How To Blow Stuff Up


Oh, sure, you could just go buy some fireworks, but where's the fun in that? To really leave your smoking, blackened mark on history there are two things you've just got to have.

Don't make the mistake of thinking you can do this alone. There's a reason James Bond's archenemies always have hordes of minions. Or, on a less intentionally evil note, think of the Manhattan Project. To build the world's first nuclear bomb, the U.S. government eventually ended up employing more than 130,000 people over the course of six years. And you wouldn't catch a single one of them slacking off on the job—not even for legitimate health concerns.

For instance, Elizabeth Riddle Graves, who worked at Los Alamos, New Mexico developing key parts of the bomb's core, didn't let her pregnancy stand in the way of science. In fact, when she went into labor at the lab, she first finished the series of experiments she was working on before heading to the hospital. In retrospect the whole "baby + Los Alamos" thing doesn't seem like such a great idea, but those were simpler times and the point is, she cared.

Almost as important are the staff members who will stick by you, and your vision, long after things go boom. Alfred Nobel invented dynamite and then assuaged his conscience by setting up a fund for peace awards—but had it not been for his youngest engineering assistant and executor Ragnar Sohlman, the name "Nobel" would still be synonymous with destruction. When the inventor died in 1898, his vast estate was stored in numerous bank accounts sprinkled through eight different countries. And while his will called for the money to go toward the pursuit of peace, some members of his family had other ideas of how it might be spent. To fulfill his boss' last request, young Ragnar armed himself with a gun and sped (relatively, this was the 19th century) from city to city collecting the dough, with Nobel's greedy relatives in hot pursuit. Then, after managing to withdraw all the funds and put them in a single Swiss bank vault, he spent the next three years fighting legal disputes before the first Nobel Prizes could finally be awarded in 1901. His descendant, Michael Sohlman, is the current director of the Nobel Foundation. You can't put a price on employees like that.

Innovation can take many forms. Sometimes, you build off the work of others—like in the development of the car bomb. The first vehicle-based bombardment actually involved a horse cart and was the creation of an Italian-American Anarchist named Mario Buda. In September of 1920, Buda pulled his horse up to the corner of Broad and Wall streets in New York City, across from the J.P. Morgan Company. Just after noon, his vehicle exploded, taking 40 bystanders (and the poor horse) along with it. More than 200 people were injured, but the real target of the attack—J.P. "Robber Baron" Morgan himself—was completely unharmed, being in Scotland at his posh hunting lodge; a fact that, no doubt, enraged Buda even more. It would be another 27 years before the concept he developed really took off, however. It's believed that the first modern car bomb exploded on January 12, 1947, when a fascist, paramilitary Jewish organization known as the Stern Gang drove a truck full of explosives into a British police station in what was then Palestine. Other times, however, innovation requires a little more imagination. During World War II, armchair generals often sent their "great" combat ideas to the U.S. military—and most were filed in the wastebasket. But one concept, the brainchild of Pennsylvania surgeon Lytle Adams, did make it into production. Dr. Adams big idea: Bats. On January 12, 1942 (we don't know what the deal is with January 12 and explosions), the doctor sent a letter to the White House proposing a system of bat bombs. According to records, the plan was to fill a bomb-like canister with hibernating bats and then drop the canister from a plane. Slowed by a parachute, the canister would open and the bats (somehow awakened) would fly out—each one carrying a tiny time-delayed napalm explosive. Impressively, the military spent two years and $2 million on "Project X-Ray" before deciding it was "unfeasible."