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Ignition!: An informal history of liquid rocket propellants

4.19  ·  Rating details ·  1,251 ratings  ·  175 reviews
Ignition! is the inside story of the Cold War era search for a rocket propellant that could be trusted to take man into space. A favorite of Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk, listeners will want to tune into this "really good book on rocket[s]," available for the first time in audio.

Ignition! is the story of the search for a rocket propellant which could be trusted to t
Unknown Binding, 214 pages
Published March 28th 1972 by Rutgers University Press (first published 1972)
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Dilip Well, not exactly. As the title suggests the book is about the story behind the development of liquid rocket propellants during early and mid-20th cen…moreWell, not exactly. As the title suggests the book is about the story behind the development of liquid rocket propellants during early and mid-20th century. It's the history of these liquid propellants and only the liquid propellants. So it doesn't cover any other topics outside this. But it's quite good read( and humorous too). You can actually finish it within a week considering you know a bit of high school chemistry.(less)

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May 27, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I giggled so much reading this book that my coffee shop neighbor turned to me and demanded to know how a book clearly full of dry chemistry discussion could be so funny. The answer is easy to broadly furnish: when a motley gaggle of somewhat underfunded chemists are asked to find, somewhere on the frontiers of chemistry, substances that will, among other things, ignite upon contact and yet not be too explodey otherwise or burn through their containers, and a writer and chemist of the calibre of ...more
Feb 29, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction
Informal is the right way to describe this book. The author basically gets us out for a drink and starts recounting about what he and his colleagues were up to in 50s and 60s.

And with conversations between chemists like these:
“Joe? You know that stuff you sent me to test for thermal stability? Well, first, it hasn’t got any. Second, you owe me a new bomb, a new Wianco pickup, a new stirrer, and maybe a few more things I’ll think of later. And third (crescendo and fortissimo) you’ll have a coupl
Nov 25, 2013 rated it really liked it
This book really had me giggling (descriptions of bizarre characters who were in rocketry, mentioning dioxygen diflouride in a mere aside) or gasping (ordering dimethyl mercury by the barrel). I also added a bit to my vocabulary (eutectic) and learned a heck of a lot about how difficult rocket science can be.

Parts become a bit dry in the latter half, as the basic science converges more and more on a few optimal fuels. As implied by the title, you won't hear very much about solid fuels or hydroge
This is a curious book: one part memoir, one part scientific history, one part technical primer.

The topic is the development of liquid rocket propellants (fuels, oxidizers, and monopropellants) roughly 1940 - 1970. This was a large intensive chemical-engineering effort. Rocket propellants have a remarkably wide range of design constraints, some of which I would never have thought of on my own. They have to be high-energy compounds that can be reliably lit, but that are safe to store (sometimes f
When I heard that Rutgers was reprinting this book, I jumped at the chance to own it (I had previously had a photocopied version of the book due to its extreme rarity).

It is astonishing that the book is so popular considering how technical it is. I am not a chemist and a rather slow mathematician, so a lot of the book was inaccessible to me. However, why people read it is for the other part, the snarky, candid, and fascinating look into the "Wild West" days of rocket propellant development from
Aug 22, 2018 rated it liked it
On some level I liked this book.....but I'm not sure how this book got such a good rating. It's not a particularly good "story", it's monotonous and dry....but is weirdly "not awful".

So if you can read the following random page from the book and then think...."I'll be happy to do that 200 times more"......then you're in for a treat....otherwise 3-stars.

"Then as O2 is essentially insoluble in nitric acid, it bubbles out of it and the pressure builds up and your acid turns red from the NO2. What t
Peter (Pete) Mcloughlin
More a history heavy on the chemistry of rocketry light on the players and institutions. It is more a history of science book than a straight-up history book. You will pick up some of the chemistry of rocket science but you won't learn much about the toilers of the field.
Dec 09, 2015 rated it it was amazing
it's like you read about the wild west of science; that's what uncharted territorry and defense money combust into. foreword by asimov if you weren't convinced.
Nick Black
finally finished this, a questionably-colored trade paperback having been published with a big ol' elon tusk blurb along the top to replace the samizdat PDF i'd downloaded from some south american FTP server years ago. if you're only going to read one book about rocket fuel this year, make it the smarmy-ass ignition!. quite delightful. i hope to one day write something similar about linux and glibc.

oh btw while Dr. Clark makes some wild claims about toxicity of hydrazine and trifluoromethyl grou
Michael Burnam-Fink
Jul 12, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2020, history
Sometimes, it actually is rocket science. Clark was a leading liquid fuels scientist from the 1950s to the 1970s, and this book is a hilarious collection of anecdotes organized around rocket fuels. On the one hand, rocket fuel isn't that hard. Tsiolkovsky figured out that liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen were pretty much as good as chemical fuels can get, and they're used in high performance applications today. But LOX and liquid hydrogen are horrific to work with, and as rockets move from appl ...more
George Bradford
Apr 04, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: america, heroes, apollo
Here is the complete history of propulsion chemistry in one hilarious book. It is very well written. And it's breathless pace keeps the story going (even when the chemistry threatens to bog it down).

At the dawn of the 20th Century humans around the globe -- in Russia, Germany, England, the United States and China -- dreamed of firing rockets into space. Initially unaware of each other, their efforts pursued similar paths. And by the middle of the century there was a consensus: a rocket engine fu
Jan 08, 2019 rated it liked it
This is a weird book. I suspect I don't know enough about chemistry to fully appreciate it, but it's also true that this is written as a memoir rather than a book intended for a general audience, so there's that. Most of the anecdotes here are essentially the same: "we tried mixing these two chemicals together. They are extremely toxic and explosive, and when we mixed them, they blew up." Theresa a surprising amount of variation on this basic arc though! I was most horrified (yet amused) by the ...more
Greg Furstenwerth
Highly amusing, serious and complete.

Spontaneous Self Disassembly shall never be forgotten.
Rishabh Srivastava
Jun 12, 2020 rated it really liked it
This was a fascinating book (published in 1972) about how propellants were developed. The author (himself a rocket fuel developer) described the history of propellants hilariously.

You should ideally remember your high-school chemistry if you want to follow along with the book. While the book wasn't meant as management guide, I found some interesting lessons about managing innovation from it:

1. Competition (in this case, the Cold War between the US and USSR) drives innovation. It's a good idea to
Yura Gavrilovich
Apr 17, 2020 rated it really liked it
The title doesn't lie: the book mostly telling the history of rocket propellant development in ~1930s-~1960s in the USA and a bit in Germany.
* author was directly involved in the development of almost all compounds he's talking about
* I liked that the stories are very detailed: e.g. answered why research on some propellant started, what particular problems were encountered, which solutions were tried and why most of them failed
* a lot about practical issues of handling various oxidizers/fuels, l
Moritz Mueller-Freitag
Ignition! is an informal history of the “Wild West” days of rocket propellant development from the late 1940s to the early 1960s. Clark writes in vivid prose and offers a fascinating view into the technical challenges of finding high-energy compounds that burn steadily without exploding in your face. He also sheds light on the social dynamics within the tight-knit rocket community and portrays how it was like to work on the frontier of liquid propulsion chemistry. It’s a surprisingly funny book ...more
Jun 21, 2020 rated it it was amazing
If you want to know more than you've probably ever wanted to know about rocket fuels, read this. This is what all engineering history books should be. Thorough, quite technical, highlights both the perspiration and luck, deep knowledge of the individuals, opinionated but self-aware, and with a hilarious writing style, I can see why everyone who works in space propulsion has recommended this to me.

So glad this is back in print rather than being hundreds of dollars for a used copy (or with a PDF b
Ryan DL
Jul 02, 2019 rated it liked it
I only got about halfway through this book. The prose is lively and punctuated with fun anecdotes, but ultimately it was too technical for me to really enjoy. One needs more than zero background knowledge in chemistry.
Feb 06, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Funny, caustic, explosive, still relevant many decades later. A must-read for people working on rockets or launchers, chemists, and people who like to read about compounds that violently detonate if you look at them wrong or breathe in the wrong direction.
Onur A
Sep 09, 2018 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Not for the general public but more for chemists or engineers in the rocket business. Too many details on chemistry makes it hard to enjoy the witty parts. I should have tried the sample on Kindle before buying.
M. Cetin
To be honest its hard to keep up when there is too much Chemistry involved. And after some point in the book, all you hear is the names of elements, molecules etc. I am sure its a good book for someone who is really good at Chemistry or has a degree in the field but it was too much for me, hardly finished.
May 23, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: rocketry
One of the most hilarious and refreshing reads I had in a very long time. A true classic for space enthusiasts!
Michael Bailey
I knew immediately from the prologue that I was going to love this book. The author was very involved in the research of rocket fuel during the mid-20th century, the heyday of rocket research. I love these sorts of memoirs by industry insiders. They usually are replete with fun anecdotes and full of characters that don't usually have books written about them. There's something enjoyable in reading about people who have no real intention or expectation of being of historical note.

Unfortunately, t
رامي الرفوع
May 27, 2019 rated it did not like it
You have to be chemist to understand the book!
Apr 15, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: chemistry and engineering students; history of science aficionados;
Science drama at its best. Amazingly detailed and very well structured text on the development of liquid rocket propellants in US in 1940's-1960's . Author was one of the chemists active in the field at the time and draws on first-hand personal experiences as well as broader professional competence to give comprehensive and detailed annals of the craft. The text mentions main actors in the field at the time, as well as describes important milestones of the research.

The text reads quite well for
Jan 01, 2020 rated it liked it
FYI: “Ignition” is now widely available to download online for free in .pdf version.

Any history of science book with a forward written by Isaac Asimov is going on my list, and this one was recommended by a few posters on Reddit.

The story Clark tells is a fascinating one, and he chronicles the long development of rocket fuels in extreme (if academic) detail. Those unschooled in advanced chemistry like myself will find much of the book is over their heads, in terms of the specific compounds and th
Stefan Coburn
Jul 11, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I work at a rocket company and found this book a joy to read. With my training in chemical engineering, I found the history of trial and error chemistry an incredibly engaging read. The synthesis, analysis, and optimization of liquid rocket fuels is fascinating. Their is little text on solids or hydrogen-based fuels. The vast majority is dedicated to hypergolics and storable propellants. These propellants needed to satisfy certain energy requirements, melting point, metal compatibility, ignition ...more
Feb 12, 2013 rated it it was ok
The first third of this book is pretty entertaining, the second bogs down with chemistry, and I may get around to finishing the last someday. There's enough dry wit on show from the author to make for outburst of laughter, but there's a lot of data in here. I also felt faintly disappointed about the horizon from time to time - there's some footnoted references to interesting projects in hopeful tones, but it generally turns out that they've failed in one way or another since the book was publish ...more
Apr 08, 2014 rated it it was amazing
While Clark claims that you don't need a chemistry background to understand this book, it's definitely something I'd recommend. Nonetheless it is a great primer on early rocket work in this country (though because of when it was written, not such a good primer on work done behind the Iron Curtain). It's also a pretty funny read.
Oct 16, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Rocket Science!

Clark, John D. Ignition! An Informal History of Liquid Rocket Propellants. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2017. With forward by Isaac Asimov. Original edition 1972.

This is a snarky historical account of the development of rocket fuels, post-World War II, by one of the participants. On the way, the author explains how one evaluates a rocket and what makes a good rocket fuel. A fair bit of basic chemistry and physics is required to follow the book.

The account is b

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John Drury Clark, Ph.D. was an American rocket fuel developer, chemist, and science fiction writer. (source: ...more

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Are you having a difficult time reading these days? If so, you're not alone. Since the pandemic began, I've found it harder to concentrate on...
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“And there is one disconcerting thing about working with a computer – it's likely to talk back to you. You make some tiny mistake in your FORTRAN language – putting a letter in the wrong column, say, or omitting a comma – and the 360 comes to a screeching halt and prints out rude remarks, like "ILLEGAL FORMAT," or "UNKNOWN PROBLEM," or, if the man who wrote the program was really feeling nasty that morning, "WHAT'S THE MATTER STUPID? CAN'T YOU READ?" Everyone who uses a computer frequently has had, from time to time, a mad desire to attack the precocious abacus with an axe.” 3 likes
“It is, of course, extremely toxic, but that’s the least of the problem. It is hypergolic with every known fuel, and so rapidly hypergolic that no ignition delay has ever been measured. It is also hypergolic with such things as cloth, wood, and test engineers, not to mention asbestos, sand, and water-with which it reacts explosively. It can be kept in some of the ordinary structural metals-steel, copper, aluminium, etc.-because of the formation of a thin film of insoluble metal fluoride which protects the bulk of the metal, just as the invisible coat of oxide on aluminium keeps it from burning up in the atmosphere. If, however, this coat is melted or scrubbed off, and has no chance to reform, the operator is confronted with the problem of coping with a metal-fluorine fire. For dealing with this situation, I have always recommended a good pair of running shoes.” 1 likes
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