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MIT Page on Ronald J Riley

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All people who have not been hurt tend to think they are indestructible. I was no exception. Machines, electricity, and chemicals can be very dangerous. Even people with a great deal of experience can make mistakes. Sometimes those mistakes are funny, and sometimes they are tragic, leading to serious injuries or even death.

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A chemistry professor at GMI was demonstrating Thermit to a group of aspiring engineers whose age varied from 12 to 18. Thermit is a mixture of iron oxide and aluminum. When ignited it produces a great deal of heat and turns to liquid iron and aluminum oxide. The reaction is called an exothermic reaction because it releases a great deal of energy in the form of heat. The experiment was set up with a clay flower pot with the chemicals overhanging a lab bench and a five gallon bucket of water underneath the flower pot to catch the molten metal. Within seconds of starting the reaction the molten metal had burned a hole through the bottom of the bucket and the tiles on the floor. If the floor substrate had not been concrete we would have had a fire on our hands.

I was very interested chemistry, especially things that went bang. I discovered that I could make hydrogen gas from zinc canning jar lids and sulfuric acid I salvaged from car batteries. I cut my parents zinc canning lids into strips and put them in a glass jar. I then added sulfuric acid and capped the jar with a lid which I had added a pipe to. The reaction produced hydrogen gas which filled the balloon. Initially I used the balloons to send messages high and far. Hydrogen gas is very very explosive so I got this bright idea on the fourth of July of tying a string that I dipped in alcohol to the balloon and lighting (as in fire) the string. I would let the balloon go and it would explode high in the sky.

The problem is that one time the wind blew the fire up the string when the balloon was only a few feet above me. I was very lucky that I only ended up with singed hair and no major injuries. Also, I did get minor acid burns a number of times. The fumes from the reaction are caustic and I learned the hard way not to breath them. I burned holes in my cloths with the acid. Those canning jar lids were very expensive, and my parents were not happy that I cut them up. I paid a price for destroying a bunch of those lids. fireworks
chicken pecks TNT and explodes A 13 year old colleague mixed red phosphorous  with an oxidizer in his parents basement. He was heating the mixture, which exploded. The explosion knocked the house off the foundation. The boy lost most of his fingers, an eye, a considerable amount of flesh and muscle from one leg, and his ability to ever father children.

Another boy made a home made rocket with match heads and an empty CO2 cartridge. It exploded, mangling both his hands. He lost many fingers.

In the summer before my senior year of high school my dad, grandfather, and I built a new house which my father lives in to this day. I drew up the plans for that house when I was in 11th grade and I wired the whole house. Like many children, I was not very good at staying on task. I built a "photon torpedo launcher" in the new basement after I had installed a new 200 amp electrical service. I used bricks to make a cone shaped vessel and fed the whole 200 amps to a short piece of wire that was in the narrow end of the cone. I would then throw the main circuit breaker on, which would vaporize the wire and a six inch or so ball of plasma would shoot out the end of my crude launcher and fly to the far end of the basement. I did not get hurt, but I was lucky, because the plasma could have easily set the new house on fire. It was a really stupid thing to do.

My point is that one mistake, one small oversight can kill you or hurt you so badly that you will wish you had died.

There are many other stories I could tell, but I think that I have made my point that learning can be a great deal of fun, if done in a safe manner. The difference between many inventors and the majority of other adults is that inventors never lose the love of learning. We are never afraid to ask a stupid question, because real stupidity is not being willing to ask. In some ways we never finish growing up, and we are not ashamed of that.

Inventors are the fountain of youth for everyone. We produce the ideas that make life better for everyone. We have fun doing so.

I hope to see you, boys and girls alike, become the next generation of inventors.

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