Like any normal person, I decorate my bathroom with Victorian engravings of anthropomorphised monkeys.
These two depict the kind of half ape / half-monkey used by Benjamin Brooke and Lever Brothers to promote Monkey Brand soap, a super-popular cleaning product at the turn of the twentieth century.
An intriguing little strap line at the bottom of these simian vignettes catches the eye, and, in those contemplative loo moments, piques an interest for further research. It’s a fleeting urge, seconds later flushed from thought – the cycle repeating with each visit. I guess that’s how I only now know why Monkey Brand “WON’T WASH CLOTHES“.
Now, spotting these chunks of the real thing at the Museum of London has shocked me out of lavatorial mind-lock and prompted an evening of Googling proper research.
Never mind the technical stuff on soap making, which in the detail is surprisingly thin on the ground for this brand, digging around reveals a keen interest by social and cultural historians, public relations types, and advertising scholars. They’ve dissected the what, why, and wherefore of a marketing strategy curiously underpinned by these pseudo-human creatures.
Essentially, the gist of these socio-cultural and commercial analyses is that the monkey was used (consciously and unconsciously) as symbolic commentary with respect to contemporary issues around race, gender and class; representing an idea of change in the Victorian mind that went beyond the obvious clean-dirty associations. The tens of different Monkey Brand ads produced at this time – and that you can easily find floating around the web today – are a semiotician’s dream. For more on this aspect, check out this post at the ‘Notes on the arts and visual culture blog’, and this essay (pdf file) ‘Soft Soaping Empire’.
Back at the technical front, it seems the reason Monkey Brand ‘won’t wash clothes’ was because it was loaded with an abrasive mineral – probably pumice (volcanic ash) – which would almost certainly put a hole through your favourite bib and tucker. Pumice contains shock-cooled glassy particles, consistent with the abrasive properties of the soap. I thought it might have been alkaline, acidic, or poisonous – but apparently not so. And while mostly used on dirty grates and rusty bicycles, there’s a hint of an endorsement for use as an occasional toothpaste, although this story from 1908, of an old lady wearing a hole through her denture plate, suggests that’s not such a good idea. Ah, the good old days.
So maybe it’s called Monkey Brand because it’s scratchy, and monkeys scratch themselves – right? So much for my valuable addition to Monkey Brand research.
You can still get something along the lines today: like this LAVA soap, with ‘Pumice Power’ no less. Fantastic: “The hand cleaner of choice for do-it-yourselfers, coal miners, and oil rig workers“. Just hope they rinse well before pawing their iPads.
I was a young kid in the 60’s, when the only pads we knew were of the Brillo variety, but I don’t remember having pumice impregnated soap around. Although I’m a bit confused thanks to a conversation I had with my mum when I was an embryo (well, five or six), involving a bar of soap and her talking about ‘lava’, when what she probably said was ‘lather’. Then again, I must have got this ever-youthful complexion from somewhere.
Born on 12th October, 1812, the Italian chemist made the discovery while a student at Turin University, by treating glycerin with hot sulphuric and nitric acids.
The industrial and military successes of nitroglycerin are well known, particularly where it’s been used in stabilised forms as in Alfred Nobel’s patent dynamite. Less well known is the catalogue of horrific accidents that punctuate the early learning curve of this powerful explosive.
I stumbled upon the echo of one such tragedy while holidaying in Wales this summer. A lucky stumble too, as the plaque that records the Cwm-y-Glo explosion of 1869 is easy to miss: only locals and wandering hikers need apply.
It’s unlikely David Roberts, Evan Jones, Robert Morris, Griffith Jones, and eleven year old John Jones had heard of Ascanio Sobrero. Likewise the villagers who collected those victims’ unidentifiable remains after Sobrero’s invention sent them flying in pieces onto the hillside and surrounding villages.
The two horse-drawn wagons at the centre of the disaster, each laden with a ton of nitroglycerin, or ‘powder oil’, were on the eight mile journey from Caernarvon, on the Welsh coast, to the Glyn Rhonwy slate quarry near Llanberis.
The cargo was destined to blast slate, but when it exploded prematurely just outside the small village where its minders had stopped for refreshment, it likely created the loudest man-made noise known up to that time. And despite Glyn Rhonwy being one of the first quarries to trial nitroglycerin1starting in 1866, they clearly hadn’t mastered the murderous sensitivity of its handling. The full report of the accident as it appeared in The Times newspaper is reproduced in reference 4 below – with all the gory details.
The political and economic impact of the Cwm-y-Glo explosion travelled well beyond Wales. One direct consequence was the introduction of the Nitro-glycerine Act (1869)(reproduced as ref(3) below): “An Act to prohibit for a limited period the importation, and to restrict and regulate the carriage of Nitro-glycerine“(2), which put severe controls on the explosive’s importation, transportation and use, and encouraged the market for safer alternatives like gun cotton (cellulose nitrate) and Nobel’s dynamite. Supposedly a temporary measure, during which time “there would be an opportunity given to scientific persons to inquire whether the compound known as nitro-glycerine was an innocent explosive or not.“(2), the restrictions lasted long enough to prompt heated debates around ideas of trade restriction and monopoly.
But the local impact was human, as the following ballad from the time shows. I’ve had a crack at translating the first few verses from the Welsh (with my father’s help!) – just to get the gist. The author, Abel Jones, seems to be catching the brutal reality of the event in true Victorian style. You can find the whole piece here. (And, if you’re able and up for it, feel free to translate the whole thing and put it in the comments!)
Rough english translation:
“A ballad about a terrible explosion that happened in 1869 at Cwm y glo.
Dear quarrymen and all rockworkers throughout Arfon and Meirionydd. Hear about this alarming and terrible accident that has made many hearts sad. There has been accident after accident in the quarries, with falling loose rocks from morning to noon. They tear the flesh and break the bones and people collect bodies in blankets and sheets. What heart does not melt at the sight of a mother unable to recognise her son or husband, the tears pouring from the children shouting: ‘Dad, where are you?’. And things are far worse with nitro-glycerine. We’ve had terrible disasters at Abergele, now we have one at Cwm y glo ”
The Nitro-Glycerine Accident. CARNARVON, Thursday.
The terrible accident we reported yesterday by telegraph has led to lamentable results. It seems that four tons of nitro-glycerine formed part of a cargo from Hamburg (Messrs. Noble and Co.), to Carnarvon, consigned to Messrs. De Winton and Co., for Messrs. Webb and Cragg, Glynrhonwy Slate Quarry, Llanberis, sole agents in Carnarvonshire for nitro-glycerine, used instead of ordinary powder for blasting rocks. The ship was moored in the river Menai, and a portion of the explosive oil having been placed in the Llanddwyn magazine, the rest was brought in lighters and placed on the quay in Carnarvon. About 1 o’clock noon, the hour appointed to cart that portion to the quarries, some of the vehicles did not arrive, and, after a delay of some hours, the two carters who have been killed under- took to remove a portion of the nitro-glycerine. These carts left about 4 on Wednesday afternoon, for Glyn-rhonwy Quarry, one of the numerous quarries lately opened on the south aspect of the Vale of LIanberis, and at the foot of Snowdon. A portion of the nitro-glycerine was to be removed today to the Dinorwic Quarry. The other three carts were left for the night in a closed coachhouse, near Bodenalgate, within a mile of Carnarvon, it being too late to re- move the oil to the Penrhyn slate quarries. These are now in the custody of the police. The two carts which caused the accident, were, it appears, in company, and were noticed within a few yards of each other just be- fore the explosion. The exact spot where the accident occurred is where the diversion of a new road lately made by the Llanberis and Carnarvon Railway joins the old road, about 400 yards beyond the centre of Cwm-y-glo village, five miles and a half from Carnarvon and 300 yards from Pont Rhyddalit, the bridge that spans the narrow water uniting the upper and lower lakes of Llanberis. At the time the accident occurred the quarrymen were returning along the road from their occupations to Cwm.y-glo village, when suddenly, without any warning, the quarrymen in front of the carts and those behind heard one long continuous explosion of terrific noise. This spot being surrounded by high mountains on three sides, the echo of the first explosion reverberated several times, as some of those that witnessed the accident informed us, and one mountain seemed to throw the noise with quick succession from one side of. the valley to the other over the lakes. The two lakes, especially the lower, were at once greatly agitated. Clouds of dust, stones, portions of the carts, and the walls around for two roods were either thrown to a great height or cast longitudinally either into the morass on one side or the rocks adjacent. A third of the circumference of a wheel was thrown 50 yards high and fell near a cottager’s garden on the sides of a rocky hill 300 yards off. Portions of flesh and bones (either human or those of the horses) were collected indiscriminately from a radius of 50 yards and placed in cloths. A foot, a chin covered with beard, and a man’s heart were found together about eight yards from the spot. The Cwm-y-glo Railway Station (the nearest building to the scene of the accident), an inn lately finished, close by, and several (fortunately) unfinished houses a little further off, as well as a chapel, present a desolate sight. The roofs nearest the accident are perforated by falling stones, and window- frames have been blown in and destroyed. The massive doors of the goods department of the railway station are shattered, and windows all round within a radius of two miles present marks of the explosion. Scores of men were thrown down. Those known to be killed are -David Roberts, 35. a native of Denbigh, married, carter; Evan Jones, 22, Tyddyn Llywdyn, Carnarvon, unmarried (son of a widow, partially dependent on her son), carter; Robert Roberts, 26, quarryman (who had only returned from America a few weeks since); a quarryman who was supposed to be passing at the time,.and another whose name we could not ascertain resident at Cwm-y-glo. About 12 persons have been seriously hurt and as many slightly injured. A leg and in two other instances arms have already been amputated, and two boys-Owen John Roberts and Griffith Pritchard have suffered internal injuries by being thrown down. The greatest distress exists, and even this morning the police were engaged searching the neighbourhood of the accident picking up very small portions of flesh and bone. Such was the terrible power of the oil that the spot where each cart is supposed to have been at the time of the accident is marked by two deep perfectly circular holes, of the same size, each measuring 7ft. 6in. in diameter and 7ft. deep, and a horse-length apart. The stones appear to have been subjected to a terrible rotatory motion, and the holes are in the shape of an inverted cone. Our correspondent, who was at the time of the accident sitting at a friend’s table in Bangor, ten miles off, experienced a shock and heard the rattling of windows at five minutes before 6, about the time fixed by those who witnessed the, accident. The shock was experienced more or less for many miles around.
Q – What did the grape say when an elephant stepped on him?
A – Nothing. He just let out a little wine.
The first alcohol I ever drank was home brewed. I was twelve when the evil liquor – orange and raison wine – was served up by my refreshingly enlightened policeman uncle of all people. We’d visit the house and find these wort-filled vessels in the bathroom, glug-glug-glugging as bubbles of carbon dioxide chugged through little glass airlocks.
Not that I was swilling the stuff in quantity you understand, but what better introduction to the practical application of biochemistry and chemical engineering. Who knows what influence these little episodes have on later life decisions?
Six years later, as an impoverished student at Birmingham University, I was brewing my own 40 pints of barely drinkable delicious Mild Ale (pronounced ‘m + oiled’ in the local dialect). And while I never got into the brewing habit big time, I still on occasion reach for the demijohn and yeast – like recently, prompted by the promise of summer blackberries and the pungent whiff of Thames-side hops.
It’s obvious booze is an educational resource we ignore at our peril; but to consolidate, consider what’s going on in that murky ochre, as it sits in my hall, infusing the carpets and curtains with its fruity ambience. I hope it’s this:
The contents of the bottle are yellow because the blackberries haven’t actually appeared yet, so for now I’m using Chardonnay grape concentrate out of a can. And as that contains fructose from the grapes plus added glucose syrup, and I’m adding sucrose on top of that, both reactions should have kicked off immediately – the whole thing enabled by one of my favourite eukaryotic micro-organisms – Saccharomyces cerevisiae: a wine yeast.
There’s nothing to do now until it ferments out, but I managed to kill 20 minutes using the chemistry and bubble rate data to figure out how things are ticking along. I reckon I’ll produce 511g of alcohol and 488g (273 litres) of CO2, which at the current bubble rate means the fermentation will take 6 days (workings in the end-notes for those interested and assuming I’ve remembered my O-level chem.).
We covered production of ethanol from fermentation at school, but I don’t remember doing any distillation (which is illegal without a license in the UK). Certainly nothing to compare with the alcohol education afforded 1960s American youth courtesy of the fabulous Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments (excerpts below), which covers fermentation with yeast plus the distillation/synthesis of ethanol, methanol, and a bunch of other fun compounds from the ethanol ‘Family Tree’:
I love the helpful precautionary note on chloroform:’THEN SNIFF CAREFULLY’. A complete home schooling if ever there was one:
That’s all really. I’ll update with a report on the finished product, assuming the wrong types of bug and oxygen don’t intervene and vinegarate the show.
One last item though. Yeast is of course also used in baking; the carbon dioxide from fermentation causes dough to rise. So here’s a particularly rigorous explanation of the process from Alton Browne. It’s over my head, but I’m sure the trained biochemists out there will relate. (Quality isn’t up to much either – sorry about that.)
Guessing there’s about 300g of glucose in the concentrate, and I know I’ve added 450g sucrose to 5.5 litres of water. As 1 Mole sucrose (242g) yields 2 Moles glucose/fructose (360g), 450g sucrose will make 669g glucose/fructose. With the 300g in the syrup that rounds up to about 1000g total C6H12O6. 1 Mole of C6H12O6 (180g) makes 2 Moles ethanol (92g) plus 2 Moles carbon dioxide (88), so 1000g should make 511g of alcohol and 488g carbon dioxide. That’s roughly half a kilo of alcohol in 5.5kg water, or, ignoring the density difference, about 10% by volume . These kits supposedly deliver 12%, so the 300g estimate was probably low. The volume of gas produced can be calculated given 1 Mole CO2 (44g) has a volume of 22.4 litres at STP (24.6 at current 25deg C room temp), so our 488g equates to 273 litres of gas having to bubble through the airlock. It’s bubbling at about 1 per second with an estimated bubble volume of half a cm3 ; so I figure at that rate it will take 6 days to ferment out. All of which seems to hang together with what it says on the tin.
You’re a young 33, with an already impressive scientific career under your belt, and – although you only suspect it – a spectacular future ahead of you. Within 10 years, you’ll be elected President of the Royal Society.
But in November 1811, you’ve got something else on your mind.
How exactly would Humphry Davy (he of Davy Lamp fame among many other achievements) impress the first true love of his life – the beautiful widow and heiress Jane Apreece ?
Well, as it turned out……with more science of course. And unlikely as it might seem, with quotes from the book whose spine forms the header of this very blog: Erasmus Darwin’s Zoonomia. (Erasmus was Charles Darwin’s grandfather….how many times)
Over to you, Humph….
‘There is a law of sensation which may be called the law of continuity & contrast of which you may read in Darwin’s Zoonomia [sic]. An example is – look long on a spot of pink, & close your eyes, the impression will continue for some time & will then be succeeded by a green light. For some days after I quitted you I had the pink light in my eyes & the rosy feelings in my heart, but now the green hue & feelings – not of jealousy – but of regret are come.’
Smooth, or what?
I’m not the first to spot Davy’s creative application of ground-breaking ideas in colour perception; the above passage is from Richard Holmes’s award-winning Age of Wonder. But what’s it all about? Let’s start with Zoonomia.
Erasmus describes his experiments on colour and the eye in Volume I, Section III: Motions of the Retina; and Section XI: Ocular Spectra.
In his letter to Jane Apreece, Davy is referring to this experiment (Warning for the unfamiliar: f = s):
Later, Erasmus restates the experiment and proposes a mechanism for the observed effect:
Darwin’s experiments covered a range of colour and contrast effects. Here in his ‘tadpole’ experiment he interprets the bright after-image we see after staring at a dark object, explained again in terms of conditioning and sensitivity of the retina.
The drawings in Zoonomia are individually hand drawn and hand coloured. In this passage, Erasmus encourages his readers to partake of some drawing-room diversion using silks of many colours:
All exciting stuff, not least for Erasmus, who betrays his giddiness in this chuckling wind up to his analysis, where he curries favour with the incumbent president of the Royal Society, Sir Joseph Banks.
“I was surprised, and agreeably amused, with the following experiment. I covered a paper about four inches square with yellow, and with a pen filled with a blue colour wrote upon the middle of it the word BANKS in capitals, and sitting with my back to the sun, fixed my eyes for a minute exactly on the centre of the letter N in the middle of the word;after closing my eyes, and shading them somewhat with my hand, the word was dinstinctly seen in the spectrum in yellow letters on a blue field; and then, on opening my eyes on a yellowish wall at twenty feet distance, the magnified name of BANKS appeared written on the wall in golden characters.” [Banks was elected President of the Royal Society in 1778].
Did Erasmus get it right with all that stuff about flexing of the antagonist fibres and analogy to the muscles? Well, he wasn’t a million miles away from the truth. Indeed, it looks like yet another case of Erasmus Darwin not getting the credit he deserves for being ahead of the game.
Here’s a modern popular version of the tadpole ‘trick’ (Credit: from here)
The idea is you stare at the bulb for 20 or 30 seconds then look at the white space to the right of it. The popular description of the effect is in terms of the retina cells stimulated by the light portions of the image being desensitized more than those which respond to the dark part of the image – so that the least depleted cells react more strongly when the eye switches to the more uniform all-white image next to the bulb.
The modern authors note also that the size of the afterimage varies directly with the distance of the surface on which it is viewed: a manifestation of Emmert’s Law. This is consistent with Erasmus’s report of the name BANKS writ large on his garden wall.
Likewise, the modern interpretation of colour afterimages is popularly framed in terms of how ‘fatigued’ cells respond to light (See how fatigued’ aligns with Erasmus’s muscular references). Erasmus didn’t know we have two types of light-sensitive cells in the eye: cones (that broadly speaking detect colour) and rods (that are more sensitive to absolute brightness), and that the cones themselves are sub-divided to be maximally sensitive to red , blue and green (RGB).
But he did understand the concept of complementary colours, and recognised that whatever part of the retina detects the colour red becomes fatigued through over-exposure; he’d got the principle that green appears againt white as a kind of negative red ).
If we dig a little deeper we find the brain-proper conspires with the retina to consider what we see in terms of black-white, red-green, and blue-yellow opponencies. And the corresponding three sets of retinal cells operate in a pretty arithmetical fashion: the electrical impulse sent to the brain by the red-green cells is proportional to the net red-green exposure to light that the cell has experienced in recent time; likewise the blue-yellow sensitive cells.
That’s all clear then.
What bugs me a wee bit is that in my research for this post I never once saw a reference to Erasmus Darwin. Rather, the standard historical reference seems to be the German psychologist Ewald Hering (1834-1919), who is credited with the first observations of the phenomenon.
Hold the horses – it’s Valentines Day
Ok, we got a bit lost in the science there. And I got a bit hot under the collar; eh-hem. So, the real question is: did Davy’s colourful overtures hit the mark? Well, sort of. Humphry Davy and Jane Apreece married the following year in 1812. The bad news is it didn’t really work out longterm.
All the same, Davy shone ever bright in his science. Already famous for discovering a whole range of new chemical elements, including via separation by electrolysis potassium and sodium, and chlorine gas; he went on to discover elemental iodine and, for good measure, invented the Davy Lamp – thereby saving who knows how many thousands of lives in the mining indistry. In 1820, when Banks’s death ended his 40+ year run at the head of the Royal Society, Davy was elected President.
All of which doubtless kept a bit of colour in his cheeks.
Darwin, Erasmus. Zoonomia Vol 1 Pub. J.Johnson 1796 (photos are from author’s copy)
Holmes, Richard. Age of Wonder. Pub. Harper Press (the softback is out for about £7 now – buy it!)
In one version of the illusion, an audience member stands in the coffin on a stage, and the rest of the audience watch as he gradually decays into a dancing skeleton before their eyes. In that case, the image of a brightly lit skeleton placed in a pit in front of the stage is reflected by an angled sheet of glass placed between the audience and coffin.
I’m lucky enough to own a 1907 first edition of Hiscox’s classic work, and love the way my copy is dis-colored and bleached by chemical splashes. Not by me, I hasten to add. But this book has for sure been used for its intended purpose! Whether the former owner, a James McQueen Jr. according to the bookplate, lived long and prospered because of its secrets, or in spite of them, is a different matter.
Secrets intended for all; the preface:
In compiling this book of formulas, recipes and processes, the Editor has endeavoured to meet primarily the practical requirements of the mechanic, the manufacturer, the artisan, and the housewife.
Some of the information is innocuous enough. You can learn how your great grandmother made blackberry jam. And Celery Clam Punch or Cherry Phosphate (with real phosphoric acid, maybe the origin of cherry coke?) sound refreshing for a summer evening.
But some of the medical cures are distinctly dodgy. We worry enough today about tanning products, but Hiscox’s cure for a tan, made from bichloride of mercury, sounds lethal. Helpfully, he shares with us that:
This is not strong enough to blister and skin the face in average cases.
Phew, good job most folk are average. Responsibly, he adds:
Do not forget that this last ingredient [the mercury compound] is a powerful poison and should be kept out of the reach of children and ignorant persons.
Folk would have taken Hiscox’s Cannabis indica based cure for corns in their stride (ouch!). And concern over the pinch of cinnabar in his nail polish would be just another case of health and safety gone mad.
But surely, even by the standards of the time, Hiscox’s idea of a light-hearted party trick must have raised some eyebrows (or literally blown them off): like ‘To take boiling lead in the mouth’, ‘Biting off red hot iron’, ‘Sparks from the finger tips’. And ‘The burning banana’ doesn’t bear thinking about.
Some recipes were probably safe, but just sound a little icky. Like a nice pomade for sir’s hair, made from vaseline oil and beef marrow. Blue hosiery dye called for some ingredients I’ve never heard of: like 4 pounds of Guatamala and 3 pounds of Beugal Indigo; and others I have heard of: like 1 pail of urine. Hiscox also contains lots of paint and ink recipes but, disappointingly, there’s no mention of the infamous Mummy Brown.
‘Solid Alcohol’ sounds quite useful, maybe as a firelighter. I made something similar as a schoolboy, by dissolving soap in methylated spirit.
There’s nothing in Hiscox to separate the domestic from the industrial. Content is alphabetically indexed, but otherwise all mixed up. The section on glass includes industrial formulas for making different glass types and colourings in the furnace, but also includes instructions for a home-made glass grinding device.
Interestingly, Recipes, Formulas And Processes was republished through many revisions and editions into at least the 1930s. But I’m sure today there is nothing quite like it – unless we include the internet as a whole.
On another tack, it’s worth remembering that when Hiscox was published, the welfare and commercial infrastructure we take for granted today (some of us) was much less developed or non-existent. No popping down to the mall for a ready-made solution to every task. Folk just did more of their own stuff.
And should you decide to do more of your own stuff, don’t do it from Hiscox! He’s academically interesting to browse, but clearly some of his recipes and ideas are best left well alone.
A good few Zoonomian posts are based on things or events I just happen to stumble onto. And that’s certainly the case with these oak galls I snapped on a trail walk this week.
These hard woody growths, about 1.5 inches across, are induced by insects interfering with the oak plant’s bio-chemistry.
Typically a wasp, like Neuroterus albipes in the photo, lays an egg on an oak twig, along with chemicals that react with the plant’s hormones to trigger growth of the gall, making both a home and ready meal for the wasp grub. On occasion, secondary parasites of other species may join the ‘host’ grub after the gall has formed. It looks from the multiple holes like that’s what’s happened here.
Historically, oak galls have been useful to humans as a main ingredient of Iron Gall Ink, in common use from before the middle ages to Victorian times. I made iron gall ink as a kid, which probably explains why I got so excited when I saw these. And while I’ll concede the skill is probably not a 21st century essential, making the stuff is quite satisfying.
So if you’re up for a little kitchen science, you will need: a handful of oak galls, some ferrous sulphate and, optionally if you want the ink to have a good consistency, some Gum Arabic.
The chemistry begins when the crushed galls are mixed with water, causing the tannin, or gallo-tannic acid COOH.C6H2(OH)2O.COC6H2(OH)3 in them to form gallic acid C6(COOH)H(OH)3H. Adding hydrated ferrous sulphate FeSO4, 7 H2O to this forms the ink, a soluble ferrous tannate complex.
As regards procedure, you should get a workable product by smashing up 5 or 6 oak galls and boiling them down to about a 1/4 pint in water and filtering the liquid through a cloth or handkerchief; then dissolve about a teaspoon of ferrous sulphate in a shot-glass sized measure, and mix the two together. Instant medieval ink. For a much more thorough and professional approach, see this article from the Conservation Division of the Library of Congress. BTW – ferrous sulphate can be bought in art shops, garden supply stores, and some health stores – you want iron(II)sulphate, FeSO4 – not anything else.
The advantage iron gall ink brought over previous inks was its permanence. Because ferrous tannate is water soluble, the ink soaks into the paper, where the ferrous tannate oxidises to insoluble – and darker – ferric tannate, which is now trapped in the fabric of the paper. Various refinements are seen in recipes, such as the addition of extra acid, maybe as vinegar, to keep the ink from oxidising in the pot, as it were. A drawback of iron gall inks is their corrosive action, sometimes only apparent over a long period, and in extreme cases resulting in writing literally dropping out of the paper.
Watching the last episode of Tony Robinson’s ‘Blitz Street’ on Channel 4 this week has prompted a few thoughts and surprising memories.
The four-part series revisited the intensive ‘Blitz’ bombing of Britain during the Second World War by recreating a wartime street and subjecting it to progressively larger explosions, simulating the range of bombs and missiles delivered by the Nazis. The real Blitz bombing was focused on London, but also other cities including: Liverpool, Hull, Coventry, and the city where I was later raised – Leicester.
The show was framed as a serious science experiment that would, as well as being entertaining, generate new data for historians. To that end, the houses were wired with pressure sensors to measure the intensity of the blasts, and the associated destruction was captured with high speed photography.
For example, readings taken inside a recreated domestic Anderson Shelter, constructed from corrugated steel and earth, revealed how under certain bombing conditions the pressure wave would be sufficient to kill the occupants, consistent with contemporary reports of whole families being found externally unscathed but dead from internal injuries. Under other conditions, the test explosions suggested that simply hiding under the stairs had offered adequate protection.
Amazingly, a bottle of milk parked outside one of the houses survived the entire simulated campaign, ranging from the explosion of a 50kg High Explosive (HE) bomb, right through to a simulated V2 rocket impact.
Well, what can you say? Great television. And that surviving bottle of milk was a gift to the producers. For sure, some will criticise various points of historic content and scientific accuracy. Viewers have commented on the under-representation of Hull as the second most bombed city after London; and I was bemused at the placement of the V2 simulated charge behind an earth bank that seemed to guarantee it wouldn’t totally obliterate the set. Others might find the whole thing an unnecessary waste of building materials and explosives.
However the popular verdict washes out, I thought the show’s mix of social history with science and technology successfully outweighed any failings. Here we saw one of the more negative applications of science and technology in context: Science Communication, right? But more so, a graphic raising of awareness that war isn’t just something that happens to others on CNN.
Beyond the politically incorrect schoolboy/girl appeal of blowing things up, Blitz Street got me digging deeper into the science behind the show, looking out my old university notes on flow simulation, super-sonic pressure wave propagation and nozzle design (re the V2).
On a completely different tack, the show reminded me of the many happy (formative?) hours I’d spent as a teenager inside an air-raid shelter.
How come? I may be old enough to have benefited from real chemistry sets and the relaxed authority that accommodated them, but I certainly wasn’t around in the Second World War. I did however grow up assuming everyone had a WWII surface air-raid shelter in their back garden, like this one at my parents home in Leicester.
I’ve always known this cube, with its 14 inch thick brick walls and reinforced concrete ceiling as simply ‘The Shelter’.
When the family moved here in the seventies, the interior was still in immediate post-war condition, including wooden bunk supports for two, maybe four max, persons. To protect from lime, the concrete ceiling had been lined with fascinating newspapers of the period, discovered when I converted The Shelter to a photographic darkroom, re-papering it with pages from Amateur Photographer Magazine.
At the age of twelve or so, The Shelter became my first chemistry laboratory. Minimal ventilation via perforated bricks at the top of each thick wall meant that reactions that were exothermic or likely to generate noxious gases were relegated to the annexed greenhouse. For example, anything where chlorine or oxides of nitrogen were produced, or compounds were combined with acids or oxidants; and anything involving organic compounds. All these were better suited to the fume-cupboard environment of the greenhouse.
An interesting design feature in the wall at right-angles to the main entrance, is a sort of escape hatch comprising a two foot square of bricks where the cement has been replaced with plain sand. The idea, I presume, was that if the house got bombed and fell onto the shelter, the occupants, safe inside, could kick out the bricks on the adjacent wall. It’s been mortared up since, but you can still see the outline in the photo. Originally, an iron bar extended out from the hatch that an external rescuer could pull on to release the brickwork.
Now of course I’m keen to know how my Shelter would have fared against Tony Robinson’s bombs – something to be investigated when I find an appropriate (=free) fluid dynamics package.
And from a social history perspective, I’m intrigued as to why the house had it’s own surface air-raid shelter in the first place. A scan of GoogleEarth suggests none of the neighbours have anything similar; and it’s not the sort of structure that could be easily or inexpensively removed. So more research needed there.
The house wasn’t situated next to a munitions factory or similar target; it’s just one house in a row of similar suburban dwellings. Maybe the owner was just nervous enough, and had the cash, to go one better than the standard Anderson shelter. I’ve heard of similar domestic shelters associated with homes where military personnel were billeted. A US Airborne division was stationed in the city, so maybe that’s the reason. Either way, it was more than paranoia. According to The Leicester Chronicler, two hundred and fifty homes in Leicester were completely destroyed by bombing. A map of all bombs dropped on Leicester during WWII is here at Wartimeleicestershire.com.
Anyhow, looks like Channel 4 at least succeeded in inspiring a nostalgic ramble; make of it what you will.
Gee, I spoil you guys: a blog about a broken screwdriver.
Not just any old screwdriver though, because the handle of this one is made from nitrocellulose, and they don’t do that anymore – not since the 1940s. I found the remains in a garage I’ve been clearing out over the past couple of days.
Nitrocellulose is an interesting material on many levels; its tendency for spontaneous disintegration is only one of the reasons you’ll no longer find it in tool handles, movie film, guitar pick guards, billiard balls, and dice. Its flammability made early nitrocellulose film stock a safety liability; even today the UK Health & Safety Executive publish guidance on its handling (downloadable pdf file).
My first encounter with nitrocellulose came as a 12 year old schoolboy, when in the school library I learnt from a popular science book, ‘The Oddities of Heat’, how to apply nitrocellulose as gun-cotton to the blowing up of bridges. There was even a diagram showing how to position the charge. Ah, the innocent diversions of less troubled times.
More recently, on a visit to the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles (don’t ask, I’m going to write that visit up in due course), I saw an exhibition featuring magician Ricky Jay’s collection of disintegrating nitrocellulose dice (you’re already gauging the character of this museum – right?).
So what’s the science behind this fun stuff. And why the spontaneous disintegration?
Nitrocellulose is made by treating cellulose, a natural organic compound found in the cell walls of plants such as cotton, with chemicals containing nitrogen – normally nitric acid. Some hydrogen atoms in the cellulose polymer [C6H7O(OH)3]n are replaced with nitrogen in the form of the nitryl group NO2. The exact properties of the resulting nitrocellulose depend on how much of the hydrogen is replaced with nitrogen.
The fully nitrated and highly explosive gun-cotton version of nitrocellulose thus has the formula [C6H7O(ONO2)3]n. Nitrocellulose with less nitrogen in the chemical structure, known as pyroxylin or (with camphor added to reduce brittleness) celluloid. This is the variety used in old film stock, and is probably what my screwdriver handle is made of. It certainly burns well; I tested it.
Googling this topic yielded a few examples akin to my screwdriver scenario: knife handles, film restoration sites and such like. But a convincing explanation of the spontaneous failure mechanism was more elusive. There are several academic papers in the literature dealing with the reaction chemistry and kinetics (speed) of nitrocellulose breakdown in the laboratory, with more practical discussions focusing on movie film conservation.
In all cases, the disintegration appears to happen in two stages: an initial phase where NO2 groups in gaseous form come free from the nitrocellulose structure, to combine with any water present to form nitric acid. The acid then auto-catalyses the same reaction but at a much higher rate.
It seems fair to hypothesize from this that the release of gases in the surface layers of the screwdriver handle create micro-cracks that transmit the decomposition reaction into the body of the material, the increasing pressure driving the reaction harder. It certainly looks like that’s what has happened.
Yet I still don’t really understand what triggers the timing of the initial decomposition.
This post is a little different from anything I’ve put up before. It’s a sort of blog-ised version of an academic semiotic analysis I made earlier in the year as part of my Science Communication endeavours at Imperial College. It’s here thanks to a posting on Twitter earlier tonight by Chris Anderson (of TED fame) of an alert to David Hoffman’s film now on YouTube: ‘The Sputnik Moment – the Year America Changed its Schools’. It’s all about how Sputnik, launched on October 4th 1957, shocked the USA into massive investment in, and reform of, the education system. I’ve embedded the vid at the end of this post.
What follows is not directly linked to Sputnik; it refers to the previous year – 1956, but does perhaps remind us that the wheels were already turning towards a golden age of science. And I guess that made the advent of Sputnik all the more shocking.
If you’re not familiar with the techniques of semiotic analysis (I certainly wasn’t), it can look a little contrived. But be assured, there are folk out there right now using it to design stuff that will subtly manipulate you. It’s not evil – but I think it’s useful and fun to practice deconstructing these things. Anyhow, if you get bored, just skip to Hoffman’s vid :-). So…
Home Chemistry in the Golden Age of American Science
“And so each citizen plays an indispensable role. The productivity of our heads, our hands, and our hearts is the source of all the strength we can command, for both the enrichment of our lives and the winning of the peace.”
So proclaimed U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower in his First Inaugural Address of 1953 – emboldening a populace who, through the experience of science and technology at war, knew the peaceful role it might play in delivering America’s future.
And it’s to this background ethos of goal achievement and individual contribution that we’ll learn in this short essay how the innocuous chemistry set punched above its weight in preparing the nation’s youth for the golden age of American science.
For a deeper insight into what that meant in 1950s’ America, I’m going to look beyond the obvious, and pass a semiotician’s eye over, or maybe under, the cover-art of an instruction manual to a 1956 A.C.Gilbert Experiment Lab.
The idea is to start with a review of what the picture denotes – what is explicitly shown. The aim of the semiotic approach is then to explore the less obvious and wider connotations of the picture, treating it as a ‘text’ that tells a certain story – to which the embedded and inter-related vignettes also contribute. We need to remember this is a story of, and in, its time – and it’s only going to make sense in the cultural context of the period. Likewise, any connotations need to be interpreted in terms of the meanings and ideologies that might have engaged a contemporary reader.
That’s the approach – so what next? Every good semiotic analysis needs a formal argument if it’s not to fly totally off the tracks. So, I’m going to argue that:
‘marketing texts accompanying 1950’s American chemistry sets were consciously designed to support the myth of American progress achievable through an ideology of military and industrial global leadership; and contributed to an environment, the underlying ideology of which Eisenhower would in 1961 articulate as the ‘military-industrial complex’’.
(some folk have found my double reference to Eisenhower’s speeches confusing – so to clarify: The first reference is to his inaugural speech, the second is to his statement in his farewell address, where he first mentions the (in)famous ‘military-industrial-complex’. The point is that the MIC wasn’t something Eisenhower set out intentionally to put in place; rather it was something he realised had pretty much evolved by the end of his term – and was something to be concerned about.)
On with the analysis of the picture….
With reference to popular images from the great American telescopes of the day, a hazy nebular against a dark blue sky forms the backdrop to iconic representations of the Rutherford-model atom whirl and a cartoon electric thunderbolt. Two boys, maybe 10 and 14 years of age, do chemistry experiments at a bench. Six small graphic vignettes arc around the boys, each denoting a real or imagined scene from one of: space exploration, chemical engineering, aviation, medicine, nuclear physics, and electronics. A white capitalised title banner: ‘FUN WITH CHEMISTRY’, and a more reserved strap line: ‘today’sadventures in science willcreate tomorrow’s America’, frame the page top and bottom. A small maker’s logo and red safety shield complete the picture.
The eye immediately tracks to the boys, particularly the elder boy. We’re helped by his central positioning; and the electric thunderbolt, symbolic as pointer in one direction and megaphone in the other, placed contiguous with his mouth. The presence of two boys connotes camaraderie, but also hints at paternalistic leadership by the elder – a theme enhanced by their dress and respective positions (smaller boy leans forward, elder stands) and engagements (younger boy stirs, older boy analyses).
More perhaps from the parents’ viewpoint, the scene connotes an ideal of family life, reminding the reader of the vulnerability of a harmony so recently recovered from the disruption of war (US engagement in Korea until 1953). From the child’s perspective, domestic clutter has been erased – leaving a brave future world in which the boys are abstractly suspended between deep space and the exciting promise of the vignettes – the whole entangled with the modernity of the atom whirl.
A Golden Career
Qualifying traits to enter this world are symbolised by the boy’s trim haircut and white vest – connoting military order, responsible self-discipline, and an appeal to conformity in an America struggling with McCarthian legacy. The manual itself is symbolic of instruction and procedure; worry not – there is a plan.
Correctly, the boys do not laugh stupidly over their toy, but exude a serene dignity and confidence in the handling of their equipment; imagery that would endear any paying parent to Gilbert’s product. And where the parent approves, the young owner idolises – the elder boy: god-like before nebulae, proclaiming through lightning, holding forth with test-tube as sceptre.
The ideals put upon the boys are echoed and reinforced by the white coated, neck-tied exemplars of the medical and electronics vignettes, their adjustments and measurements further connoting values of care and precision. (The absence of personal protective equipment for the boys reminds us they are not yet professionals.)
For the world of the vignettes is where Gilbert Experiment Lab owners are destined to go. In his mind, the contemporary teenager leaves home through this text’s imagery, entering an educational way-station toward an ordained industrial career in ‘tomorrow’s America’ and the Golden Age of Science. A golden age, defined by exponential consumerism, a highways programme that would drive automobile and refinery demand for the next twenty years, and an age of popular successes in American chemistry (DDT) and medicine (Jonas’s polio vaccine).
Gilbert and his main competitor, Porter Chemcraft, reinforced the career message to both parent and child through explicit statements in associated texts ; for example, the rear box cover of the Experiment Lab displayed the banner:
“Another Gilbert Career-Building Science Set”
While Porter Chemcraft’s box banner pulled no punches with:
“Porter Science Prepares Young America for World Leadership”
The Vignettes – Windows on the Military-Industrial Complex?
Given their importance to the whole, the vignettes warrant closer examination. Taken individually they denote aspects, both realistic (submarine) and speculative (space station), of their respective industries -but achieve more as elements of the greater text. For example, collectively they reference the shear pervasiveness of chemistry as a discipline across mankind’s endeavours. And (core to my argument), they variously reference the repeating themes of American dominance in the military, industrial, and aerospace fields – politically prescribed activities for the ‘enrichment of lives and winning of peace’.
On a technical level we can acknowledge the clever use of white borders around the vignettes, signifying them as real photographs, fooling us that even obviously speculative scenes represent real life captured.
For a contemporary reader, the wheel-like space station of the space exploration vignette provokes a strong reference to Wernher Von Braun’s 1952 conception of a navigation-military platform .
The scene would also be familiar from science fiction texts, both print and film, and space programme news items anticipating the first US earth-orbiting satellites (Explorer I launched in 1958).
The station dominates the globe of earth. A globe which itself is dominated by an American continental outline – a reference to the ideological exaggeration seen in the nation-flattering Rand McNally Mercator projections and consumer advertising copy of the period.
The combined effect is to establish a concept of an America that, projected into space, is positioned to both dominate the earth in one direction and explore the cosmos in the other.
Beside the romance of space exploration, we might today frame as pedestrian the industrial world of chemical engineering; not so in 1956 America. Cropped of peripheral clutter, the spherical white pressure vessels become molecules – uniting with the boys’ glassware, the analytics of the medicine vignette, and the chemistry set itself, as icons of professional chemistry. Reference to the boys’ large flask is enhanced by that vessel’s exaggeration beyond anything actually found in the set, the parallel rendered complete by the rubber tubing imitating pipe and gantry.
The aviation and nuclear physics vignettes both denote forms of transport. The swept delta wing and compact size of the jet aircraft signifies a military product, while the streaming contrails index for progress, movement, speed – and power. The choice of submarine as nuclear physics exemplar, against the option of a civilian reactor or a particle physics laboratory, reinforces the military imperative. Directly referencing the recent launch of the first nuclear powered submarine Nautilus , the image flatters the reader’s knowledge of this event.
The vessel is large and dark, with whale-like power, its speed helpfully indexed by the artist as turbulence in the ocean streamlines. Like America, it is unstoppable and, as the scattering fish signify, all must make way before it.
A further subtle, yet reinforcing, reference to the defensive aspects of militarism can be read in the use of the red shield icon to frame the words ‘Safety-Tested’, whereby feelings of comfort and reassurance are induced on the twin planes of home and national security.
Military references are absent from the medical and electronic vignettes, these rather providing a visual link with the boys’ home activity. The medical scientist’s equipment mirrors the boys’ rig – right down to the colour of liquid in the flask. The electronic laboratory’s blackboard is an iconic reference to scientific intellectualism and progressive theory, but also a familiar reference to the boys’ schoolroom blackboard. The inclusion of medicine as a theme is a calculated reference to improvements in health and quality of life – the ultimate public justification for industrial and military progress.
The predominant portrayal of individual human actors in the vignettes promotes an inaccurate myth of scientist as lone worker, at a time when the power of teamwork, recently exemplified by the Manhattan Project, was widely recognised. A more realistic representation may simply have been viewed as overcomplicating or jeopardising of the text structures used to link home and career.
Other Features – Stereotyping
The apparent gender and racial stereotyping through omission is alerting to our modern eye, but typical of the day. A fairer representation of gender, but never balance, is evident in later texts such as the 1960 Golden Book of Chemistry – itself an icon of the genre – where boys and girls are seen working together both at home and in the professional laboratory.
Race would certainly be the basis for an oppositional reading of this text. Despite the Immigration & Naturalisation Act of 1952, supposedly removing racial and ethnic barriers to citizenship, and the banning of racial segregation in schools in 1954, a black readership would likely receive Gilbert’s racially exclusive offering as just another slam of the door to white privilege.
Gibson could have produced his chemistry manuals with plain covers; they would certainly have appeared business like and practical. Yet that would disallow, as this analysis has shown, an induction into, and repeated reminders of, the world of work and modern America to which the set promised entry. A world of progress, Gilbert’s artwork tells us – with its speeding aircraft and submarines, and the restless whirl of the electron.
We have revealed evidence of Gilbert’s subscription to an ideology of American global leadership. And how, by integrating military and industrial images, and linking them through themes of progress and the pervasiveness of chemistry, he expertly references the whole to the domestic life and career ambition of his customer. In doing so, Gilbert, representing a substantial share of the 1950s chemistry set market, endorses my core argument.
 Dwight D. Eisenhower First Inaugural Address, (January 20, 1953)
 Dwight D. Eisenhower, Farewell Address (January 17, 1961)
 The Hale 200 inch telescope was first operated in 1948; eight years earlier. See: Florence, Ronald. The perfect machine: building the Palomar telescope, Harper Perrenial 1995
 Although McCarthy was ostracised two years earlier in1954, the threat of communist conspiracy and suspicion of outsiders or the unusual remained
 Nicholls, Henry. The chemistry set generation, Chemistry World Dec. 2007
 Von Braun’s Wheel. NASA Archives. http://antwrp.gsfc.nasa.gov/apod/ap960302.html
 A schoolroom series of maps by Rand McNally placed America centrally on the globe and split the former soviet union in two. See: George Simmons, ‘Training with map power’ in Cultural Detective at http://www.culturaldetective.com/worldmaps.html
 U.S. Navy Submarine Force Museum, http://www.ussnautilus.org/index.html
 Brent, Robert. The Golden Book of Chemistry, Golden Press New York, 1960