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Ignition!: An informal history of liquid rocket propellants

4.21  ·  Rating details ·  729 ratings  ·  121 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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4.21  · 
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 ·  729 ratings  ·  121 reviews

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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
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
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
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
George Bradford
Apr 04, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: america, apollo, heroes
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
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.
Greg Furstenwerth
Highly amusing, serious and complete.

Spontaneous Self Disassembly shall never be forgotten.
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 as popular as it is 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 developmen
Oct 27, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
If you are wanting a very technical primer on the history of liquid fuel rocket propellants between 1940 and 1970, this is your book. It's highly informative and very chemistry heavy, so if you don't have a year or two of college level chemistry in the back of your mind, a lot of information is going to slip through the cracks. I really enjoyed this book, but it made me very frustrated at times due to the high pace while trying to keep track of all of the chemicals, stoichiometry, etc. I gave it ...more
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!
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
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
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

Jul 12, 2017 rated it really liked it

Certainly one of the most quotable books I've encountered for a while. Each chapter presented several excerpts which it was impossible not to share with someone or other. Part of this is certainly Clarke's writing style, which exudes a sort of flippant humour even when he is detailing something as dry as the chemical structure of some complex hydrocarbon. But much of the book's appeals comes from how genuinely crazy and dangerous the history of rocket propellants was. In what other field could e
Alexander Miles
Feb 13, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Ignition! first came to my attention, I believe, when it was mentioned in one of Derek Lowe's excellent "Things I won't work with" column at After voraciously reading through Derek's back catalogue, I decided to hunt down a copy of Ignition! Luckily it just received a reprint through Rutger's University Press, so what an inexpensive pickup.

Ignition! is a world apart from the type of nonfiction I usually read. Much of the nonfiction I consume could broadly be classified as pop-sci
Zachary Littrell
Jun 12, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
He visited me some weeks later, and I asked him what Jefferson's substituted piperazines were used for. He answered, in a drawl as flat as Texas, "Well, they're a lot of farmers down our way, and they raise a lot of hawgs. And the hawgs get intestinal worms, and don't fatten up the way they should. So the farmer puts some of the piperazine in their feed, and the worm goes to sleep and forgets to hold on. And when he wakes up the hawg isn't there any more!"

Even if you don't much like chemistry
Kaido Tiigisoon
Nov 08, 2017 rated it it was amazing
The funniest technology history book I've ever read. I love the nice touch of academic humor and honest disrespect of elevated self-esteem. Written with good portion of irony over past thinking and gives a reader chuckles now and then. Several cites from the book have landed in wikipedia. The most commonly mentioned one is this one about Chlorine Trifluoride:

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 t
Sep 17, 2017 rated it liked it
Ignition was written by one of the scientists working on rocket propellants from the 1940s to the 1970s. Back when there was a Cold War on, meaning missiles of various varieties, and a Space Race on, meaning rockets of various varieties.

The text stretched my high school chemistry to its breaking point, and then broke it. While I won't pretend to understand much of the actual science, I was drawn in by Dr. Clark's bone-dry prose and hilariously understated anecdotes, as well as his humourously cy
Apr 08, 2019 rated it it was amazing
What can I say. I am glad I had 2 semesters of chemistry before reading this book AND have a huge interest in astronomy.

J.D.Clark is a wonderful storyteller while being a scientist. This book will flood you with knowledge of liquid propellants you never expected, BUT you will probably need wikipedia to get through it. It's a scientific read that is also entertaining. You can see through the eyes of a man who shaped a small part of our history. The struggles but also the amusement and fascinatio
Timeo Williams
Sep 12, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I only wished my understanding of chemistry was deeper....

This book will be a reread. John delves deeply into the history of rocket propulsion, from the first ideal by Robbert Goddard to the Space shuttle. It was an early intro to terms such as
specific impulse - a metric for how efficiently a rocket uses propellant. Dimensionally, thrust/mass flow rate
hydrazine - apparently this and flouride where the gold starred fuels of the book.

and hypergolic, meaning that when two propellants make conta
Nov 26, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I really enjoyed this book, although dry it sometimes seemed to be, and so full of chemistry. It's humorous and accessible - to a point. When reviews call this book accessible, they mean that if you have a basic understanding of chemistry, you'll get along just fine, but if you don't then I do believe some of it will go over your head. Still, anyone with a slight interest should read it. I wish I did back in college if only to better understand that chemistry is nowhere near as rigid and known a ...more
Apr 08, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Ignition is a non-fiction book about liquid fuel rockets. In the book it talks about how the engines were developed, tested, and how some failed. The book also tells the story with humor making the whole experience very enjoyable. This book is hilarious at times and sometimes I would laugh out loud, no matter where the place was. Although a lot of the book also consists of chemical formulas and everything about them, which can get very boring. Other than that this book was highly enjoyable. The ...more
Colby Moore
Oct 28, 2018 rated it really liked it
First of all if you have not taken some form of chemistry I cannot recommend this book to you. If you have and are interested in space I couldn't recommend this book more. You would be surprised how humorous a book about rocket fuel can be. I had to do a lot of research to understand what was going on in the book. Admittedly even though I tried my best to keep up there was still some terminology that went over my head. The author did a pretty good job of making it entertaining for both experienc ...more
Sep 30, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
Originally started reading the PDF version of this in April 2016, but since the PDF was suboptimal, I stopped reading it after a while. Then the new release came out, and I waited for three months (!) for my copy - yes, it was this popular.

What can I say. It's a pretty great book. If you are at all interested in rocket fuels or chemistry, I highly recommend it. While I don't have the faintest clue about chemistry, the anecdotes alone are worth reading the book for, and I can only imagine that ch
Nov 24, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Dr Clark lays out the history, timeline, challenges and foibles of a small group of smart people charged with finding the best rocket fuels for a variety of applications. Many promising things were tried, and many things turned out not to be a simple as they seemed on paper. Thanks to funding from various government sources, no stone was left unturned in conventional chemistry.

The chemistry does get a little dense, but its a good read regardless.
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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.” 2 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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