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An Artificial Vocano at Florence, Italy. A Painting by Terrini.
A spectacular firework display at Florence, Italy.
Painted by G M Terrini (1739-1811)
The artificial volcano appears to
be of conventional pyrotechnics

"The lessons of science should be experimental also. The sight of the planet through a telescope, is worth all the course on astronomy: the shock of the electric spark in the elbow, out-values all the theories; the taste of the nitrous oxide, the firing of an artificial volcano, are better than volumes of chemistry." Ralph Waldo Emerson - New England Reformers - 1844


(NH4)2Cr2O7 = Cr2O3 + 4H2O + N2

The seemingly innocuous artificial volcano consisting of a pile of ammonium dichromate crystals is now deemed to be hazardous. The voluminous green chromic oxide "ash" is a suspect carcinogen. The inclusion of Pharaoh`s Serpent Eggs (mercuric thiocyanate Hg(CNS)2 "pills") within the orange pile of crystals was always a bad move, and possibly explains why some chemistry teachers of yesteryear appeared as mad as hatters.


The sulphur & iron volcano must be considered highly dangerous. Small quantities of iron filings and flowers of sulphur do not work. Presumably there is a critical mass, where the heat generated by the oxidisation of the iron in the centre is not conducted away fast enough. The internal temperature then rises to the point at which the exothermic reaction between iron and sulphur begins.

One can envisage using thermocouples and a datalogger to provide useful information from a small (laboratory scale) mass of the iron filings / flowers of sulphur / water mixture. The critical mass necessary for the internal temperature to reach the ignition point could then be calculated. Here the ignition of the reaction to form ferrous sulphide is described -

Accounts presented here are for information only. The replication of the "Artificial Volcano" should on no account be attempted. The area presumably becomes extremely hazardous for a long time, the reaction is virtually impossible to stop, toxic sulphur dioxide fumes are emitted and, just how do you keep children away from a miniature volcano? It`s a horrific accident waiting to happen. Please don`t do it.

From The Young Man`s Book of Amusement 1854, page 85

The Artificial Volcano from The Young Man`s Book of Amusement

From a popular science book of 1844

From a letter to Michael Faraday from Ernest Glitch dated June 1856.
Concerning the reaction of sulphur and iron in ton quantities

"..... Upon arrival in the south pasture, I had to agree with them. It looked like an abomination of Lucifer. A carbuncle of perhaps twenty feet had risen from the pasture. The earth itself was riven, clods of earth and grass thrown aside, a hellish red glow emanating from deep fissures. Jets of steam and sulphurous gases noisily blew from its centre. Blue flames licked around the vents of the numerous fumeroles. Red liquid sulphur spilled from within, collecting and crystallising in yellow pools at our feet. Faraday, I was shocked. ....."

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