REAL SCIENCE: The Practical Pyromaniac, by William Gurstelle

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A friend of mine who knows of my interest in things that explode (hell, I'd made a career out of it) sent me a slim volume titled The Practical Pyromaniac as a Christmas gift this past season.  He must have thought it would make a good gag gift.

What he may not have realized is that this book, which is subtitled "Build Fire Tornadoes, One-Candlepower Engines, Great Balls of Fire, and More Incendiary Devices," is actually a very interesting and highly readable treatise on the history of man's quest to control fire.

The author, William Gurstelle, who also wrote Backyard Ballistics, has crafted a do-it-yourself guide that's half history lesson, half physics experiment. In order to set things in perspective, he provides a chapter giving background information for each of the inventions, which can be re-created using things most of us (okay, almost most of us...or maybe just me) have lying around in the kitchen or the garage or the secret underground laboratory.  And each device leads into the next one in a logical progression, so that if you survive one, you can go on to build a slightly more complex device.

In the course of the book, you will learn about such luminaries as the larger-than-life Count Rumford, the gifted Humphrey Davy, the polymath Joseph Priestley, the clever ex-slave Baybars, the timid Henry Cavendish, the ill-fated Antoine Lavoisier,  and John Dalton, who was so highly regarded in his day that he received a funeral fit for a heroic head of state.    

You will also learn about all sorts of fire and incandescence, from a simple torch to an arc lamp, and why the seemingly endless supply of timber in North America encouraged European emigration.  The projects described in the book will show you how to make your own pneumatic trough for the capture of various gases; a fire piston for igniting things without a match; fireproof cloth, which may be a project you'll want to start off with; and "cold fire" which is actually a bit of theatrical trickery, rather than genuine pyrotechnics.

You'll even get a bit of world history as you read about the horrific fires in Chicago and Peshtigo on October 8, 1871, or the French Revolution that snuffed out Lavoisier's brilliance.  There's even a chapter on the ancient rite of excommunication which was performed with a bell, a book, and a candle.

The Practical Pyromaniac is engagingly written and great fun to read, and the experiments are not only flashy, but several of them can come in handy, such as how to build a campfire drill, or a camp stove out of two tin cans and a bit of gas line dryer fluid.  There are instructions for conducting flame assays for different chemicals, and directions for using a thermocouple device for testing the temperatures in a flame.


Throughout, proper safety procedures are stressed and repeated, which given the subject matter can't be done too often.

This book would serve as a great inspiration to teachers of chemistry and physics, as well as history teachers who would like to add some pizazz to their lectures.  And it's written in plain English so just about anybody can get into it, whether they've got a background in science or not.

Mr. Gurstelle doesn't seem to have an actual web site--the URL he gives in the book leads to a Facebook page-- but his book is available through Amazon (isn't everything?), and many of his demonstration videos are posted on YouTube under the name "PracPyro."


Watch him light off hydrogen bubbles to "The Radetsky March" here: