The red wire!? No, the black wire!
November 13, 2013 8:32 AM   Subscribe

I've been watching Archer recently, and they had an episode with the super cliched "which wire to cut" scene. This made me wonder, is there any actual real world precedent for cutting a single wire to defuse a bomb (with every other wire resulting in death), or is this entirely a fictional scenario?
posted by codacorolla to Grab Bag (16 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
So I'm not like a bomb disposal expert or anything but in practical terms, I don't think bombs HAVE more than a few wires. There's going to be a detonator, this will have 2 wires going to it. Those wires will be attached to the trigger - this could be anything as long as it's something that can switch from no signal to a signal. A simple switch, a timer, a remote detonator, a cell phone, whatever.

For many bombs you can cut either or both wires and remove the source of the signal from the detonator. I am sure there are probably "dead man switch" varieties though, where there is already a signal present and the absence of the signal would be what sets it off. In those cases cutting the wires would be bad.

When practical it seems like the preferred method is to just remove the bomb and detonate it. When that's not possible I think the preferred method is to remove the detonator if possible. I'm not really sure where it goes from there.
posted by RustyBrooks at 8:53 AM on November 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

I guess what I'm getting at is that the trope of "I'm going to hide a bomb and to make sure it goes off I'll make it really hard to disarm" doesn't really happen. Bombs aren't "tricky" in that way, you just hide them somewhere and set them off. In fact the whole ticking clock scenario isn't really a thing.
posted by RustyBrooks at 8:54 AM on November 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

Fiction. If someone actually wanted it to be hard to disarm, (a) it wouldn't have a clock on it, and (b) it would probably be rigged to explode if someone took the cover off.

"M as in Mancy. You of all people..."
posted by supercres at 9:09 AM on November 13, 2013 [5 favorites]

The "dead man switch" that Rustybrooks mentions is, I think, the key to this question. Do such things exist in real life? Then, regardless of all the other monkey business surrounding movies and bombs, the basic premise is valid: you could cut a wire and cause a bomb to go off. If they don't - if they're only a figment of film imagination - then all of those scenes are based on a bogus premise.

Unlike Rustybrooks, I'm not at all sure they exist, only because in real life, they seem like they could go wrong too easily, and from a filmmaking perspective, they seem too good to be true.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 9:09 AM on November 13, 2013

Certainly there are bombs rigged to explode in response to attempts to defuse them; see Anti-handling device on Wikipedia. It's plausible that in some cases booby-trapped dummy wires might be included as such, though I don't see any specific mention of it in the Wikipedia article.
posted by pont at 9:14 AM on November 13, 2013

I could make a dead man switch type device very easily. It would just require a bit of electronics in the detonator. A capacitor and a few logic gates and you have it. I suppose I'd also be concerned about accidentally setting it off but I suppose you just don't arm the thing until you have it in place.
posted by RustyBrooks at 9:14 AM on November 13, 2013

I don't think there is enough uniformity between bombs built by terrorists that there is any real precedent for them to do *anything* in particular. Most of them are made out of fertilizer or pressure cookers. Many probably blow up by accident when their creators bump into them.

I'm sure you could build a bomb that goes off if any wire but one in it is cut, but nobody would actually try this, because nobody knows if/when/how the bomb might go off, and so they're not going to sit there in front of it trying to reverse-engineer the electrical circuit attached to it.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 9:53 AM on November 13, 2013

I think the trope comes from a time where the bombs in Hollywood were coming from historical baddies such as the Nazis, and as such were mass-manufactured rather than homebrew. Bomb disarmament relied on intel (sometimes painfully acquired) regarding how they were put together. The British TV series Danger UXB covered quite a lot of it, including the cat-and-mouse game that resulted from the Nazis making improvements to the detonator structure when the Brits figured out workarounds.

Interestingly enough, one of the mechanisms for defeating the WW2-era chemical bombs was steam: instead of messing with the detonator and any associated booby traps, they drilled holes in the bomb and steamed out the nasty bits. Don't know whether that was fictionalized or not, but it was a nice example of thinking outside the box.
posted by scolbath at 10:53 AM on November 13, 2013 [4 favorites]

The first time I saw this was in the 1974 movie Juggernaut about a cruise ship with bombs aboard that are being defused. There's are intense scenes with characters debating which colored wire to cut to defuse the bombs.
posted by ShooBoo at 10:59 AM on November 13, 2013

The scenario does not arise for a nuclear bomb. Those rely on a very precise, symmetrical implosion. Cutting the wires going to one of the charges around the core would make a proper nuclear detonation impossible. The worst a hypothetical anti-handling device could do would be to imprecisely set off the remaining charges, killing you and contaminating the immediate area but saving the city.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 11:17 AM on November 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

The John Birges bomb at Harvey's casino might be an example. The bomber rigged 1000 lbs of TNT with at least 8 triggering mechanisms and demanded $3 million to explain how to defuse the bomb. The FBI has a page about it:
In the early morning hours of August 26, 1980—29 years ago today—men wearing white jumpsuits and pretending to deliver an IBM copy machine rolled a bomb into Harvey’s Resort Hotel and Casino in Stateline, Nevada, near Lake Tahoe.

So began one of the most unusual cases in our history ...
posted by jhc at 12:45 PM on November 13, 2013 [5 favorites]

I too thought of Juggernaut though, if my memory of forty-plus year old television shows is not mistaken, I think there was an episode of Doomwatch that had them choosing the correct wire to cut do defuse a nuclear bomb from a few years earlier.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 1:00 PM on November 13, 2013

Interestingly enough, one of the mechanisms for defeating the WW2-era chemical bombs was steam: instead of messing with the detonator and any associated booby traps, they drilled holes in the bomb and steamed out the nasty bits. Don't know whether that was fictionalized or not, but it was a nice example of thinking outside the box.

There's an episode of James May's Man Lab where they attempt to defuse an old German bomb using the official WWII British method. It's much like this and is interesting to watch.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 1:16 PM on November 13, 2013

Some of the bombs in the blitz were rigged to go off when a clock ran down. Here's an article on the people who were called out to deal with them, published 20 years later. There are some references to wires, but it seems like other techniques were more used, and that the bombs became more complex as the war went on.
posted by yohko at 3:33 PM on November 13, 2013

TV Tropes has an entire page devoted to the wire dilemma. And I need to include a link to the Six Million Dollar Man episode "The Price of Liberty" which features Steve disarming a bomb attached to the Liberty Bell. I think he had to to cut the Red!, no White!, no Blue! wire to disarm the bomb.
posted by Rob Rockets at 7:00 PM on November 13, 2013

The Collar Bomb incident from 10 years ago involved deceptive wiring to slow down someone attempting to defuse the bomb:

"The device also contained two Sunbeam kitchen timers and one electronic countdown timer. It had wires running through it that connected to nothing—decoys to throw off would-be disablers—and stickers bearing deceptive warnings. The contraption was a puzzle in and of itself."
posted by 1367 at 9:05 PM on November 13, 2013

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