This section is from "Scientific American Supplement Volumes 275, 286, 288, 299, 303, 312, 315, 324, 344 and 358". Also available from Amazon: Scientific American Reference Book.
Words pass along with meanings which are simple conventionalities, marking current opinions, knowledge, fancies, and misjudgments. They attain to new accretions of import as knowledge advances or opinions change, and they are applied now to one set of ideas, now to another. Hence there is nothing truer than the saying, "definitions are never complete." The term explosion in its original introduction denoted the making of a noise; it grew to comprehend the idea of force accompanied with violent outburst; it is advancing to a stage in which it implies combustion as associated with destruction, yet somewhat distinct from the abstract idea of the resolution of any form of matter into its elementary constituents. The term, however, as yet takes in the idea of combustion as a decomposition in but a very limited degree, and it may be said to be wavering at the line between expansion and dissociation.
Strictly, in insurance, fire and explosion are different phenomena. A policy insuring against fire-loss does not insure against loss by explosion. It thereby enforces a distinction which exists, or did exist, in the popular mind; and fire, in an insurance sense, as distinct from explosion, was accurately defined by Justice McIlvaine, of the Supreme Court of Ohio (1872), in the case of the Union Insurance Company vs. Forte, i.e., an explosion was a remote cause of loss and not the proximate cause, when the fire was a burning of a gas jet which did not destroy, though the explosion caused by the burning gas-jet did destroy. Earlier than this decision, however (in 1852), Justice Cushing, of the Supreme Court of Massachusetts, in Scripture vs. Lowell Mutual Fire Insurance Company, somewhat anticipated later definition, and pronounced for the liability of the underwriter where all damage by the explosion involves the ignition and burning of the agent of explosion. That is, for example, the insurer is liable for damage caused by an explosion from gunpowder, but not for an explosion from steam. The Massachusetts Judge did not conceive any distinction as to fire-loss between the instantaneous burning of a barrel of gunpowder and the slower burning of a barrel of sulphur, and insurance fire-loss is not to be interpreted legally by thermo-dynamics nor thermo chemistry. While the legal principles are as yet unsettled, the tenor of current decisions may be summed up as follows: If explosion cause fire, and fire cause loss, it is a loss by fire as proximate cause; and if fire cause explosion, and explosion cause loss, it is a loss by fire as efficient cause. Smoke, an imperfect combustion, damages, in an insurance sense, as well as flame, which is perfect combustion; and where there is concurrence of expanding air with expanding combustion, the law settles on the basis of a common account. It's all "heat as a mode of motion."
Explosions are the resultants of elemental gases, vaporization, comminution, contact of different substances, as well as of the specifically named explosives. With new processes in manufacture, involving chemical and mechanical transformations, and other uses of new substances and new uses of old substances, explosions increase. The flour-dust of the miller, the starch-dust of the confectioner, increase in fineness and quantity, and they explode; so does the hop-dust of the brewer. In 1844, for the first time, Professors Faraday and Lyell, employed by the British government, discovered that explosion in bituminous coal mines was the quickening of the comparatively slow burning of the "fire-damp" by the almost instantaneous combustion of the fine coal-dust present in the mines. The flyings of the cotton mill do not explode, but flame passes through them with a rapidity almost instantaneous, yet not sufficient to exert the pressure which explodes; the dust of the wood planer and sawer only as yet makes sudden puffs without detonating force. Naphtha vapor and benzine vapor are getting into all places. One of the latest introductions is naphtha extracting oil from linseed, and then volatilized by steam superheated to 400° F. This combination reminds us, as to effectiveness, of the combination at the recent Kansas City fire, when cans of gunpowder and barrels of coal oil both went up together.
But it is the unsuspected causes of explosion which make the great trouble, and prominent among these is conflagration as itself the cause of explosion, and such explosion may develop gases which are non-supporters of combustion as well as those which are inflammable. You throw table salt down a blazing chimney to set free the flame-suppressing hydrochloric acid, you discharge a loaded gun up a blazing chimney to put out the fire by another agency; still the salt, with certain combinations, may be explosive, a resinous vapor may be combustive in a hydrochloric atmosphere, and gunpowder isn't harmless when thrown upon a blaze--in fact, our common fire-extinguisher, water, has its explosive incidences as liquid as well as vapor.
Gases explosive in association may be set free by the temperature of a burning building and get together. In respect to the old conundrum, "Will saltpetre explode?" Mr. A. A. Hayes, Prof. Silliman, and Dr. Hare's views were, as to the explosions in the New York fire of 1845, that in a closed building having niter in one part and shellac or other resinous material in another, the gaseous oxygen generated from the niter and the carbureted hydrogen from the resins mingling by degrees would at length constitute an explosive mixture. A brief consideration of specific explosives uniting may serve to illustrate this phase of the subject.
Though the explosion of gunpowder is the result of a chemical change whereby carbonic acid gas at high tension is evolved (due to the saltpeter and the charcoal), the effect and rapidity of action are greatly promoted by the addition of sulphur. On the contrary, dynamite, now so important, and various similar explosives, are but mixtures of nitro-glycerine with earthy substances, in order to diminish and make more manageable the development of the rending force of the base. The explosive power of any substance is the pressure it exerts on all parts of the space containing it at the instant of explosion, and is measured by comparing the heat disengaged with the volume of gas emitted, and with the rapidity of chemical action. In the case of gunpowder, the proper manipulation and division of the grains is important, because favoring rapid deflagration; but in a purely chemical explosion, each separate molecule is an explosive, and the reaction passes from the interior of one to the interior of another, suddenly driving the atoms much further apart than their naturally infinitesimal vibrations.