Dynamite in the Attic
An explosive surprise was on a young physicist’s desk when he moved into Robinson Hall in 1962

In mid-1962, the physics department was finally able to move out of crowded temporary quarters in Anderson Hall and into individual offices in the newly refurbished Robinson Hall. Mine was on the third floor, with Kathryn McCarthy’s on one side and Brenton Stearns’ on the other. New laboratories were waiting for us in the basement. Moving was easy for me because I had come to Tufts the preceding July. The rush to get our courses under way was over. We could now enjoy moments of sociable conversation about more peripheral matters. Thus it happened that on the way to lunch one day, I stopped by Brent Stearns’ office to inquire about some small problem. This solved, he casually remarked: “By the way, do you know about the dynamite in the attic?”

Robinson Hall looks placid, but there was danger lurking in the attic when this photo was taken in 1955. Photo: University Archives

I had heard nothing about it, and did he mean the fourth-floor Robinson attic, just above our heads? He nodded, and added that he thought the dynamite had been left over from some World War II research project nearly two decades earlier. This tale sounded rather improbable to me: what idiot would abandon dynamite in a school building?

I began to wonder whether Brent—a friendly, courteous fellow, intellectually sharp with a wry sense of humor—might be pulling my leg. After all, as the new kid on the block, I might have to pass basic social tests of affability and capability to fit in. I made a non-committal remark of pretended interest, went off to lunch and forgot about the friendly teasing.

Returning to my office later in the day, I found on my desk an open cardboard box containing crumpled padding. In it rested a dusty quarter-pound chemical bottle with a blob of gooey material and the barely discernable label reading “gelatin dynamite.” I was startled by the greasy appearance of the bottle, consistent with its contents having aged to become dangerous old dynamite in which the supersensitive nitroglycerin had separated from the filler clay-like material that Alfred Nobel discovered would make the notoriously tricky explosive much safer to handle.

After gazing at this unpleasant object on my desk for a few minutes, I hurried next door to apologize to Brent for not taking him seriously and talk about how to get rid of the thing. He was sitting quietly, evidently waiting for my reaction. “There’s more upstairs,” he noted. We went up to the fourth-floor attic, which along with the rest of Robinson Hall had not been refurbished. It was a collection of small rooms and open areas under the roof that previously housed parts of the physics department. Prior to the work beginning on Robinson, these areas had been filled with leftover files and equipment and miscellaneous odds and ends deemed too valuable to discard.

Brent took me to a small former office that had a single window and sloping ceiling. It was largely filled with chemical glassware—retorts and flasks, distillation columns and other serviceable if old-fashioned items, some of them quite elegant. They were on shelves and also in boxes on the floor, not packed but simply dumped randomly. Brent pointed out one box on the floor as the source of the thing on my desk. Peeking in, I saw a second quarter-pound bottle of gelatin dynamite—this one evidently unopened. Also there were a quarter-pound bottle of TNT and a small rectangular box, filled in a neat row with about a half dozen little tubes the size of lipstick containers, labeled something like “tetryl booster.” (A booster is a form of explosive used to amplify the effect of a primary blasting cap in detonating a much larger amount of a relatively insensitive explosive.)

Physics Professor Richard Milburn in 1979. PHOTO: SUSAN LAPIDES

The booster box on one side was covered with stamps showing that a decade or two earlier, it had traveled as an innocuous package from a U.S. arsenal to a Tufts physics professor in Medford via ordinary first-class mail. Times have changed indeed! I recognized the addressee as a former department member. An infrared spectroscopist, he had left Tufts some years earlier for a job at a larger school in a sunnier climate. One might infer that he must have cleared out in a hurry to leave behind such dangerous items for others to deal with, and perhaps stumble upon at their peril. I soon managed to forget his name altogether.

Brent and I then faced the problem of disposal.

The stuff was lying immediately above a busy student laboratory area, and it had to go. We called the buildings and grounds department, whose job it was to take things away. Usually very cooperative in such matters, when told we had high-explosive materials, they demurred. We then tried the Tufts Police, who were also responsible for fire prevention, so this seemed like a good idea. Indeed, they were interested, but when I suggested that I needed to use my office and could bring the box on my desk across the street to the police station, they insisted that I not even think of doing that; they would have somebody come to us—soon. We waited to learn how long “soon” would be.

An hour or two later a very large man, well-dressed in a neat business suit, appeared at my office door and said he was from the state fire marshal’s office. He looked at the package on my desk and said something like, “Hmnn.” And then he asked if there was any more. We told him there was, and watched him delicately settle the deadly bottle in its crumpled packing material. We took him upstairs. He said nothing as he added the remaining explosives carefully to the box, and then asked whether there was anymore. We said we knew of none. He looked around carefully, said “thank you” and left. We had expected an extensive round of questions—but there were none. Looking out the window, we saw the man put the box carefully in the trunk of a big white Buick and drive off.

That was the last we ever heard of the dynamite in the attic—from anyone. On the other hand, a mere pound or so of high explosives, although clearly capable of killing or maiming anyone nearby, may actually have been no big deal to the seasoned fire marshal. It was roughly equivalent, explosively, to a few hand grenades or to a bazooka shell brought home by a World War II soldier as a souvenir. Such keepsakes were not uncommon in the post-war years. Perhaps, decades ago, our dynamite in the attic was merely all-in-a-day’s-work for a public safety professional who was simply glad to be able to head off an actual tragedy. One can only guess how our little story would have played out now.

Richard Milburn is the John Wade Professor and professor of physics emeritus. He retired in 2004. This story ran in the December 2007 Tufts Journal.