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Old style Flash powder

Jonathan Painter , Sep 14, 2006; 02:59 p.m.

I'm looking for pictures of a turn of the century style powder flash for use with a view camera. Has anyone used a powder flash? Does anyone know of ways to make one, or documents that explain how they worked?


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Doug Grosjean , Sep 14, 2006; 03:04 p.m.

I'd start by Googling on "George Lawrence." He was a flash photography photo pioneer.

Ben Hutcherson , Sep 14, 2006; 03:13 p.m.

I recall seeing a diagram for one somewhere, although I couldn't begin to tell you where it was.

Basically, I remember it being a long trough with a flame one end of it(provided by a blow-torch like thing). The other end contained the magnesium flash powder. When you wanted it to flash, you tilted the gun forward. As I recall, it was designed in such a way that only a measured portion of powder would released, thereby regulating the brightness of the flash.

Keep in mind that flash powder is pretty nasty stuff. It goes without saying to never use it around anything flammable. You'd probably have to mix your own powder, too, as I seriously doubt that there's any kind of commercial source for it. Also, I wouldn't use it inside, but limit my use of it to outside at night.

Dan Fromm , Sep 14, 2006; 03:22 p.m.

Around 45 years ago people in my college dorm did some special effects for a Hallow'een party that involved flash powder. We triggered devices -- sometimes a metal ashtray, sometimes a fuse holder -- with fuse wire that ran from one end of a bit of zip cord across the ashtray or across the top of the fuse. I think our approach could be adapted ...

Randall Ellis , Sep 14, 2006; 03:29 p.m.

As mentioned above, flash powder was a magnesium powder that was used in a tray. You can find the trays on ebay from time to time, or on display on sites on the internet. Thin magnesium stips were also used, and you can find the holders for these strips at the same places. With the tray you used an air hose to blow the powder into the air at the time of ignition. This caused the powder to ignite in a cloud, producing a large amount of light - far greater than any electronic flash ever made. I don't have any specific links to images of this equipment at hand, but if I run across any I'll post 'em here. Check the George Eastman House website, they likely have something on display along these lines.

A word of warning about flash powder - you MUST use caution when using it - it releases HUGE amounts of unpleasant smelling smoke and you can easily be very badly burned by it. It is best to start with a small measure of it just to get the feel of what happens and always err on the side of caution. Never use it inside a building as the smoke and sparks can easily cause problems.

I have a book on the history of the use of flash in photography at home, but I can't remember the title right now. It covers all of this in reasonable detail and has drawings and photos of various pieces of equipment. If you're feeling lucky, you might be able to uncover the formula for flash powder in an old photographic book (there was more than just magnesium powder - and every photographer had their own blend)

- Randy

Randall Ellis , Sep 14, 2006; 03:37 p.m.

Interesting note about George Lawrence by another poster. Look him up if you want, but I though he was a pioneer in aerial photography, with kites. He took some panoramic aerial shots of lower Manhattan if I'm not mistaken. He also built unique cameras for his work - he's the guy who you see on that giant camera with 4 or 5 people being dwarfed by his creation. A neat guy for sure, but I'm not sure about the flash reference...

- Randy

Ole Tjugen , Sep 14, 2006; 03:42 p.m.

I have several recipes, including one daylight-balanced.

I also have a university degree in chemistry, as well as both military and civilian demolition certificates.

I will not share the recipes, nor will I ever make flash powder: The stuff is just too dangerous!

My best (and only) advice is: If you see a packet of flash powder, RUN! And only when you're at a safe distance call the bomb squad to dispose of it safely.

I'm not joking.

Charles Webster , Sep 14, 2006; 04:19 p.m.

You may be able to find flash powder at a theatrical lighting supplier, such as Musson Theatrical in Silicon Valley, Calif. The sale of such may be restricted to licensed professionals now, but it wasn't when I worked in that trade.


Brian Williams , Sep 14, 2006; 04:36 p.m.

Doug Grosjean , Sep 14, 2006; 04:50 p.m.

RE: George Lawrence....

He pioneered aerial photography with kites, flash photos of huge indoor areas with multiple simultaneous flashpots at strategic locations, and HUGE glass plate cameras that were measured in feet and required teams of men to focus.

Amazing guy.

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