Image for Explosions: How We Shook the WorldNot currently available on BBC iPlayer

Duration: 1 hour

Engineer Jem Stansfield is used to creating explosions, but in this programme he uncovers the story of how we have learnt to control them and harness their power for our own means.

From recreating a rather dramatic ancient Chinese alchemy accident to splitting an atom in his own home-built replica of a 1930s piece of equipment, Jem reveals how explosives work and how we have used their power throughout history. He goes underground to show how gunpowder was used in the mines of Cornwall, recreates the first test of guncotton in a quarry with dramatic results and visits a modern high explosives factory with a noble history.

Ground-breaking high speed photography makes for some startling revelations at every step of the way.

Last on

Thu 24 Jul 2014 20:00 BBC Four

Music Played

45 items
  • Accidents that shook the world

    Accidents that shook the world

    Jem Stansfield writes for BBC News about how it was often accidental discoveries that advanced the science of explosions.

    Don't Try This At Home!
  • Jem builds a gunpowder engine

    A web-exclusive video in which Jem builds a gunpowder engine based on a design by Leonardo da Vinci. We don't know if Leonardo ever got it to work - can Jem?

    Jem's gunpowder engine
  • Alfred Nobel: the inventor of dynamite

    Jem tells the story of Nobel's great invention, with historian Professor Seymour Mauskopf.

    Nobel and nitro, a dynamite story
  • An ancient Chinese alchemist's recipe...

    An ancient Chinese alchemist's recipe...

    Jem Stansfield and Professor Christopher Cullen rediscover the startling result of an ancient Chinese recipe - appropriately labelled 'don't try this at home'!

    It contains the crucial ingredients of gunpowder, but in a particularly explosive combination.

    The alchemists were trying to make an elixir of life, so it was quite ironic that that they actually created a potentially lethal mixture.

  • Gunpowder reaches Europe!

    Gunpowder reaches Europe!

    The first description of gunpowder in Europe, written by the scholar Roger Bacon in his 'Opus Majus' of 1267.

    The passage starting 'Et experimentum...' in the middle column describes how he has come across some childrens toys from abroad, made of twists of parchment filled with a black powder containing willow charcoal, sulphur and saltpetre - the combination we now know as gunpowder.

    The toys produced a flash 'brighter than the most brilliant lightning' and a sound louder than thunder.

    This copy of the book belongs to the Bodleian library in Oxford, where Roger Bacon spent much of his time.

  • Shaping a shockwave

    A web-exclusive video in which explosives expert Dr Sidney Alford shows Jem one of the ways he can focus the power of a shockwave to snap steel accurately.

    Focussing the force
  • The detonation of nitroglycerine

    The detonation of nitroglycerine

    Nitroglycerine can detonate when given just a short, sharp shock - such as being hit with a hammer. The programme shows it filmed in slow motion for the first time.

  • Jem with his homemade see-through cannon

    Jem with his homemade see-through cannon

    Jem builds a see-through cannon to see exactly what makes gunpowder such a good propellent.


Jem Stansfield
Alex Freeman
Alex Freeman
Steve Crabtree
Ed Booth
Executive Producer
Tina Fletcher


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