The works at Waltham Abbey had been producing gunpowder since 1660. In 1787 the privately-owned works were purchased by the Crown and turned into the most important gunpowder factory in Britain. Most of the surviving buildings date back to the mid 19th century when the Crimean War was at its height. This is generally acknowledged as the first industrial war because it resulted in a huge loss of men and equipment. At Waltham Abbey gunpowder production soared to record levels. Alongside gunpowder, experiments were also conducted into guncotton and nitro-glycerine. In the 1880s local scientists developed a chemical explosive named cordite which the British army later used in the First World War. After 1945 a series of different laboratories were set up to conduct further research, including that into rocket propellants. In 1991 the British Ministry of Defence gave up the site. Now it contains a huge variety of flora and fauna – not to speak of a unique museum.
The first thing which visitors encounter is a multi-media installation where they can get their bearings. After this they can find out about the history of the site and all the things which were invented here. Those who wish to do so can don a white overcoat and create their own explosions on an interactive computer. The rest of the huge site which includes a lengthy network of waterways and railways and a twelve metre reservoir for testing water bombs, can be best visited by taking a tour in a land train. The museum also contains a collection of guns and rifles.