Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘isaac newton’

Self portrait of Leonardo da VInci

Self portrait of Leonardo da VInci

Ever wonder where ink comes from, how it was invented and how it is made? I do. Most of the ink we use today for printing newspapers or drawing is called “India” ink (although it was invented in China). It uses carbon black, or soot, for the pigment. But before this ink formula reached Europe, artists and scientists used a type of ink based on iron known as iron-gall ink.

Original drawing by Leonardo da Vinci using iron-gall ink

Original drawing by Leonardo da Vinci using iron-gall ink

In July, 1984, I had the opportunity to travel to Europe with my family. Among many works of Renaissance art, I saw a display of original drawings by Leonardo da Vinci in Florence. There were plans of statues he was commissioned to cast, sketches of human anatomy, and designs for fantastic devices. One thing that caught my eye was his artistic ability; how well he could draw directly using pen and ink. I remember wondering where he got his ink from, which had turned brown with age. Now I know the answer, and I’ve turned it into one of my favorite activities in chemistry.

Alchemical manuscript by Sir Isaac Newton, at the Chemical Heritage Foundation

Alchemical manuscript by Sir Isaac Newton, at the Chemical Heritage Foundation

Iron-gall ink was used for about 1400 years and only lost favor in the mid 1800s when India ink replaced it (because it was cheaper and easier to make and produced a more consistent, longer lasting black). But there’s something to be said for the artistic variety and richness of the shades of iron-gall ink and how it has oxidized with time. The manuscript shown here was written by Sir Isaac Newton with his own homemade ink. It is one page of 24 in the possession of the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia and is a series of notes he made on his alchemical experiments (yes, Isaac Newton was an alchemist; in fact, he wrote far more pages on alchemy than he ever did on physics).

Isaac Newton's recipe for iron-gall ink

Isaac Newton’s recipe for iron-gall ink

Newton also left behind his own recipe for ink, as seen here. He started out by collecting galls off of oak trees. These galls are formed when a species of wasp lays an egg in an oak bud, which causes the oak to form a rounded ball or gall around the developing wasp larvae. As Newton’s recipe shows, he soaked the galls in strong ale or beer for a month along with solid gum Arabic. The rotting oak galls would produce tannic acid. The gum Arabic, which comes from the gum of acacia bushes in northern Africa, is used here as a binder to help the ink stick to the paper and keep the pigment in suspension, as well as make the ink have a better flow and consistency. Newton would then mix the tannic acid/gum solution with copperas. This is a chemical with a greenish-blue color that was mistakenly thought to contain copper (hence the name) but is really iron (II) sulfate. The mixture of the iron (II) ions with the tannic acid produced a rich dark brown-black suspension ideal as an ink pigment.

Chemistry students making ink

Chemistry students making ink

The question is how to make similar ink using modern equivalents. I’m not about to soak oak galls in ale for weeks; as it turns out, tannic acid is readily available from strong tea. The iron (II) ions can be produced from steel wool by boiling it in vinegar, filtering the solution through wet filter paper, then adding a small amount of 3% hydrogen peroxide. The trick is to not oxidize the iron too much, or you’ll get too much rust (iron (III) oxide) and your ink will be too brown. Getting a nice black color with just a hint of brown is ideal. If the ink is too thin, then it can be left out to evaporate and make it more viscous. A few drops of gum Arabic are added at the end. You can buy gum Arabic in most craft or art supply stores. If you add too much, the ink will be too glossy when it dries. I originally came across this procedure in ChemMatters magazine (“An Iron-Clad Recipe for Ancient Ink” ChemMatters, October, 2001) and have tinkered with it over the years.

Chemistry students drawing illustrations with their own homemade ink

Chemistry students drawing illustrations with their own homemade ink

So what is the ideal recipe to make the darkest ink? That’s the inquiry part of this lab. I have the students experiment with different formulations to see what the best ratios of steel wool, vinegar, hydrogen peroxide, and tea would be. They also change the time that the steel wool/vinegar mixture is allowed to boil. They begin by learning the old recipe using oak galls, then learn the modern equivalents. From that, they identify variables to test. These factors (or ingredients or procedures) can be listed on the board and divided into comparison groups. Small groups of 2-3 students are assigned to each possibility, such as one group testing the amount of steel wool and its gauge, another testing the strength and amount of the vinegar (kitchen strength or glacial acetic acid) and how long to cook it, another group can test the hydrogen peroxide amount, and another the strength and amount of the tea to add. All of these results can be compiled and compared to create the ideal recipe for making the darkest ink.

Using a traditional drawing pen with homemade ink

Using a traditional drawing pen with homemade ink

The procedure outlined in the ChemMatters article calls for students to boil 200 mL of water, then soak two tea bags in it for five minutes. Meanwhile, a steel wool pad is placed in a beaker with 100 mL of vinegar and boiled for seven minutes. The solution is filtered and cooled to room temperature, then 1 mL of 3% hydrogen peroxide is added. The grayish solution turns a reddish brown as the some of the iron (II) is converted to iron (III) ions (during our Intersession class, I had students use 10 mL of the hydrogen peroxide by mistake and their ink turned too brown). The iron solution and the tea are both added to small cups or vials in equal amounts and stirred together. A few drops of gum Arabic are added. My experience using this recipe produced rather anemic gray ink. As you can see from the illustration of Cai Lun (the inventor of paper) by Evan, with some experimentation you can achieve a very nice dark ink which compares favorably with India ink.

Cai Lun, the inventor of paper. Notice how rich and dark the ink is.

Cai Lun, the inventor of paper. Notice how rich and dark the ink is.

Of course, what my students have done deliberately in one class period took people during the Middle Ages centuries of trial and error to develop, and even by Newton’s time, everyone still had their own recipe. As you can see from the manuscript page, his was a good formula and made dark brown-black ink that has held up well for almost 400 years.

Zach practices daring Elvish calligraphy using homemade ink

Zach practices daring Elvish calligraphy using homemade ink

Once my students create good ink, they go farther and use traditional drawing pens to create illustrations related to the history of chemistry. They pick a material to research, such as glass or steel or armor or stained glass or paper, write up its history and manufacturing, and create their own illustrations with the iron-gall ink. I am showing some of these in this blog. We’ve tried different formulas. In the Intersession Science and Art class I taught in March, we cooked the steel wool for too long in the vinegar and got too much iron (III) ions, or added too much strong tea. The result was sepia colored ink instead of dark black, as shown in the ladybug drawing.

Illustration of armor by Sebastian using iron-gall ink

Illustration of armor by Sebastian using iron-gall ink

Try it out for yourselves! Make sure to use uncoated steel wool. You can get it easily at a hardware store. The other chemicals are household strength and readily found, except for the gum Arabic. Most art supply stores do have bottles of this. It is a bit pricey but a little bit is all that is needed. Two bottles should be enough for a class of 30 students. You will also need some bottles or phials to store the ink (it will last a long time and can be reconstituted with water if it dries out), drawing pens and Bristol board illustration paper, which will be the largest expense of your lab.

Illustrations from my Intersession class where the iron was overly oxidized and turned a sepia color.

Illustrations from my Intersession class where the iron was overly oxidized and turned a sepia color.

As an initial demonstration and “hook”, I use a traditional quill pen and some parchment paper to show how it used to be done. I also demonstrate writing Chinese characters (tsz) using ink sticks, inkwells, traditional maubi (drawing brushes), and rice paper. I’m not very good at drawing tsz, but at least I can show how to hold a maubi and use ink sticks (which are not iron-gall ink – they are “India” ink based on carbon black bound together in stick form, then rubbed with water in an ink well). The “love” character shown was drawn by Miyuki, a Japanese exchange student, on parchment.

Illustration of plate glass making by Nicole

Illustration of plate glass making by Nicole

Drawing of Aristotle using iron-gall ink. I did this as a demonstration project for the chemistry students.

Drawing of Aristotle using iron-gall ink. I did this as a demonstration project for the chemistry students.

Illustration of Chinese fireworks by Richard, made with iron-gall ink

Illustration of Chinese fireworks by Richard, made with iron-gall ink

Alec's Anime drawing. Behind it are pigments we made for watercolors. Stay tuned for that post!

Alec’s Anime drawing. Behind it are pigments we made for watercolors. Stay tuned for that post!

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

David Black in Lackawanna Coal Mine

David Black in Lackawanna Coal Mine

    For the last two weeks I have been so busy collecting materials for The Elements Unearthed project that I haven’t had time to write any blog entries. My daughter flew in from Utah to visit us in Philadelphia and she has helped me videotape and photograph some local mines and minerals. I’ve collected materials for four new podcast episodes, including anthracite coal mining in Pennsylvania, minerals and gems of the Smithsonian, zinc mining in New Jersey, and the history of the Periodic Table of the Elements. Let’s take a look at samples from each of these future episodes:

Coal tipple at Lackawanna Coal Mine

Coal tipple at Lackawanna Coal Mine

 Lackawanna Coal Mine:

    On Thursday, August 6 we traveled to Scranton, PA and visited the Lackawanna Coal Mine and the Anthracite Heritage Museum. The tour into the mine lasts about an hour, and our guide, Roger Beatty, was informative and funny. He allowed us to attach a wireless microphone system to him, which we then fed into my small HD camera so that we could have good audio regardless of where we were standing underground. The video itself is pretty good for being hand-held and in the semi-darkness of a coal mine. The coal here in northeastern Pennsylvania is anthracite or metamorphic coal and has to be mined using hard rock techniques. The veins that were mined and which underlie the Lackawanna Valley (Scranton) range from 8-10 feet seems to 18 inches tall. These thin “monkey” veins had to be mined on all fours, usually at a steep incline. Since the coal seems are broad and stretch for miles in all directions, the technique for mining is to create a grid of galleries and cross-cuts with pillars of coal left in place in between to support the weight of the rock above. Some galleries are made wider as gangways for cart tracks and ventilation; once the edge of the mine property is reached, the mining procedes backwards as the pillars are robbed. If too much coal is mined, the entire area may collapse.

Roger Beatty, Tour Guide

Roger Beatty, Tour Guide

    In the Wyoming Valley nearby, unsafe mining techniques led to a stope in the Knox Mine being cut only three feet under the muddy bottom of the Susquehanna River, and on Jan. 22, 1959 the weight of the water punched a hole into the mine and eventually flooded all the mines in the valley and drowned 12 miners. Anthracite coal was already having hard economic times when this disaster led to the closing of most of the anthracite mines in Pennsylvania. It is estimated that if the mines could be pumped out, there still remaines over 8 billion tons of anthracite coal in Pennsylvania alone.

Centralia, PA:

    In addition to roof collapse and mine flooding, coal mines can have other hazards. Over 30,000 men died in the anthracite mines from the time records were kept in the 1870s until now. But in one case, no one died except a town.

Fumes coming from hillside near Centralia, PA

Fumes coming from hillside near Centralia, PA

    In 1962 the coal town of Centralia, PA was a prosperous village near Ashland and about ten miles from Frackville. Then burning trash in an abandoned open pit mine set a seam of coal on fire. When the fire was put out on the surface, the coal continued to burn underground, and repeated efforts to extinguish the slowly burning seams have all failed. The fire has gradually spread and the fumes (sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, etc.) were deemed too hazardous for the residents to stay, so the town has been evacuated and the houses moved into the next valley (except for a few die-hards who refuse to leave).

Layer of smoldering ash under the surface

Layer of smoldering ash under the surface

    Now you can visit the town, as we did on our way back to Philadelphia, and see roads that lead  nowhere and a hillside near the cemetary that is still smoldering. In one small mound we could see several vents with fumes wafting out, so we took our video equipment over and documented it. We found that you certainly don’t want to breathe the fumes! I tried to pick up a few pieces of slate mixed in with the gray coal to see what was underneath, and the ground was hot to the touch. Once the slate was pulled out, a layer of coal ash could be seen in the hole left behind. After 47 years, Centralia is still on fire.

Gold nuggets in the Natural History Museum

Gold nuggets in the Natural History Museum

Minerals and Gems at the Museum of Natural History:

    We visited Washington, D.C. on August 7-9 and I spent some time in the Natural History Museum photographing the rocks, minerals, and gems. The Smithsonian has such an extensive collection that all the specimens are amazing; they have enough to even show displays of unusual crystals and mineral colors and crystal shapes. They also have samples of many famous meteorites, of all types of rocks from the rock cycle, examples of deposition and erosion, families of minerals (such as sulfates and silicates) on display, and, of course, some of the most famous gemstones in the world, including the Hope Diamond. Although the Hope is certainly nice, I personally like the emeralds better.

Indian Emerald Necklace from Columbia

Indian Emerald Necklace from Columbia

    I have often been accused of having rocks in my head, and all the photos I took (I filled up about 3.5 GB of disc space) certainly proves that at least I have rocks on my mind.

Sterling Hill Zinc Mine:

    On Wednesday, Aug. 12 we drove to northern New Jersey about 30 miles due west of New York City to the town of Ogdensburg where the Sterling Hill Zinc Mine is located. Operations shut down here in 1986 and the mine facilities have been turned into a museum of mining artifacts and a world-class mineral exhibit, including fluorescent zinc minerals such as the green-glowing willemite seen here. They have a display of the elements of the periodic table, and even have a sample of ore from the Tintic Mining District in Utah (the Mammoth mine).

Willemite (green) and calcite (red) fluorescence

Willemite (green) and calcite (red) fluorescence

    After touring the museum, we spent 90 minutes touring the mine. The zinc was deposited through igneous activity in ancient sea floor limestone deposits, which were then uplifted and metamorphosed into marble with the zinc as veins running through the marble.

The Periodic Table:

    In addition to all of this, Chemical Heritage Foundation hosted the International Society of the Philosophy of Chemistry (ISPC) annual symposium Aug. 13-15  and I attended some of the sessions. Although some of the philosophy was beyond the scope of this project, there were some sessions that tied in directly, including the history and philosophy of the periodic system. Dr. Eric Scerri, a noted authority on the history and structure of the periodic table, presented at the conference and consented to be interviewed by me.

Dr. Eric R. Scerri

Dr. Eric R. Scerri

He is the author of the book: The Periodic Table: Its Story and Its Significance (2007, Oxford University Press), and I asked him a series of questions about the discoveries and knowledge that led to Mendeleev’s successful table and some of the issues that still remain, such as whether or not the periodic system can be fully deduced from quantum mechanics (a central point of discussion at the symposium). In addition to Dr. Scerri’s interview, I hope to visit several installations of periodic tables on my way back to Utah along with the one here at CHF and the one at the zinc mine and have enough materials to create several podcast episodes specifically on the periodic table.

    Couple of final notes: As part of the symposium, one of our curators, Jim Voelkel, put out some of the rarer of our rare books and this time included a hand-written manuscript of Issac Newton’s, with notes on his alchemical experiments. I finally got to see it, and here is a photo of it.

Notes on alchemy by Sir Isaac Newton

Notes on alchemy by Sir Isaac Newton

    One of my goals this summer was to gain at least 2000 images related to this project; since I have bought my new camera in May, I have taken almost 7000 images, over half of which are for The Elements Unearthed. I am looking forward to using them in upcoming episodes. I certainly feel I have succeeded in my goals so far at CHF, and now have two more final weeks to finish up my research, then drive back to Utah. On the way, I am planning on a few more stops such as a lead mine in Missouri and a gold mine in Colorado. By the time I return to Utah, my students and I will have collected video and photos that can be used for at least 30 podcast episodes on subjects ranging from beryllium to zinc. I’ll have some video samples of the coal and zinc mines and Dr. Scerri’s interview next time, and some final podcast episodes ready by August 29.

Read Full Post »