifle powder and pistol powder and in huge quantities too, compared to what they used to do. Hunting and trap shooting and skeet shooting.

    Benjamin: But you don't think they'd have saved any of those records?

    Ely: I doubt it. Couldn't tell you anything anyway.

    Benjamin: Well, but what we were just wondering was if we could get a hold of some of the charts or graphs that were actually used.

    Ely: I doubt it. I doubt those were ever saved. They were probably thrown away. They just recorded them in notebook. I doubt, I wouldn't know how to go about it.

    Benjamin: Do you remember a man who worked there named Clayton Burgy?

    Ely: Oh yeah.

    Benjamin: He's a volunteer at Hagley.

    Ely:I know he is. Yeah his wife is, I remember when she was this high, lived next door to her for a while, to her father. Her father was a classmate of mine at Penn State. I was just thinking about it...