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An 18th-Century German Prince's Artificial Volcano Is Erupting Again

Sorry, but this destroys any science project you've ever come up with: In the 18th century a German prince, who apparently thought "his garden realm":http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/534/gallery/ wasn't fancy enough, had his own artificial volcano built...

by Derek Mead
Aug 30 2012, 3:16pm

Sorry, but this destroys any science project you’ve ever come up with: In the 18th century a German prince, who apparently thought his garden realm wasn’t fancy enough, had his own artificial volcano built. As the story goes, Leopold III Friedrich Franz, Prince and Duke of Anhalt-Dessau, was blown away by Mt. Vesuvius and Pompeii during a trip around Europe, and decided he needed a volcano at home to help enlighten his populace. After a couple hundreds years lying dormant, the Stone Island of Woerlitz is active again.

Andrew Curry, writing for the Smithsonian, sorted out the crazy tale:

Completed in 1794, the Stone Island of Woerlitz is a little-known wonder of the Enlightenment, a provincial prince’s attempt to bring a bit of Italian drama and grandeur to the farmers of Germany.

Today it’s part of the Garden Realm of Woerlitz, a UNESCO World Heritage site about an hour’s drive south of Berlin. But just a decade ago, this odd structure was condemned, a decrepit ruin covered over with weeds and crumbling stone. After a five-year restoration project, the “volcano” was safe—but silent after nearly two centuries of neglect.

In 2004, the World Heritage site's management turned to Wolfgang Spyra, an enthusiastic chemistry professor at the Brandenburg Technical University with a side interest in historical pyrotechnics, to bring the volcano back to life. "A volcano that can't explode is a very sad volcano, and I wanted to make it happy again," Spyra says. “We wanted to help the volcano get its identity back.”

But first, Spyra—who spent a decade as the head of Berlin's criminology lab and signs his e-mails with “the Eruptor” — had to do a little historical detective work to figure out how an artificial volcano had risen out of this decidedly un-volcanic region of Europe in the first place.

As Curry found, only one depiction of the volcano erupting exists: a painting from 1797. That left Spyra with a bit of a conundrum: Was the eruption real? And, since vinegar and baking soda couldn’t produce a 50-foot explosion, what would you use to power the thing? Read the rest of Curry’s piece to find out how the volcano, replete with simulated lava, works, and then let’s all take a second to ponder what kind of wacky, awesome royalty would actually see a marvelous volcano and decide he needed to bring it home for his people to see.

Image via UNESCO

Follow Derek Mead on Twitter: @derektmead.