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Historia Naturalis by Pliny the Elder

Historia Naturalis by Pliny the Elder

    This last week at Chemical Heritage Foundation I have begun to photograph some of the ancient books and manuscripts that are housed here. After researching CHF’s online catalog, I identified several books to start with including Pliny the Elder’s Historia Naturalis, Basil Valentine’s Twelve Keys, and others. The research librarians of the Othmer Library then located the books in the rare book storage and brought them up to the Jacobs Reading Room where I have been photographing selected pages. 

    The fun has come through the realization that I am handling books that are 400 years old or more. I’ve handled some old books before where the paper has become so brittle that you can’t turn a page without tearing the paper; I was very nervous about that happening here, but found that these older books actually hold up better than many of the books printed in the 20th Century. 400 years ago, if you could afford a book, you could afford to do it right, with high-quality paper and leather binding. The paper of these books has an amazing feel (this coming from someone who’s dabbled in drawing and painting) and can be handled if proper precautions are taken, such as resting the books on a special pillow to avoid stressing their spines and making sure my hands are clean and oil-free.

Pages on Love Potions from Trinum Magicum

Pages on Love Potions from Trinum Magicum

    Once I got over my nervousness at handling the books, I began trying to decipher the Latin and German. I’m not very good at either language, but I did run across some interesting things. In a compilation book titled Trinum Magicum, I found a section labeled “De Unguento Armario” which I believe means “Love Potion” (those Latin scholars out there please correct me!). The author (unknown) didn’t seem to be in favor of love potions, and listed some of the symptoms one could expect from their use, such as “Inanis vita” or an empty or useless life. On the right page he mentions a “contra toxicum” or antidote. It occured to me that this was a perfect thing to discover given that the sixth Harry Potter movie, The Half-Blood Prince, is coming out this week and love potions figure prominently in the plot. I half expected Romilda Vane to be hiding behind one of the columns at CHF. Certainly these books bear more than a passing resemblance to those in the library at Hogwarts.  One of the other books I’ve photographed even included a summary of the works of Nicholas Flamel . . . !

The Sixth Key, from Basil Valentine, 1626

The Sixth Key, Basil Valentine, 1626

    Two of the other interesting books I’ve photographed are both editions of Basil Valentine’s Twelve Keys (Zwolfe Schlussel) in German. In this work, Valentine, a Benedictine monk, describes the twelve steps for making the Philosopher’s Stone (shades of HP again) and describes these steps through twelve allegorical drawings that are rich in symbols meant to confuse the uninitiated. Although much of the work was probably written at least a hundred years after Valentine’s death, it was still fascinating to realize how seriously all of this was taken back then. The first edition was a 1626 version, with the illustrations printed from woodcuts. The second was a 1717 edition, much expanded, with the illustrations printed from engravings and much more detailed. It has been fun to compare the two.

1717 edition of Basil Valentine's The Twelve Keys

1717 edition of Basil Valentine's The Twelve Keys

    Meanwhile, my wife ‘Becca, my two youngest children, and I ventured out to Delaware to the Du Pont gunpowder mill on the Brandywine River near Wilmington. From 1802 through 1921, the mill used water power from the Brandywine to produce the best black powder in the United States. Eleuthère Irénée du Pont de Nemours was an apprentice to Antoine Lavoisier, the famous chemist who was in charge of French gunpowder manufacturing. When du Pont’s father found that American gunpowder was of inferior quality, his son was sent to build a gunpowder factory using the techniques he had learned from Lavoisier. By refining the raw materials further to increase their purity, adding automation to the compositing process (where the saltpeter, sulfur, and charcoal were ground up and mixed through water power and rolling mills), and by improving the consistency of size and finishing of the powder grains, the Du Pont company became the leader in gunpowder manufacturing. They expanded into polymer manufacturing and other materials and are a leader today in the chemical manufacturing industry.

Water turbine at Du Pont gunpowder mill

Water turbine at Du Pont gunpowder mill

    To run the mills, a diversionary dam was built on the Brandywine to push water into a mill race that had less fall that the river. Along the mill race, headgates allowed the water to be diverted onto overshot waterwheels and later onto water turbines (shown here) to run two rolling mills each. Huge metal wheels rolled around in a trough, where the correct mixture of ingredients had been placed, until they were ground to a fine powder and thoroughly mixed. The powder was then compressed into cakes to increase its density (and power), then broken up into same-sized grains and glazed, then packaged and stored in a magazine far from the processing plant. Each of the mills was built with three strong stone walls, a flimsy roof, and an open fourth wall facing the river. In case of an explosion (which happend fairly often) the force of the explosion would go out over the river.

Gunpowder roller mill

Gunpowder roller mill

    All of this water-powered machinery required considerable maintenance, and there was a full machine shop with all the needed equipment also water powered through a system of shafts and belts. Gear cogs and other parts could be cut or repaired in this shop. One particularly interesting device was a transmission system for a variable drill; the two cones seen here are almost but not quite touching. The belt in between creates a point of contact and can be moved left or right to speed up or slow down the drill press, which runs off the belt at far right. I’ve seen similar belt-driven milling equipment at the Tintic Mining Museum in Eureka, Utah but it is all sitting outside rusting. Here at Du Pont’s Hagley Museum it was all in working order.

Transmission system for variable speed drill

Transmission system for variable speed drill

    Finally, here is a sample video of the Synthetic Diamond Manufacturing project, as promised. In this clip, Francis Leany, the Product Development Manager for Novatek, tells the story of how H. Tracy Hall invented the belt apparatus that successfully created the first artificial diamonds in Dec., 1954. I hope you enjoy it!

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