Crops dry? Bomb the sky!

I remember an X-Files episode about a rainmaker. It features a man who can seemingly make the rain fall. He travels around a drought-stricken area, making piles of money off the desperate farmers around town. He was painted as being a con-man, so the big question was where the rain was coming from.

There was a time when a drought was a make-or-break event for an entire region, as the loss of crops starved and impoverished everyone in its grip. It was a topic that attracted con-men and legitimate scientists alike. Necessity may be the mother of invention, but it’s also the midwife of scams.

One common approach to rainmaking came from former military men, who took inspiration from memories of rainfall after battle. The association between battle and rain is recorded back into antiquity, with Plutarch, in his Life of Marius, saying:

It is observed, indeed, that extraordinary rains generally fall after great battles; whether it be that some deity chooses to wash and purify the earth with water from above, or whether the blood and corruption, by the moist and heavy vapours they emit, thicken the air, which is liable to be altered by the smallest cause.

Plutarch’s Lives, Harper & Brothers, 1840, p. 302

The mechanisms that Plutarch supposes seem pretty implausible to the modern reader, but it serves to show that this poetic association between rainfall and battlefields has always been part of the general mythology of war. It is reported that Napoleon made note of the association and that Edward Powers, a general during the American Civil War, took the theory to Washington to convince the U.S. government to experiment in the subject. In more modern times, you have serious scientists investigating whether the detonation of nuclear weapons affects precipitation.

All of that makes up the backdrop for this 1914 patent for a rain maker:

Drawing of a balloon, having a key of gunpowder and a box of chlorate potash tethered to it.
USP 1,103,490, FIG. 2

This follows the “cloud seeding” thread of rainmaking attempts, with the addition of explosives. The idea is that you float this balloon up into the sky and then blow it up. Rather than relying on the concussion alone to cause rain, the explosion it is meant to disperse a chemical that would then cause rain to fall. In the words of the inventor:

A further object of my invention is to accomplish this by supplying moisture, heat and nitrogen to the air at a considerable distance above the earth’s surface and by violently agitating the air by means of explosives raised above the earth’s surface, by balloons, kites or other suitable devices. I use explosives to agitate the atmosphere and with the nitrogen used, cause a moist condition to prevail, producing rain.

USP 1,103,490, col. 1, lns 19-28.

The inventor describes a number of different approaches, such as one version where the box is instead filled with bone and sulfuric acid. The idea is that the reaction between the two releases nitrogen, which would then in turn seed the clouds, but I think the only rain you’d get is a bunch of acid-covered bone fragments. Which is a dramatic image, but definitely belongs to the category of “bad ideas.”

For all that, though, there is one embodiment from the patent which I think would actually achieve the goal of causing water to fall from the sky:

Drawing of a balloon, having a keg of gunpowder and a large water balloon tethered to it.
USP 1,103,490, FIG. 3

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