When Hollywood bomb experts dramatically grapple with wires on a ticking bomb, it’s a scene we’ve all watched unfold on screen. But does this high-stakes “wire dilemma” exist in reality? Well, the short answer is yes. Bomb disposal professionals acknowledge its existence, but they emphasize that it should only be a last resort. In the world of action films, it’s a classic trope, but in real life, there are much safer methods for disarming explosive devices.

The Birth of Bomb Disposal

The history of bomb disposal traces back to the latter half of the 19th century when Sir Vivian Dering Majendie, Chief Inspector of Explosives from 1871 until his death in 1898, established London’s first specialized bomb squad. This marked the inception of bomb disposal as we know it. Majendie’s journey into bomb disposal began with a tragic incident on October 2, 1874, when a barge carrying five tons of gunpowder exploded in Regent’s Canal, causing extensive damage, including the destruction of the Macclesfield Bridge and a part of London Zoo. In response to this disaster, Majendie drafted the Explosives Act of 1875, the first modern legislation regulating the safe handling, transport, and disposal of explosives.

The Fenian Dynamite Campaign

Sir Vivian Majendie’s most significant recognition came during the Fenian dynamite campaign between 1881 and 1885. The Fenian Brotherhood, a transnational political group, was active in the fight for Irish independence during the late 19th century. After failed Irish rebellions and Fenian Raids against Canada, the group shifted its strategy, launching a series of bombings across the United Kingdom. These bombings marked some of the world’s earliest coordinated terrorist campaigns.

Two technological advancements enabled these bombings: the production of nitroglycerine and dynamite from easily accessible ingredients and the invention of clockwork timers and detonators. John Maxwell, an American Confederate commander, pioneered this technique with the “horological torpedoes” he used in 1864. One such device, hidden in a candle box, exploded at the Union Army’s headquarters in Virginia, causing nearly 300 casualties.

Dynamite Saturday and Sir Vivian Majendie’s Role

On January 14, 1881, a bombing at British Army barracks in Salford, Lancashire, tragically claimed the life of a young boy, marking the start of the Fenian war. Over the next four years, more than twenty bombings occurred. One notable incident was the simultaneous attack on the House of Commons, Westminster Crypt, and the Tower of London on January 24, 1885, known as “Dynamite Saturday.” In response to these bombings, Sir Vivian Majendie established a special team dedicated to locating and disarming “infernal machines,” as the suspected bombs were called.

Majendie’s approach to bomb disposal was truly hands-on, often dealing directly with explosive devices. He once drove a cab to Woolwich while carrying a bag of nitroglycerine, urging the driver to avoid collisions, for fear that there would be no survivors. Despite his seemingly fearless demeanor, Majendie contributed significantly to the development of early bomb disposal techniques, including the creation of specialized instruments for remote bomb handling. In 1885, he received a knighthood for his achievements.

The New York Bomb Squad

In 1903, the New York Police Department established its bomb squad, inspired by the British model. This initiative was in response to a series of domestic terrorist bombings that had plagued the nation since the end of the Civil War. These bombings were carried out by various groups, including criminal organizations, anarchists, and conflicting labor unions. Due to the ever-changing identities of the perpetrators, the New York Police Department bomb squad went by various names, including the “Italian Squad,” the “Anarchist Squad,” and the “Radical Squad.” The primary method of disposal during this period involved soaking suspicious packages in motor oil to neutralize the explosives.

The World War II Revolution in Bomb Disposal

The next significant evolution in bomb disposal came during World War II, particularly during the German Blitz on London and Southern England. This relentless bombing campaign resulted in a significant number of unexploded bombs, or UXBs, in civilian areas that needed safe disposal. To address this challenge, the Royal Engineers and the Royal Army Ordnance Corps formed special Bomb Disposal Companies. By January 1941, these companies had grown to over 3,700 personnel.

One of the key innovations during this period was trepanation, a method involving drilling a hole in the bomb casing and using high-temperature steam to safely dissolve the explosives. While bombs in rural areas could often be detonated in place, those in built-up areas required more intricate procedures, such as trepanation. Another technique involved the use of special pullers to halt and retrieve mechanical time fuzes. These methods often required freezing the fuzing mechanisms in liquid nitrogen to deactivate batteries or firing mechanisms within the bombs.

The Heroic Figures of Bomb Disposal

Squadron Leader Eric Moxey and the 20th Earl of Suffolk, Charles Howard, were among the heroic figures of bomb disposal during World War II. Eric Moxey’s work included defusing more than thirty-four unexploded explosives, often using a hands-on approach. Charles Howard defused thirty-five bombs, investigating their interiors personally. Both men displayed incredible courage, often placing themselves in harm’s way. Tragically, their remarkable efforts were cut short. Eric Moxey lost his life in 1940 when a bomb exploded while he was attempting to remove it from an airstrip. Charles Howard met a similar fate in 1941 while defusing his thirty-fifth bomb.

The Advent of Anti-Handling Devices

The introduction of anti-handling fuzes during World War II posed a significant challenge to bomb disposal professionals. These booby traps were designed to detonate a bomb if anyone attempted to move or disarm it. The dangers associated with these devices led to the abandonment of conventional “hands-on” bomb disposal techniques. Instead, bomb disposal became a remote operation, often conducted from a safe distance using elongated manipulator tools or bomb-disposal robots.

In contrast to Hollywood portrayals, real bomb disposal professionals rarely interact directly with explosive devices today, emphasizing safety and minimizing risks. The evolution of bomb disposal techniques throughout history reflects the constant battle to save lives while dealing with deadly threats.

The wire dilemma, though a cinematic classic, underscores the real challenges faced by bomb disposal experts in high-stress situations. While the Hollywood version may entertain, the reality of bomb disposal is a testament to the courage, ingenuity, and sacrifice of those who risk their lives to protect others.