Interview with Albert Rider "Slick" Ely, 1988 September 24 [audio](part 2)

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  • Leaving the Hercules Plant; X-raying rockets
    Keywords: Atlas Powder Company; DuPont; Hercules Powder Company; Kenvil, New Jersey; rocketry; rockets; testing; X-rays
    Transcript: Benjamin: ...1962?

    Ely: Yeah, I left there in 1960 and we weren't using that thing much then. We still had this experimental unit, yet that started out going back into history a little bit - Hercules, you perhaps know, was formed as a result of the...

    Benjamin: Break-up of the DuPont...

    Ely: Break-up of DuPont. I always say they broke up DuPont Company and formed the Hercules, Atlas and the present DuPont Company - if anybody questions it, I say that's a good company too. We had access that started in 1913, we had access to the DuPont reports, Experimental Station information up 'til, for five years after that. And in 1918 they formed the Hercules Experiment Station right there at Kenvil Plant. I guess you could say one of the Redmill inmates almost, I was about halfway through college then. And that kept on until about 1932 when most of it was moved down here to where it is now, but they kept the explosives part of it; most of the work was done, still up there at Kenvil Plant mainly because it was, well it was handier to have it on a going explosives plant. But they did quite a bit of work out here on explosives, but it was pretty hard to do any testing out there on account of the noise and locality, where they were used to it up where we were and didn't pay much attention to it. But while this experimental work on explosives kept on, oh a fair level 'til they finally closed down the explosives manufacture, the dynamite manufacture there at Kenvil, there was still a lot of activity, but they weren't using this mortar very much then. As I say, once you get, well you didn't have to test your own, you knew what that was gonna do, except for new materials and competitive materials, why you didn't use this mortar much at all. I remember we got into - doing a lot of work on rockets and various things of that sort and last time I remember being in the building up there, the mortar was just hanging there. The room that it was, the room it occupied, which is in a hell of a shape there, was being used mostly for x-ray work. This was a heavy concrete wall here and made a good x-ray shield.

    Benjamin: And they were doing x-rays for the rockets?

    Ely: On the rockets, and rocket grains and things like that. So we weren't using it much at all, at least I don't recall them using it much except for the, what I told you. Never as a routine test on for production control. Most things we knew...

    Benjamin: Just from what you'd done already.

    Ely: Yeah, based on what we'd done already.

    Benjamin: Well that answers most of the questions that I can think of right now. I was wondering if you could show me the wood lathe, so that I could tell Frank what that looks like.

    Ely: Yeah.

    Benjamin: After I tell the class about this, they may have more questions.

    Ely: Well I kind of feel as though I'd done a hell of a lot of rambling.

    Benjamin: Well, it sounded really good to me. I thought you explained it very well, because I didn't know - I didn't realize how this pendulum had worked before until you explained how the electric fed in through there and through the...

    Ely: Yeah, you see the cap wires came out through a hole in the center of that, in the center of that quite a large screw. The main purpose of the screw was to be able to force the liner out to change it. I don't see the slug in any of the...

    Benjamin: No, it's there though at Hagley, I've seen it, but it isn't in these pictures.

    Ely: Oh, the slug is there?

    Benjamin: Yes.

    Ely: Do you have extra liners?

    Benjamin: I don't know. I didn't know to look for a liner, so I guess I'll have to look in it and see if there is one. Did they change the liners very often?

    Ely: Well, they were expendable, you might say, I don't know how many shots they used to get out of them, I don't remember. They just changed them when they got, oh if they began to give erratic results. Yeah, you can see that bolt there.

    Benjamin: Yeah, the screw...

    Ely: I've probably drawn that completely out of scale.

    Benjamin: No, I think that, well it gives you a good idea though, the drawing gives me a good idea of how it fed in.

    Ely: Yeah, that looks as thought I've drawn the bolt entirely too big, it wasn't anywhere near the size of the...

    Benjamin: Of the liner.

    Ely: Of the liner.

    Benjamin: Okay, well I'll have to go back and look at it and then I can make the comparison.

    Ely: There may be no liner in it at all.

    Benjamin: Okay, well I'll have to look for that and see what we come up with.

    Ely: Okay, that's it all right.
  • Future display of the explosives testing mortar; measuring the specific gravity of explosives
    Keywords: blasting powder; dynamite; gunpowder; mortar; rifle powder; specific gravity; testing; West Fall Balance
    Transcript: Benjamin: Well we should have it on exhibit next year, when we get this finished up and then it should start...

    Ely: Well look up that letter. You may find that of some interest. He tells about - this isn't, obviously, the one that he's talking about, but it may have followed - I still think it may have been used at this plant where he worked at that time. Or maybe it was a different plant, but it was used for blasting powder which is relatively slow acting and probably the actual strength is not too much different, but he said that after having used it on blasting powder, they got some orders to make some rifle powder which was new to that particular place, and I guess new to this man. He said they used to do this testing in the power house, near the boiler. They'd stick a poker in the fire in the boiler and get it red hot, then they used that to touch off this shot. And they put in an equivalent weight of the rifle powder and touched it off and apparently blew up, scattered the thing all over the powerhouse. Lucky he didn't get killed maybe.

    Benjamin: Yeah. I guess it wasn't this one, cause it looked in good shape.

    Ely: Wouldn't have been this individual thing, 'cause there wasn't much left of that. This was all very crude and handmade, but I couldn't remember how I remember this - yeah, this I've shown as its having a yeah, I just didn't draw this should have come up to that height and then - see this is the top view here.

    Benjamin: Right, this is the lid.

    Ely: This piece here was actually pivoted at this point and was circular instead of being this irregular shape that I've shown there, but the result was the same. This lifted, rotating on this, this would force this out against some resistance see, and the number of notches that it raised this was indication of the force that was driving it. They used to count the number of notches that it moved and that, I suppose, told them - at least they knew more than they did before they started.

    Benjamin: That's right. Do you think they may have used these like you used the ballistic pendulum, that they could tell from their mixtures about what it would be like, but then they would test against new powders, like you said he did with the rifle powder?

    Ely: Yeah, it was - well, this plant that I worked in at Alabama, it was the only time I had anything to do really with manufacture of black powder, and I didn't have much to do with that, I was just chief chemist, I was the only chemist so that made me the chief, see. Sounded better I suppose. They had some complaints and there were no means of testing it at all that I can recall. I remember I didn't even do any laboratory work on it. The only work that I did that I can recall is to run the specific gravity of it.

    Benjamin: Okay, now that was something else that we were wondering about, how they measured that.

    Ely: Oh my God, I can tell you.

    Benjamin: You can, alright. There was a...

    Ely: You mean out there they don't know how they measured the specific gravity of black powder?

    Benjamin: No, we have- at Hagley they have some vessels that they said they thought DuPont has used, possibly, for those tests. Is that possible they are copper vessels, would they have used something like that? They weren't sure what their use was.

    Ely: I don't think so, I don't they would be used I wouldn't say they didn't, but I know how we did it.

    Benjamin: Alright, well that would help to know how you did it.

    Ely: I'll be damned, me telling the DuPont Company anything, now that really makes my day. Well you know What a West Fall Balance is?

    Benjamin: No, I don't.

    Ely: That's used for measuring specific gravity of liquids. It's a little glass, oh object let's say, usually in the shape of a sawed off thermometer because you want the temperature of a liquid when you measure its specific gravity. And it used to be about this long, maybe the size of your thumb.

    Benjamin: And about what, four, three or four inches tall?

    Ely: Well, probably not much over two, two and a half, probably nearer the size of a finger like that. Easier to draw it than say it.

    Benjamin: Alright here, let me get you a new page.

    Ely: You fill that up with liquid...

    Benjamin: Now this is a vessel here?

    Ely: This is the vessel, yeah.

    Benjamin: And this inside is what you said was about the size of a middle finger here?

    Ely: Yeah, this was usually, oh contained a thermometer with a bulb, you could read the temperature. And then this had a heavy end, so if you didn't have anything in here - oh, there's a rider along here, I forget whether it slid or whether you picked it up and moved it in the notches.

    Benjamin: And that was to balance the weight?

    Ely: Yeah. If you didn't have any liquid in here, this thing would come into balance, this had an adjusting screw, a weight that you could bring this into balance. Then you put your liquid in here, and you got a buoyancy in there, and by moving this rider out, you got a measure of the buoyancy in grams and knew the volume of this. Actually the way that I don't know, I think it read directly. This was of known volume, although I don't believe anybody knew what the volume was, but each machine this corresponded to the graduations, you could read the specific gravity direct, see.

    Benjamin: Right off the top?

    Ely: Yeah, but the principle is the buoyancy of the- you ended up with a measure of the, well specific gravity. The weight per unit of volume of the liquid. This does the same way except you couldn't use water because the water would dissolve the sodium nitrate. They used to use mercury.

    Benjamin: So they filled the vessel with mercury?

    Ely: Well, they used. I forget the name of the thing. This is in section here, that's a stop cock, see.

    Benjamin: And what is this apparatus made out of?

    Ely: Glass.

    Benjamin: Alright, it's a bulb there.

    Ely: Another stop cock here, tubes, see. This could be removed here, this assembly. You closed this, filled this with your black powder.

    Benjamin: Through here when you took the top stop cock off, you could put black powder in?

    Ely: Oh yeah, you pulled the stop cock out, bulb like, about like so.

    Benjamin: What is that - five inches?

    Ely: Oh five inches, four or five inches, I forget, quite a good size, and this was all filled with black powder. Then this was put back, both stop cocks open with a vacuum on here, suck up the mercury. Well first, with this empty, you filled it with mercury by sucking it up, see, closed both stop cocks, weigh that, then that gave you, knowing the density of the mercury, which was about thirteen as I recall it, thirteen times the weight of water, then you filled it with black powder and sucked the mercury up which surrounded the black powder and filled all the interstices with mercury, and then closed it and drained the excess out of the ends and weighed it, and you knew the weight of the powder you had. By taking the difference between the total weight of powder and mercury and the powder, you could tell how much mercury had been displaced and then you could calculate back to the specific gravity of the powder as compared to water, see.
  • Making black powder; black powder competition between scientists from DuPont and the Hercules Powder Company; getting a job at the Hercules Powder Company
    Keywords: Aetna Explosives Company; Birmingham, Alabama; black powder; competitions; Connable Plant; corning mills; DuPont; Hercules Powder Company; manufacturing; powder mills
    Transcript: Benjamin: And why did you want to know that?

    Ely: You know the process of making black powder?

    Benjamin: I saw the demonstration at Hagley, so I'm familiar with it.

    Ely: Well you grind it in these huge mills.

    Benjamin: Right, in the tubs.

    Ely: And then put it in, oh enormous presses, reached from here to the wall I guess. And we used to use sheets of aluminum about like that, and they ran in a trough, and they would space them about, oh like so apart, standing on edge, fill the whole thing with material from the wheel mills which was, well, had fairly high water content at that point and it was relatively insensitive to friction. Then that thing was compressed and you ended up with a very hard cake, pressed cake they called it. Then that went through a corning mill - you have that?

    Benjamin: I don't remember a corning mill.

    Ely: Used to take these - well, I forget what they called them.

    Benjamin: I know they sifted it at one time.

    Ely: Well, yeah, that was the way they, that came much later - cake they called it. There were cakes about that square and about inch, inch and a half thick, they went through ribbed rollers that broke it up to a degree that was controlled by the setting of the rollers, and I suppose the speed at which they fed it, what not. Then it went into these - the ones where I worked, rather huge wooden barrels on their side, with rollers and doors that opened and closed, then they filled them with, well they called this corning mill, I suppose, because it ended up looking somewhat like cracked corn, except black. They put that in with graphite and rolled...

    Benjamin: Okay, I know what you're talking about.

    Ely: ...these barrels, the doors opened and closed to let out the moisture that - they heated up from the friction of the rolling. Now also gave the grains a mirror like polish when it was done right.

    Benjamin: And so that's what you called the corning mill, was when...

    Ely: No, the corning mill was the rolls that broke it.

    Benjamin: Oh, the rolls that broke it, okay.

    Ely: Then the lightning barrels, I think was the right name for the big barrels that they rolled it in, then they screened it. The sizes were well you took what you got, the screens had a great many layers and each one all different sized holes, sometimes it was perforated metal, sometimes woven screen and there was quite a range of sizes from pieces as big as the end of your finger down to real fine stuff. Well what this did, this gave a degree this gave an indication of how hard it had been pressed and if it wasn't pressed hard enough it would burn fast - it controlled the amount of pressure, controlled the density of the powder and the more it was pressed, the slower it burned. That's all relative, of course, it all burned pretty fast, but that's the way we used to do it. But you're using mercury as the reference liquid instead of water.

    Benjamin: I didn't have any idea how they did that. Now what they have over there...

    Ely: It's possible that you could use copper. I wouldn't think they would. The mercury will go after copper.

    Benjamin: Will it?

    Ely: Yeah.

    Benjamin: I believe they said they were copper and the vessels were, I don't know, maybe a foot and a half, two foot tall, she showed us a picture. They weren't positive what they had been used for, that's just one possibility they thought of.

    Ely: Well you could have, I guess, you wouldn't have been able to do it by vacuum though, because I don't think the copper would, sheet copper wouldn't have stood the - would have collapsed I'd be afraid. The glass, of course, is rigid, it isn't particularly strong, but it was adequate to hold for, oh on the size you were working with.

    Benjamin: Well, we'll have to do some more research on that.

    Ely: What I started to say, we were having trouble, and of all things - bear in mind this was back in early nineteen twenties and then the manager of this place I worked, DuPont had a plant just a few miles away, black powder plant, and he and the DuPont - my boss had been a DuPont man originally, and this DuPont man was one of his old buddies and he was having with- when we were having trouble with our powder, he called up his competitor to come over and help him.

    Benjamin: And did he?

    Ely: Yes, sure. Played like a couple of children. This man had a toy canon that his kids- he had made for his boy, about that long, nice little wheels. They'd get a big piece of sheet steel about the size of that rug out there I guess, put the canon on it, measure it off with rulers, loaded it up and the DuPont man brought along a keg of his powder and they were betting on whose powder would make the canon recoil the farthest. Oh, they had a ball, they might as well have shut the plant down. Now that's how science went in those days. In fact there wasn't very much science in the whole black powder business, it was all rule of thumb.

    Benjamin: Now was this Mr. du Pont who came over when you said the DuPont man, was that Mr. du Pont who came over?

    Ely: Oh no.

    Benjamin: That was some man that worked for him.

    Ely: Yeah, the DuPont superintendent. Forget his name, can't remember his name. Remember the name of the plant, they called it Connable Plant, that was an old DuPont name, it's long since abandoned.

    Benjamin: And where was that one at?

    Ely: Oh out a few miles north of Birmingham. This plant that I worked at was- had been an Aetna plant- Aetna Explosives Company - that was Hercules - Hercules bought the company about 1920 as I recall.

    Benjamin: Is that how you started working for Hercules?

    Ely: No, I started working for Hercules, that was my home town, it was right near the plant and they just called up the high school principal one summer to come up and work in the- not in the chemical laboratory, it was in the ballistic testing laboratory, testing smokeless powder. That's how I started and then I moved over to the laboratory later.

    Benjamin: Started early.

    Ely: I'm sort of a museum piece myself.

    Benjamin: Been working with it a long time.

    Ely: Yep.

    Benjamin: Well, if I could, I'd like to take a look at the lathe, so I can tell them what it looks like.

    Ely: Okay. Annie - oh Annie.

    Benjamin: Would you like me to go get her?

    Ely: We'll get her on the way out.