Picric Acid

Picric acid is also known as 2,4,6 trinitrophenol.  It was a common chemical reagent in the early 1900’s, but you won’t find it readily available today.  It is highly explosive.  In its solid form, it was used as an explosive packed into artillery shells, before they settled on the less powerful, but more stable, 2,4,6 trinitortoluene, or TNT.

In December 1917, a French cargo ship left New York carrying over 2300 tons of picric acid and an additional 250 tons of TNT.  The ship was on the way to Bordeaux to resupply the French Army.  While entering Halifax harbor for its final stop before crossing the Atlantic, the ship had a low speed collision with an empty ship chartered by the Commission for Relief in Belgium that had just refilled its coal bunkers.  The low speed collision was due to confusion between the two captains over navigation rules.  The collision itself caused little damage, but a small fire started on the French cargo ship.  The fire continued to burn for about 20 minutes, then set off a spectacular explosion.  The explosion, known as the Halifax explosion, was one seventh as strong as the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.  It killed about 2,000 people.

In those days, measuring blood glucose was only for a skilled chemist.