Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Nitric Acid Acts Upon Trousers

I found this on my hard drive and I just can't remember where I first found it. Well, irrespective of whence it came, I think it's pretty good.

In 1879 preeminent American chemist Ira Remsen made the greatest discovery of his career by accident. When he ate rolls at dinner after a long day in the lab researching coal derivatives, he noticed that the rolls tasted initially sweet but then bitter. Since his wife tasted nothing strange about the rolls, Remsen tasted his fingers and noticed that the bitter taste was probably from one the chemicals in his lab. The next day at his lab tasted the chemicals that he had been working with the previous day and discovered that it was the oxidation of o-toluenesulfonamide he had tasted the previous evening. He named the substance “saccharin.”

Remsen was well known as a chemist who was truly entertained by what he found in his chemistry lab. Here's an sample of his writing that shows what a neat guy he must have been:

While reading a textbook of chemistry I came upon the statement, "nitric acid acts upon copper." I was getting tired of reading such absurd stuff and I was determined to see what this meant. Copper was more or less familiar to me, for copper cents were then in use. I had seen a bottle marked nitric acid on a table in the doctor's office where I was then "doing time." I did not know its peculiarities, but the spirit of adventure was upon me. Having nitric acid and copper, I had only to learn what the words "act upon" meant. The statement "nitric acid acts upon copper" would be more than mere words.

All was still. In the interest of knowledge I was even willing to sacrifice one of the few copper cents then in my possession. I put one of them on the table, opened the bottle marked nitric acid, poured some of the liquid on the copper and prepared to make an observation. But what was this wonderful thing which I beheld? The cent was already changed and it was no small change either. A green-blue liquid foamed and fumed over the cent and over the table. The air in the neighborhood of the performance became colored dark red. A great colored cloud arose. This was disagreeable and suffocating. How should I stop this?

I tried to get rid of the objectionable mess by picking it up and throwing it out of the window. I learned another fact. Nitric acid not only acts upon copper, but it acts upon fingers. The pain led to another unpremeditated experiment. I drew my fingers across my trousers and another fact was discovered. Nitric acid acts upon trousers.

Getman, F.H. "The Life of Ira Remsem"; Journal of Chemical Education: Easton, Pennsylvania, 1940; pp9-10


drk said...

This reminds me of when I was a spotty teenager who played with chemistry sets ...

An older sixth former at my school had access to a chemicals lab - and I bought half a litre of concentrated nitric acid from him - in the all too typical brown bottle.

Is it any good? I asked .. so we stepped outside the school observatory, placed a handful of copper rivets from the metalwork shop on a galvanised dustbin lid and poured some nitric acid onto them.

The resulting "orange cloud" (nitric oxide if my memory is correct) gathered rather more of a crowd than I would have liked - especially as I had to carry the 1/2 litre of concentrated nitric acid home on the school bus for 20 miles .....

drk said...

... and I forgot .. the "brown staining" effect of the nitric acid was enough to convince my mother that I was smoking cigarettes - she thought they really were nicotine stains.

I actually had to physically demonstrate the staining effect of nitric acid to convince my mother I hadn't been smoking ..

.. of course I *had* been smoking .. but my nicotine stained fingers never aroused suspicion after that point ...

(I used to scrub them with a toothbrush and toothpaste before this)

Milan said...

Maybe the textbook manufacturers will read this and start being a bit less vague. One phrase I'd recommend clearing up: "Sodium acts upon water."

Draicone said...

There's actually an article in wikipedia about this, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nitric_acid_acts_upon_copper.