Chemistry Throughout History: Fragmented And Funny Facts

The history of chemistry originated in the accidental discovery of gold. Throughout history, queens and kings desired gold and sought after it. This gave rise to alchemy in the middle ages; the sole dream of the alchemists was to transform ordinary metals into gold.

There was a belief that the ‘Philosopher’s stone’ could turn any metal into gold but this magic compound was never formulated or achieved. Another belief was that mercury could be converted to gold but that, too, never happened. Alchemists toiled for centuries to turn mercury into gold and in their failed endeavors they discovered new chemicals and compounds. Finally, alchemy took the form of chemistry as a science based on facts, not dreams.

Chemistry Fact #1:

In ancient India, metallurgy was a common science. Even before Christ metal extraction was in vogue and the art, if not science, had passed from one generation to another. One book written by Patanjali in the first century BCE was on the metallurgy of iron, tin, copper, zinc, and mercury. In those days, extraction of rust-proof iron was possible from ores – oxides of iron – by heating them with coal, limestone in tall furnaces and kilns. In those days of ignorance of chromium and nickel – which are used to prepare steel now – rust-proof iron was prepared.

Chemistry Fact #2:

The iron pillar near the Qutb Minar at Mehrauli, built during the Kumargupta days, and the iron used in the Sun Temple of Konarak are living examples – singing odes to the advanced science in India. This pillar, which measures 7.2136 meters and weighs 6 tonnes was not cast. It was, however, created by welding hammer-welding lumps of hot pastry iron. Around 120 laborers are thought to have contributed to the pillar, which still holds marks from the blows of hammers.

Chemistry Fact #3:

The Ancient Roman Empire and civilization were of unprecedented grandeur. Romans were known all over the globe for their immense wealth and culture. But the great strength of the empire dwindled and one of the decisive factors was that the Romans started dying young.

The mystery of the civilization’s decay was not known at that time and ultimately the empire turned weaker and weaker. Of course, many factors contribute to the disastrous fall of the Roman Empire, but scientists suspect one factor; in Rome, water pipes, vessels, and dishes were all made of lead. This resulted in the ingestion of lead-contaminated foods, water, and beverages. Lead bio-accumulated and was toxic to humans, causing intestinal cramps, peripheral nerve paralyzes, anemia, severe fatigue, brain damage, kidney damage, gastrointestinal problems, blood pressure mess and disorder in Vitamin D metabolism.

Children showed retarded growth and development while men with high lead exposure suffered from decreased sperm count and women had abortions. Lead poisoning took its toll on the Romans who, out of the blue, died young; thus making the civilization and the empire weak. In June 1812 AD, Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Russia and marched with his valiant army to Moscow. They confronted Siberia’s cold weather, but Napoleon was well prepared and had brought a million heavy coats for his men from England. But the tin buttons of the coats were rendered useless by the cold weather. The mission failed as the shivering French army was too disheartened to fight. This ‘button disorder’ can’t be the sole factor of the failure but it is thought to be one major cause.

Chemistry Fact #4

In 1910 AD, Tin also played the villain when Capt. Robert Scott went on an expedition to the South Pole. The expedition was called Terra Nova after its ship that carried Scott with more than 80 people. The troops carried kerosene with them to make fires; however, this began to leak from the gallons because the frost destroyed the tin. As a result, the soldiers were left without their source of warmth and without a way to cook their food; therefore, they froze and starved to death. Ultimately, Capt. Scott died as well on his return journey from the South Pole.

Chemistry Fact #5:

Credit: Basu Maan Daas

The reason behind these tin debacles is that when it’s exposed to cold weather for an extended period of time, tin (Sn) suffers from tin pest/plague, which is the transition of brittle white tin or β-Sn with a tetragonal crystal cell in a rhombic lattice into powdery grey tin or α-Sn with a cubic lattice. The β-Sn is denser and, consequently, more compact and strong than the powdery α-Sn. That’s because, in α-Sn, each tin atom has molecules that are closer than in β-Sn; yet, the second group of molecules in the α form is farther than in the β form. As a result, the density of white tin or β-Sn is 7.31 g/cc while that of grey tin or α-Sn is 5.75 g/cc.

The transition of white tin to gray starts very slowly at 13.2 °C (about 56 °F) and is the fastest at a temperature of -48 0C. The time required for significant tin pest damage to unalloyed tin at lowered temperatures is about 18 months which is more than twice the length of Napoleon’s Russian invasion.

This means that the famous book Napoleon’s Buttons: How 17 Molecules Changed History by Couteur and Burreson in 2003 loses some validity. The story explains the army uniforms were held closed by tin buttons as a cost-cutting measure and that later on the buttons disintegrated; thereby, exposing the soldiers to severe winter. In modern times, after the adoption of the Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive (RoHS), regulations banned most uses of lead and the problem of tin pest/plague recurred with use pure tin. Tin pest/plague can be avoided by alloying with small amounts of electropositive or semi-metals, e.g. antimony or bismuth.

Chemistry Fact #6:

In the early 20th century, radium was widely used in toothpaste and cosmetics as scientists and technologists were fascinated by its magnificent luminescence when it was blended with a phosphor. The application of radium was prevalent to the extent that it was even mixed in water to make it potable. This practice led to skin burns and skin cancer, gum decay and pyorrhoea, fast receding hairlines etc., and ultimately after the death of Marie Curie from blood cancer. The use of radium was stopped out of cancer-phobia.

Chemistry Fact #7:

More recently, thousands of fishermen and their families in the southern Japanese city Minamata fell sick for some unknown reason.  Later, it was found that fish was the main component in their menu and that their catches were contaminated with mercury due to the insensible dumping of waste mercury compounds. The fishes took in mercury, little by little, daily and gradually the mercury content in the fishes became potentially fatal. There is also a history of using mercury in creams, ointments, dental fillings, paints, and glasses. Recently, it has become known that mercury poisoning can affect the whole body – paralyzing the metabolism in every system.

Many historical blunders have occurred throughout history: some we know, and some we may never find out.