Accidental discoveries



Guest post by Rowena Fletcher-Wood

Was brandy first created as a tax dodge?

During the 15th and 16th century, alcoholic drinks were taxed by volume, since methods for assessing percentage of alcohol were relatively crude. This gave rise to a clever little corner-cutting idea: distil down wines for export, pay less tax, then add the water back in after delivery.

The process of distillation had been long known. It was usually performed in an alembic, or alchemists still apparatus, made of glass. Led by the Dutch, merchants started using these to boil down wine to between 35% and 60% abv, at which concentration they made an inferior-flavoured, very boozy concentrate.

Like all forms of preservation, the process left behind its own unique flavour, even after the concentrated drink was watered back down. The merchants accounted for this by calling the reconstituted wine brandewijn, or burnt wine to describe what they thought had happened to it. They might better have called it burning wine, for this was how they tested the concentrate – taking a portion and setting it alight, deeming the distillation adequate when their sample was entirely flammable . Often, several distillations were required, the first distillate being called the spirit of wine, and the improved distillate the spirit of wine rectified. (more…)

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Guest post by Rowena Fletcher-Wood

How do you create something? A picture, say, a performance, or a piece of writing?

You start with an idea, a shadow of the final opus, and you experiment, practice; you throw something down onto the paper and push the colours about until new words or shapes emerge from the writhing medley. Structures or sentences that may not be what you had imagined in the first place at all. And there, you have discovered something. Or created something. Where does discovery really begin and creation end?

Poring through over 100,000 medical recipes in ancient Chinese literature, researchers came across a tale of discovery – but this was no ordinary discovery. Shrouded in mystery, and written in even more mysterious prose; tangled, poetic, using words that turn away from their ancient meanings to become a new and powerful metaphor – this was the language of the alchemists. And the tale, told and retold, recoloured and refashioned, full of sparks and glints, already several centuries later than the events it describes, is the tale of flickering fire, the tale of how earth becomes light, a tale of metaphor. And there it is, pinyin, the fire medicine. (more…)

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Guest post by Rowena Fletcher-Wood

When I am an old woman I shall wear purple

– Jenny Joseph

Colour is a powerful thing. It communicates emotions, beauty and status, unleashes our creativity and draws our attention. Wearing purple may have seemed slightly eccentric to poet Jenny Joseph, but in ancient Rome, it was the colour of power – and no surprise: their Tyrian purple was not only a lasting dye that seemed to become more rather than less vibrant under the sun, but it reportably took as many as 12,000 snails to produce enough dye to colour the trim of a toga!1

Purple clothing – ©iStock

Up until the mid 19th century, all dyes were naturally produced – from minerals (yellow ochre), plants (indigo and turmeric), or animals (cochineal and Tyrian purple). Of course, some of these natural dyes had their problems. Making Tyrian purple required thousands of snails and a laborious process, other colours were inclined to fade or run, and some even broke down the fabrics they were used to colour.

Despite all of this, synthetic alternatives were not sought at the time: organic chemistry was not sufficiently understood to guess at a link between structure and properties, and in fact, by the mid 1800s, chemistry was still very much a private practice.

One chemical practitioner was August Wilhelm von Hofmann of the Royal Society. Hofmann was interested in quinine, an extract from the bark of the cinchona tree used to treat malaria. In the mid 1800s, he published a hypothesis for the synthetic production of quinine, and set one of his students the challenge of producing it. (more…)

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Guest post by Rowena Fletcher-Wood

How do you feel about Botox?

To some, it’s a routine fix, a gift in the battle for eternal youth, found at the tip of a needle. Others, perhaps understandably, feel rather uncomfortable at the thought of injecting their face with a potent neurotoxin, just 50 grammes of which could wipe out all human life.

A man recieving botox treatment – © Shutterstock

But how would you feel to hear that Botox was discovered by accident – that this potent neurotoxin, which acts by paralysing muscles into flaccidity, was at some point injected into somebody without knowing everything it would do? In a marriage between cosmetics and surgery, this is how Botox came about.

Of course, people have been looking for something like Botox – and for a long time too. Back in the 16th century, women would stir up a white paste of vinegar and lead and plaster it across their faces in the same vein as foundation today. Once the mask had set, they would be unable to make any facial expressions at all for fear of cracking it, but apparently it was still worth it, despite the massive doses of lead that would have been slowly poisoning them, and the rancid unpleasant smell of the vinegar. Slightly less bizarre (but bizarre all the same) was the later introduction of uncooked egg white glaze to the same result. This at least didn’t poison anybody, assuming the eggs were healthy.

Then, in the 1820s, there came ‘wurstgift’. This was not a cosmetic face paint, but the first discovery of botulinum, found by German scientist (and apparent masochist) Dr Justinus Kerner, who isolated it from sausages that were past their best. He was investigating the deaths of several Germans at the hands of blood sausages, and his analysis of the toxin included going as far as injecting it into himself to observe its effects. Dr Kerner was, in fact, the first recipient of botulinum toxin, or Botox. (more…)

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Guest post by Rowena Fletcher-Wood

Witches, everybody knows, don’t like to be messed with. Mess with them, and they’ll point their horribly gruelled finger at you and intimate that you will be next.

And no time nor place we know of now was worse than the Salem witch trials of 1762. Fingers were pointed all over the place, and the rope swung on the gallows. It lasted for a season, a miserable spring, and then it ended, but it was not forgotten.

Ergot infested rye – © Shutterstock

In 1976, Linnda Caporael published a paper that pointed the finger for witchcraft in a different direction – into the fields. They mostly contain rye in that part of Massachusetts, and it had been a warm, damp growing season, the kind that breeds moulds and fungus. Caporael indicated one fungus in particular: ergot, an alkaloid-loaded parasite.

At the time, the dark, fusiform fingers that protrude from the rye ears like they’re giving one-up to the heavens were thought to be simply sun-baked kernels, harmless. But this was far from the case, and in 1853 ‘ergotism’ was discovered, a long term cumulative poisoning from eating ergot.

Although they knew nothing of ergotism in Salem, it is possible that the accusers suffered from it. (more…)

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Guest post by Rowena Fletcher-Wood

When the Children of the Nineties survey discovered that a good number of mothers were feeding their babies cola, the public were shocked. But, believe it or not, Coca-Cola was originally developed as a healthy medicine. Its inventor was John Stith Pemberton, a pharmacist by trade, whose aim was to develop new ‘brain tonics’.

He also had personal motivations. After receiving pain relief treatment as an injured soldier in 1865, Pemberton had become addicted to morphine. This was not an uncommon problem amongst war veterans, but as a pharmacist, Pemberton was especially aware of the dangers of his addiction. He tried many mixtures in the hopes of developing an opium-free alternative, including his amusingly-named, if unprofitable, ‘Dr Tuggle’s Compound Syrup of Globe Flower’. (more…)

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Guest post by Rowena Fletcher-Wood

Some people are said to be luckier than others, but can the same lucky chance happen twice, to the same person? Harry Coover was a serial inventor, patenting more than 460 inventions in his 94-year life, but his most famous product was discovered by accident.

Superglue in use (©iStock)

In 1951, whilst trying to come up with a heat resistant polymer to make jet canopies from, Harry Coover and Fred Joyner accidentally created a substance that glued two refractometer prisms together with an obstinacy not to be resisted. Joyner began to panic – the prisms were very expensive – but Coover did not: he had seen this reaction before. He had made it. (more…)

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Guest post by Rowena Fletcher-Wood

Perhaps, if you spend enough time looking, you can find anything. So it was for Charles Goodyear, a would-be inventor who, at the expense of everything else, bounced back after every failure, devoting his life to transforming natural rubber into a commercially useful material. He saw the potential immediately – just not the chemistry.

The rubber in Goodyear’s hands during the early 1830s wasn’t a particularly useful material. It was temperamental: whilst it exhibited promising properties including elasticity, hydrophobicity, adhesiveness and electrical insulation, when it got hot it would melt and turn into a horrible sticky slime, and when it got cold in the chilly English weather it would become brittle and readily crack.

Looking at the structure of rubber, it all makes sense: a natural cis polymer of isoprene, this allowed it to stretch (whereas the trans polymer of isoprene, gutta-percha, is crystalline) and the chains could readily flow past each other, especially when warmed. Equally, when solidified, splits could propagate rapidly and directionally between the chains of polymers. Goodyear put a lot of time and effort into trying to mop up the runny rubber by mixing it with various different dry powders and attempting to reform it into a ball. But it would take chemical rather than physical methods to get this compound to bend to his will. (more…)

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Guest post by Rowena Fletcher-Wood

Some discoveries are made after hunting hard for the answer, some come to you when you need them most, and some just turn up at parties. Such was the discovery of modern anaesthetics.

Method of administering nitrous oxide used by Samuel lee Rymer in London, 1863
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

The concept of anaesthetics and their application to relieve pain during surgery was not wholly new. The Mesopotamians used alcohol (and its use persisted in resource deprived times such as war as late as 1812) and the ancient Chinese used acupuncture. The Sumerians may have used opium and Egyptians mandrake, and around a similar time, juniper and coca were put the the same use.

A popular anaesthetic in England between ~1200 and 1500 was Dwale – a mixture of varying composition containing opium and hemlock as well as lettuce, bile and bryony. Mandrake roots were chewed, extracting the active ingredients in doses that varied with chewing time or vigour. This was a risky business: low doses were often insufficient to fully mask the pain of surgery or put the patient to sleep, but at doses not much higher, many of these substances would become fatally toxic. Enough to make you numb just thinking about it. (more…)

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Guest post by Rowena Fletcher-Wood

The x-ray has always been a mysterious thing. An invisible beam of high energy electromagnetic radiation that passes through most kinds of matter, it is even named ‘x’ after the mathematical variable used to denote the unknown. And the x-ray itself isn’t the only unknown thing – so are its origins. Sources suggest it was an accidental discovery, but there aren’t as many sources as there should be, due to a very non-accidental fire.

Wilhelm Röntgen, German physicist and discoverer of x-rays, died on 10 February 1923, whereupon all his laboratory records were burnt on his request.

It was an extreme action, but not an unusual one.

While modern science is becoming more and more transparent, not very long ago secrecy was the tool of the inventor’s trade. Through secrecy, successful men were able to preserve their impression of genius, compete against their peers and prevent their ideas from being stolen. The most coveted prize was not scientific elucidation but personal recognition – impossible for those who were too open and lost their ideas to the less scrupulous. It wasn’t just seen amongst scientists; William Howson Taylor, founder of the admired Ruskin pottery, had all his notes burnt at his death in 1935. And so the method was lost with its maker.

We are left with a fuzzy picture, not much easier to illuminate than x-rays themselves, and can only imagine the scene in Röntgen’s laboratory in the winter of 1895… (more…)

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