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March 13, 2007

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A Gunpowder Plot At The History Channel?

Like many people, I’m hopelessly addicted to the History Channel. Barring the occasional hour on the story of tapioca, or putty, they do lots of interesting stuff, and last night it was ancient Chinese weaponry. Everything was going swimmingly until the program reached the invention of gunpowder. It showed a fellow mixing the stuff in a solid-silver (!) bowl, and we were informed that charcoal is the main ingredient, and there are two others.

 “Huh?”, thinks I. “Why are they being coy about the other two ingredients?” And then it came to me. They are doing it for the same reason that the TSA does most of their  stupid stuff—security. I can think of no other reason for omitting two thirds of the recipe than the fear that a viewer might rush right out, mix up a batch of black powder, and explode something he shouldn’t.

This is absurd for many, many reasons, the most prominent of which is the ease with which you can get this information. Working against a watch, I went on line this morning and got the answer in 11 seconds. As a security measure, the History Channel’s one-ingredient ploy ranks with the airlines refusing to hand out plastic knives so passengers can slice their tiny, rock-hard, airline-issue bagels.

The truth is, anyone can find out just about anything if they want to. Some years ago I had lunch with the president of a knife-sharpener company, and he told me the following story:

“During World War II I was a professor of metallurgy at the University of Chicago, which was one of the centers of development for the atom bomb. One of my jobs was recruiting graduate students to work on the Manhattan Project. I was interviewing a young man and told him what he would be doing, but that I couldn’t tell him why he would be doing it.

“He said, ‘You’re working on an atom bomb.’”

“I nearly passed out. This was one of the most closely guarded secrets in World War II.

“How in God’s name did you know?” I asked him.

“It wasn’t hard,” he said. “We just keep track of who’s disappearing, and what they do, and we put two and two together.”

So much for secrecy.

And if there is no History Channel gunpowder plot I apologize to all the appropriate people.


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Lynn, they should not have as it is all fun to play with....

Jeff Olsen

I think this entire issue borders on lunacy. If people would look at the active ingredients in many of the chemicals under the kitchen sink, they would be able to concoct a far more dangerous product than black powder. There are so many accelerants, propellants, combustables, and gases that can be EASILY mixed up in a blink that far exceed black powder's "danger level". I guess we should stop allowing people to purchase things like washing powder due to the fact that it contains phospherous...


Well, ban all books from Mein Kampf to The Communist Manifesto. Ban all science books where you could learn something dangerous. Take all potentially harmful websites down. The next step is to require a state license for certain science degrees, and forbid free thought. Yep- better remove all knives, guns, powertools too, and don't forget the gasoline (you might set yourself on fire), and matches.
Yep, and don't forget removing all religion, including Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, etc. you might learn dangerous ideas, and we know that dangerous ideas is where all trouble starts.

It would be a pretty boring life :(
Eric W.
Reed City, MI

Chad Love

This has nothing to at all to do with gunpowder, but wanted to say congrats to F&S for being a National Magazine Awards finalist in four, count 'em four, catagories.
The National Magazine Awards are pretty much the highest honor a magazine can strive for, and I think we should be proud that a "hook-and-bullet" mag is right up there competing with the perpetual darlings of the magazine publishing world like the New Yorker, The Atlantic and National Geographic.


KUDO's F & S!!!!!!!!!

National Mag Award??? Amazing considering the recent accusing clogging bloggers. At least the modern Letters to the Editors aren't wrapped around a brick and delivered through a window. :-)



Must be all the "salty" writers they have between Dave and Bill you can get two better characters.

I am still laughing my butt off about the Caribou article that Bill wrote,

Maybe Bill can drop in here as a guest of Dave's



Doke: Please change CAN to CAN'T.

Where is that darn grammer check button, I lost it again.....

Blue Ox

Speaking of gunpowder and other home-made stuff, what ever became of the guy in wisconsin who was blowing away deer with a cannon? Did the DNR ever catch him?

Dave Petzal

To Chad Love: You are more than kind to mention our four nominations. However, it's like getting nominated for an Oscar. All you have is a nomination. Actually getting called up on the stage to accept the statuette and dither something stupid is something else again.

Our publisher told us this cautionary tale: Some years ago, when he was at the New Yorker, they had ten nominations. They had the office filled with balloons and champagne. How many did they actually get? None.

I am not waiting with bated breath.

Dave could apologize to himself. I saw him on History Channel talking about gunpowder. Ha, lets just say he is more interesting when he writes.

David Honish

And for those who feel the need to defend their perimeter with fougasse, the Army Chemical Corps expedient recipe for improvised napalm is to mix powdered laundry detergent with gasoline until it has a consistency like applesauce. If mixing in a 55 gallon drum or other steel container, be sure to use a safe non-sparking stirring device. A wooden boat paddle is ideal.


I dont particularly care if they said what the recipe is or not. The story was not about the chemical propertie of gunpowder, but about the invention of gunpowder. A story about the invention doesn't need to have an ingredients list, it's not important. I really enjoy the History Channel, and i believe that whatever choices they make are for the good of all of us, protecting themselves from being sued and going off the air.

I've got to call BS on the Manhattan Project story.

It is good to not advertise how to make dangerous things. I know how to make plenty of bad things, and yes, the information is out there if you know how to look, but giving the less-than-intelligent the initiative to go and do things they shouldn't isn't a good thing. The fact is that there are plenty of people without the good sense to know what they shouldn't do.

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