Exploding Trousers - On Television

On Television

In their May 2006 "Exploding Pants" episode the popular U.S. television show MythBusters investigated the idea that trousers could explode based on the events of New Zealand in the 1930s. Experimenters tested four substances on 100% cotton overalls:

  • A paste comprising a mixture of gunpowder and water (since gunpowder by itself does not cling to clothing);
  • An (unnamed) "herbicide from the 1930s";
  • An (unnamed) "fertilizer from the 1930s" (this was most likely ammonium nitrate, the bottle was in the foreground of the shot and the label was facing the camera);
  • "An acid", likely a nitric/sulfuric acid mixture, (to make nitrocellulose/guncotton).

Each of these were put to four different ignition methods: flame, radiant heat, friction and impact. Although not naming "the herbicide" as sodium chlorate, they confirmed that trousers would indeed vigorously combust due to flame, radiant heat and impact, though their friction tests did not cause ignition. However, combustion (i.e. an exothermic chemical reaction between a fuel and an oxidant) is not the same as an explosion, which involves a rapid increase in volume accompyied by the release of energy in an extreme manner (i.e. a shock wave). Even so, a person witnessing such an event (especially if he or she were wearing the trousers) would likely describe the event as an explosion.

The tests also revealed that none of the other three substances caused combustion of the trousers, thus indicating that sodium chlorate was almost certainly responsible for the events that occurred.

ABC's The Science Show described exploding trousers as "the scenario for a Goon Show", and, in an example of art imitating life, it actually was. The Goons wrote a script about a chemical which "when applied to the tail of a military soldier shirt, is tasteless, colourless, and odourless" but that "The moment the wearer sits down, the heat from his body causes the chemical to explode.".

In the final episode of Blackadder Goes Forth, Captain Edmund Blackadder says that he's "Off to Hartlepool to buy a pair of exploding trousers" when feigning madness to avoid going over the top.

Read more about this topic:  Exploding Trousers

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