Bursting with fireworks wisdom

Conkling: An area professor is a world-renowned expert on safety standards for the colorful explosives.

July 03, 2004|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

CHESTERTOWN, Md. - One of the world's foremost fireworks experts is a grandfatherly organic chemistry professor who teaches at tiny Washington College and enjoys afternoons on his back porch overlooking the peaceful Chester River.

But when the crowds gather this weekend for the region's many crackling tributes to America's independence, John A. Conkling won't be among the revelers. He'll be in Geneva, where he is advising the United Nations on how to develop international standards for storing and transporting fireworks and other dangerous goods.

This is the fourth straight year that Conkling, 60, has chosen the more refined company of world leaders over boisterous patriotic gatherings at home. And though he never tires of watching the spectacular reds and greens (strontium and barium, to those unschooled in chemistry), he's far more concerned about advancing fireworks safety.

After a boyhood spent watching cowboy flicks at the Senator Theatre and an adolescence writing for the Baltimore City College newspaper, a jet-setting career as a pyrotechnics expert might seem an odd leap. Even stranger, perhaps, is that Washington College, the 1,400-student liberal-arts school known for its Sophie Kerr writing prize, has become a gathering place for explosives experts from the Army, Navy, FBI and ATF.

But, for Conkling, the specialty is only a slight diversion from the elements that make up an average college chemistry class. "One of my missions has been to get as many people as I can to realize that there's nothing magical about pyrotechnics," he said. "It's all chemistry."

He can demonstrate as much in his lab, where he mixes a little potassium perchlorate with a dash of tree gum and a smidge of titanium, then lights a match. A few seconds and - kaboom! -the Fourth of July has arrived under his fume hood.

Alone, each chemical doesn't react much when lit. It's their combination that produces the displays that have become larger, bolder and increasingly shorter, packing a series of finale-like explosions into a 15-minute period.

Because of the demand for ever-more dazzling displays that cater to our short attention spans, Conkling said, the amount of fireworks used in the United States has increased from 30 million pounds in 1976 to 215 million pounds last year. Conkling spends much of his time traveling to China, where most of the world's fireworks are made.

The increasing popularity of fireworks and the lack of safety standards propelled Conkling, and Washington College with him, into an unlikely association with pyrotechnics.

After earning his doctorate in chemistry at the Johns Hopkins University, Conkling returned to Washington College, his undergraduate alma mater, to work with Professor Joseph McLain. The two scientists began looking at how materials burned. They soon became involved with the American Pyrotechnics Association, which wanted to develop an industry standard for safe weights and storage of fireworks.

The two colleagues submitted their recommendations to the Consumer Products Safety Commission. They became part of the first set of fireworks standards.

John Rogers, who spent 15 years in the commission's fireworks enforcement office and is now executive director of the American Fireworks Standards Laboratory, said Conkling's work is a major reason the displays remain safe, even as they have become more elaborate.

"I don't think there's anyone in the country or the world that's more knowledgeable than John in the area of fireworks and fireworks safety," Rogers said. "John is just absolutely a key player in pushing the industry to set standards."

Soon, McLain and Conkling were spending less time in the lab. McLain became president of Washington College, serving until his death in 1981. In 1985, Conkling took over the American Pyrotechnics Association and became an adjunct professor at the college, teaching only one class a year. He moved the association to Chestertown and hired his wife, Sandra, to run the office. It stayed on the Eastern Shore until Conkling retired in 1998, and the organization moved to Bethesda.

`The pyros'

Conkling, who holds eight patents, began teaching his summer pyrotechnics seminars to industry and government specialists 21 years ago. The first year, 45 people showed up on the sleepy summer campus - "the pyros," the other chemistry professors called them. Before long, word of Conkling's expertise spread, and his name turned up in the lists of reporters looking for Fourth of July experts.

But on July 5, the phone would stop ringing. And often, the reporters would mention his role with the APA but not his affiliation with Washington College.

The Sophie Kerr prize commands attention as the nation's largest undergraduate writing award - this year's recipient took home a check for $56,000. By contrast, the Joseph H. McLain Prize in chemistry - a major claimed by only about five students a year at the college - hovers around $2,000.

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