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Familiar Letters on Chemistry

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<SPAN NAME="chap03"></SPAN> <H3 ALIGN="center"> LETTER III </H3> <P CLASS="noindent"> My dear Sir, </P> <P> The manufacture of soda from common culinary salt, may be regarded as the foundation of all our modern improvements in the domestic arts; and we may take it as affording an excellent illustration of the dependence of the various branches of human industry and commerce upon each other, and their relation to chemistry. </P> <P> Soda has been used from time immemorial in the manufacture of soap and glass, two chemical productions which employ and keep in circulation an immense amount of capital. The quantity of soap consumed by a nation would be no inaccurate measure whereby to estimate its wealth and civilisation. Of two countries, with an equal amount of population, the wealthiest and most highly civilised will consume the greatest weight of soap. This consumption does not subserve sensual gratification, nor depend upon fashion, but upon the feeling of the beauty, comfort, and welfare, attendant upon cleanliness; and a regard to this feeling is coincident with wealth and civilisation. The rich in the middle ages concealed a want of cleanliness in their clothes and persons under a profusion of costly scents and essences, whilst they were more luxurious in eating and drinking, in apparel and horses. With us a want of cleanliness is equivalent to insupportable misery and misfortune. </P> <P> Soap belongs to those manufactured products, the money value of which continually disappears from circulation, and requires to be continually renewed. It is one of the few substances which are entirely consumed by use, leaving no product of any worth. Broken glass and bottles are by no means absolutely worthless; for rags we may purchase new cloth, but soap-water has no value whatever. It would be interesting to know accurately the amount of capital involved in the manufacture of soap; it is certainly as large as that employed in the coffee trade, with this important difference as respects Germany, that it is entirely derived from our own soil. </P> <P> France formerly imported soda from Spain,&mdash;Spanish sodas being of the best quality&mdash;at an annual expenditure of twenty to thirty millions of francs. During the war with England the price of soda, and consequently of soap and glass, rose continually; and all manufactures suffered in consequence. </P> <P> The present method of making soda from common salt was discovered by Le Blanc at the end of the last century. It was a rich boon for France, and became of the highest importance during the wars of Napoleon. In a very short time it was manufactured to an extraordinary extent, especially at the seat of the soap manufactories. Marseilles possessed for a time a monopoly of soda and soap. The policy of Napoleon deprived that city of the advantages derived from this great source of commerce, and thus excited the hostility of the population to his dynasty, which became favourable to the restoration of the Bourbons. A curious result of an improvement in a chemical manufacture! It was not long, however, in reaching England. </P> <P> In order to prepare the soda of commerce (which is the carbonate) from common salt, it is first converted into Glauber's salt (sulphate of soda). For this purpose 80 pounds weight of concentrated sulphuric acid (oil of vitriol) are required to 100 pounds of common salt. The duty upon salt checked, for a short time, the full advantage of this discovery; but when the Government repealed the duty, and its price was reduced to its minimum, the cost of soda depended upon that of sulphuric acid. </P> <P> The demand for sulphuric acid now increased to an immense extent; and, to supply it, capital was embarked abundantly, as it afforded an excellent remuneration. The origin and formation of sulphuric acid was studied most carefully; and from year to year, better, simpler, and cheaper methods of making it were discovered. With every improvement in the mode of manufacture, its price fell; and its sale increased in an equal ratio. </P> <P> Sulphuric acid is now manufactured in leaden chambers, of such magnitude that they would contain the whole of an ordinary-sized house. As regards the process and the apparatus, this manufacture has reached its acme&mdash;scarcely is either susceptible of improvement. The leaden plates of which the chambers are constructed, requiring to be joined together with lead (since tin or solder would be acted on by the acid), this process was, until lately, as expensive as the plates themselves; but now, by means of the oxy-hydrogen blowpipe, the plates are cemented together at their edges by mere fusion, without the intervention of any kind of solder. </P> <P> And then, as to the process: according to theory, 100 pounds weight of sulphur ought to produce 306 pounds of sulphuric acid; in practice 300 pounds are actually obtained; the amount of loss is therefore too insignificant for consideration. </P> <P> Again; saltpetre being indispensable in making sulphuric acid, the commercial value of that salt had formerly an important influence upon its price. It is true that 100 pounds of saltpetre only are required to 1000 pounds of sulphur; but its cost was four times greater than an equal weight of the latter. </P> <P> Travellers had observed near the small seaport of Yquiqui, in the district of Atacama, in Peru, an efflorescence covering the ground over extensive districts. This was found to consist principally of nitrate of soda. Advantage was quickly taken of this discovery. The quantity of this valuable salt proved to be inexhaustible, as it exists in beds extending over more than 200 square miles. It was brought to England at less than half the freight of the East India saltpetre (nitrate of potassa); and as, in the chemical manufacture neither the potash nor the soda were required, but only the nitric acid, in combination with the alkali, the soda-saltpetre of South America soon supplanted the potash-nitre of the East. The manufacture of sulphuric acid received a new impulse; its price was much diminished without injury to the manufacturer; and, with the exception of fluctuations caused by the impediments thrown in the way of the export of sulphur from Sicily, it soon became reduced to a minimum, and remained stationary. </P> <P> Potash-saltpetre is now only employed in the manufacture of gunpowder; it is no longer in demand for other purposes; and thus, if Government effect a saving of many hundred thousand pounds annually in gunpowder, this economy must be attributed to the increased manufacture of sulphuric acid. </P> <P> We may form an idea of the amount of sulphuric acid consumed, when we find that 50,000 pounds weight are made by a small manufactory, and from 200,000 to 600,000 pounds by a large one annually. This manufacture causes immense sums to flow annually into Sicily. It has introduced industry and wealth into the arid and desolate districts of Atacama. It has enabled us to obtain platina from its ores at a moderate and yet remunerating price; since the vats employed for concentrating this acid are constructed of this metal, and cost from 1000l. to 2000l. sterling. It leads to frequent improvements in the manufacture of glass, which continually becomes cheaper and more beautiful. It enables us to return to our fields all their potash&mdash;a most valuable and important manure&mdash;in the form of ashes, by substituting soda in the manufacture of glass and soap. </P> <P> It is impossible to trace, within the compass of a letter, all the ramifications of this tissue of changes and improvements resulting from one chemical manufacture; but I must still claim your attention to a few more of its most important and immediate results. I have already told you, that in the manufacture of soda from culinary salt, it is first converted into sulphate of soda. In this first part of the process, the action of sulphuric acid produces muriatic acid to the extent of one-and-a-half the amount of the sulphuric acid employed. At first, the profit upon the soda was so great, that no one took the trouble to collect the muriatic acid: indeed it had no commercial value. A profitable application of it was, however, soon discovered: it is a compound of chlorine, and this substance may be obtained from it purer than from any other source. The bleaching power of chlorine has long been known; but it was only employed upon a large scale after it was obtained from this residuary muriatic acid, and it was found that in combination with lime it could be transported to distances without inconvenience. Thenceforth it was used for bleaching cotton; and, but for this new bleaching process, it would scarcely have been possible for the cotton manufacture of Great Britain to have attained its present enormous extent,&mdash;it could not have competed in price with France and Germany. In the old process of bleaching, every piece must be exposed to the air and light during several weeks in the summer, and kept continually moist by manual labour. For this purpose, meadow land, eligibly situated, was essential. Now a single establishment near Glasgow bleaches 1400 pieces of cotton daily, throughout the year. What an enormous capital would be required to purchase land for this purpose! How greatly would it increase the cost of bleaching to pay interest upon this capital, or to hire so much land in England! This expense would scarcely have been felt in Germany. Besides the diminished expense, the cotton stuffs bleached with chlorine suffer less in the hands of skilful workmen than those bleached in the sun; and already the peasantry in some parts of Germany have adopted it, and find it advantageous. </P> <P> Another use to which cheap muriatic acid is applied, is the manufacture of glue from bones. Bone contains from 30 to 36 per cent. of earthy matter&mdash;chiefly phosphate of lime, and the remainder is gelatine. When bones are digested in muriatic acid they become transparent and flexible like leather, the earthy matter is dissolved, and after the acid is all carefully washed away, pieces of glue of the same shape as the bones remain, which are soluble in hot water and adapted to all the purposes of ordinary glue, without further preparation. </P> <P> Another important application of sulphuric acid may be adduced; namely, to the refining of silver and the separation of gold, which is always present in some proportion in native silver. Silver, as it is usually obtained from mines in Europe, contains in 16 ounces, 6 to 8 ounces of copper. When used by the silversmith, or in coining, 16 ounces must contain in Germany 13 ounces of silver, in England about 14 1/2. But this alloy is always made artificially by mixing pure silver with the due proportion of the copper; and for this purpose the silver must be obtained pure by the refiner. This he formerly effected by amalgamation, or by roasting it with lead; and the cost of this process was about 2l. for every hundred-weight of silver. In the silver so prepared, about 1/1200 to 1/2000th part of gold remained; to effect the separation of this by nitrio-hydrochloric acid was more expensive than the value of the gold; it was therefore left in utensils, or circulated in coin, valueless. The copper, too, of the native silver was no use whatever. But the 1/1000th part of gold, being about one and a half per cent. of the value of the silver, now covers the cost of refining, and affords an adequate profit to the refiner; so that he effects the separation of the copper, and returns to his employer the whole amount of the pure silver, as well as the copper, without demanding any payment: he is amply remunerated by that minute portion of gold. The new process of refining is a most beautiful chemical operation: the granulated metal is boiled in concentrated sulphuric acid, which dissolves both the silver and the copper, leaving the gold nearly pure, in the form of a black powder. The solution is then placed in a leaden vessel containing metallic copper; this is gradually dissolved, and the silver precipitated in a pure metallic state. The sulphate of copper thus formed is also a valuable product, being employed in the manufacture of green and blue pigments. </P> <P> Other immediate results of the economical production of sulphuric acid, are the general employment of phosphorus matches, and of stearine candles, that beautiful substitute for tallow and wax. Twenty-five years ago, the present prices and extensive applications of sulphuric and muriatic acids, of soda, phosphorus, &amp;c., would have been considered utterly impossible. Who is able to foresee what new and unthought-of chemical productions, ministering to the service and comforts of mankind, the next twenty-five years may produce? </P> <P> After these remarks you will perceive that it is no exaggeration to say, we may fairly judge of the commercial prosperity of a country from the amount of sulphuric acid it consumes. Reflecting upon the important influence which the price of sulphur exercises upon the cost of production of bleached and printed cotton stuffs, soap, glass, &amp;c., and remembering that Great Britain supplies America, Spain, Portugal, and the East, with these, exchanging them for raw cotton, silk, wine, raisins, indigo, &amp;c., &amp;c., we can understand why the English Government should have resolved to resort to war with Naples, in order to abolish the sulphur monopoly, which the latter power attempted recently to establish. Nothing could be more opposed to the true interests of Sicily than such a monopoly; indeed, had it been maintained a few years, it is highly probable that sulphur, the source of her wealth, would have been rendered perfectly valueless to her. Science and industry form a power to which it is dangerous to present impediments. It was not difficult to perceive that the issue would be the entire cessation of the exportation of sulphur from Sicily. In the short period the sulphur monopoly lasted, fifteen patents were taken out for methods to obtain back the sulphuric acid used in making soda. Admitting that these fifteen experiments were not perfectly successful, there can be no doubt it would ere long have been accomplished. But then, in gypsum, (sulphate of lime), and in heavy-spar, (sulphate of barytes), we possess mountains of sulphuric acid; in galena, (sulphate of lead), and in iron pyrites, we have no less abundance of sulphur. The problem is, how to separate the sulphuric acid, or the sulphur, from these native stores. Hundreds of thousands of pounds weight of sulphuric acid were prepared from iron pyrites, while the high price of sulphur consequent upon the monopoly lasted. We should probably ere long have triumphed over all difficulties, and have separated it from gypsum. The impulse has been given, the possibility of the process proved, and it may happen in a few years that the inconsiderate financial speculation of Naples may deprive her of that lucrative commerce. In like manner Russia, by her prohibitory system, has lost much of her trade in tallow and potash. One country purchases only from absolute necessity from another, which excludes her own productions from her markets. Instead of the tallow and linseed oil of Russia, Great Britain now uses palm oil and cocoa-nut oil of other countries. Precisely analogous is the combination of workmen against their employers, which has led to the construction of many admirable machines for superseding manual labour. In commerce and industry every imprudence carries with it its own punishment; every oppression immediately and sensibly recoils upon the head of those from whom it emanates. </P> <BR><BR><BR>
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