The Tragic Case of the Los Angeles Wannabe Chemist

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wannabe chemistI wrote how I was, in younger years, badly gassed by the carcinogenic, heavy-metal compound chromyl chloride during a home chemistry experiment. Another article I wrote was about how I mistakenly produced, not an organic ester as intended, but a powerful tear gas. In both cases, I aptly demonstrated my lack of knowledge as a wannabe chemist.

My “unfortunate” experiments did not prove tragic. Another fellow was not so fortunate… In fact, his experiment cost him – and sixteen others – their lives. Not to mention, those badly injured, and the many surrounding buildings it destroyed.

Introducing Wannabe Chemist Bobby Magee

Does the name remind you of the Janis Joplin song Me and Bobby Magee? Well our Bobby, or more precisely, Robert M. Magee was the son of James W. and Rose E. Coss Magee, born in Ohio about 1912. The family is in the 1920 Jefferson County, Ohio census, together.

wannabe chemist
1920 U.S. Census (Ohio)

In 1930, it seems likely, though not certain, Robert is in Marion County, Indiana, occupation: soldier.

Robert married Iowa-born Beulah Lucille Cronk, the daughter of Eldon Pearl Cronk, in Orange County, California, 20 July 1939.wannabe chemist

The 1940 census reveals three things.

1. Robert and Beulah lived in Pasadena.
2. He delivered milk for a living.
3. He’d resided in Pittsburgh, PA in 1935.

Robert’s mother had been born in Pennsylvania.

But Robert Magee didn’t envision a future in the dairy world. He was a wannabe chemist. There was just one tiny problem: he lacked the needed education. He “solved” the problem by inventing a fictitious résumé! Interestingly, he claimed he had degrees from the “University of Pittsburg and Indiana and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology”.

In reality, he’d never even finished high school. Now Robert had lived in Pittsburgh as the 1940 census said. And the “Indiana” reference suggests the 1930 Indiana census is our Robert, the soldier.

The Experiment

Robert had observed that a mixture of perchloric acid and acetic anhydride does a marvelous job of polishing aluminum. He needed to find the right company. It should be small. If he could impress them, they might not check his credentials. He chose the O’Connor Electroplating Company of Los Angeles. Assisting him was Alice Iba, the daughter of a Japanese-born father and a California-born mother. She was about 20-21, according to the U.S. Census.

Before we  continue with Robert’s wannabe chemist story, let’s examine a short video on what electropolishing is…

Although Robert was not a chemist, before seeking employment, he had experimented for months with his perchloric acid – acetic anhydride electropolish. The problem is, though he was unaware of it, he lacked sufficient knowledge to do the job safely. For details of what Robert did, and why the devastating explosion occurred, read through the comments carefully of this URL. Especially note the reference material cited by Ted E. Mooney, P.E. a little over halfway down the page.

In a nutshell, the bath’s cooling system overheated and the plating rack was plastic coated. Plastics are organic. Organics and powerful oxidizers need careful, and we might add skilled, watching. The plastic apparently triggered the explosion.

The end result was 4 blocks basically destroyed and 17 lives lost. One casualty was a 10-year old, riding his bike a block away. In addition, this incident sparked controversy concerning spot zoning of businesses, such as O’Connor owned in “ghetto neighborhoods”.

Note: You might also want to consider the article Chemical Explosions – What Causes Them to Happen?


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8 thoughts on “The Tragic Case of the Los Angeles Wannabe Chemist

  • That must have been some really powerful explosion! History is probably littered with some similar incidents. I understand that Marie Curie may have suffered cancer after handling radioactive materials. It’s not just the right materials but also the right knowledge AND the right attitude to learning everything possible BEFORE experimenting with chemicals and indeed anything that could cause oneself and others injuries.

  • Here I am sitting in my computer chair reflecting on a point when I should probably mind my own business, but allow me to say…. The experts all agree the plastic coating on the chairs led to the explosion. While I don’t counter that, I notice they don’t stress the failing of the bath’s cooling system. But if the temperature of the bath had not risen, the reactivity of the bath would have been decreased and the reaction might (I say might….) not have been so vigorous it triggered an explosion.

  • Ellen Fenwick

    These are some quirky stories. I remember fooling with chemicals in the attic in Barrington when I was a kid. I had a “burner” but not a Bunsen burner. I succeed in spilling the liquid in the burner onto my hand, and somehow accidentally setting my hand on fire. I quickly put out the fire. I was so frightened that I never did any chemistry experiments again.

    More later,


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