Boom Times

Newspaper Clipping: Explosion at Kenvil Plant (September 12, 1940)

On September 12, 1940, three violent explosions destroyed a Hercules smokeless-powder plant in Kenvil, New Jersey. Fifty-five employees died and more than a hundred were injured in the blasts, which could be felt as far as 70 miles away. At first investigators thought the explosion was the work of saboteurs from a nearby pro-Nazi German American Bund camp, but the real culprit was a misunderstanding of how smokeless powder burned in large quantities. The lessons learned from the plant’s destruction influenced the design of new government ordnance plants built during World War II.


Female Worker during World War II (circa 1941–1945)

In 1940 the War Department selected Hercules to run a new ordnance plant being built in Radford, Virginia. This plant employed nearly 9,000 people, more than that employed by the entire Hercules Company before the war. In this picture an employee at the plant cuts strands of .50-caliber powder being extruded from a press.


President of Hercules, Charles Higgins, Fires a Bazooka (circa 1941–1945)

In the opening days of World War II, rockets propelled by bazookas proved to be an effective antiaircraft and antitank weapon. Hercules’s Sunflower Ordnance Works was outfitted to make the rocket powder used in bazookas and became the largest producer of rocket powder in the United States. In this photograph Hercules president Charles Higgins fires a bazooka while visiting the facility.


Thanite (1944)

Thanite, a terpene-based insecticide, was developed by the Naval Stores and Research divisions as one of Hercules’s several forays into the insecticide market. It proved to be particularly popular during World War II after ingredients for other insecticides were reallocated by the War Production Board. In 1944 the U.S. government provided funds to Hercules to build a DDT plant in Parlin, New Jersey. Thanite soon fell out of favor as DDT replaced it in most applications.


Minuteman (circa 1959)

After the Soviet Union’s first successful detonation of a hydrogen bomb in 1953, the United States began a vast program to build missiles capable of carrying atomic weapons from the interior of the United States to the Soviet Union. The Minuteman, which fires in three stages, was the country’s first solid-fuel motor used in the intercontinental ballistic missile program; these missiles could be launched much more quickly than their liquid-fueled predecessors. Hercules built the stage-three motor (pictured here), which fired 120 seconds after launch and was contained within a filament-wound fiberglass case. Hercules soon followed this motor with the A-2, used on the U.S. Navy’s submarine-launched Polaris missiles.


Pegasus Rocket (circa 1990)

In 1988 Hercules acquired an equity stake in Orbital Sciences Corporation, which specializes in the manufacture and launch of satellites. Hercules used this newly acquired expertise to produce the Pegasus rocket, which was designed to be launched from a B-52 while in flight and to carry commercial satellites into orbit. The Pegasus rocket is still in use today.

Patrick Shea is the senior archivist at CHF. The images for this photoessay come from the Hercules Archives at the Chemical Heritage Foundation.