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Colour, light, and science: all my happy places in one.

Colour, light, and science: all my happy places in one.

It is easy to caricature an entire period of history by its most well-known facts. All too easy, then, to think of Victorian England as a terribly stuffy place filled with sheltered women who faint at the sight of under-dressed furniture. This was not the image of Victorian England presented by Claire Benson.

Claire Benson, at a PubSci gathering at Elephant & Castle, discussed the role played by fire and explosions in human history. Most of us think of cave people discovering that roasted Megaloceros tastes better than raw but the story does not end there.

One key turning point was the invention of the Bunsen Burner in 1855. This led to domestic developments such as the gas cooker, which has changed our lives on a personal level. The technology that gave you baked food was the foundation for something much more fundamental and exciting: the development of spectroscopy:

When a substance is heated it emits a different light to another substance heated under the same conditions. To the eye this difference may go unnoticed but, when you split the rays with a prism, you start to see lines in the spectrum. These lines are also used to study the cosmos and how the universe is expanding.

While Claire was explaining this, she was creating a rainbow of fire on the table in front of her, using a combination of: lithium chloride (produces a red flame); sodium chloride (yellow flame); copper sulphate (green flame); ethanol (blue flame); and potassium (violet flame). Most materials have a much subtler heat signature than these: emitting what appears white with only a select few hues absent.

Claire discussed Bleak House – the character of Crook who died by ‘spontaneous’ human combustion. Dickens received a welcome grilling from his literary peers, who didn’t believe such a phenomenon was possible. Thanks to some experiments, by Dr. John DeHaan1, involving pigs we now know that it is possible – albeit not spontaneous.

The typical victims of Spontaneous Human Combustion are overweight heavy drinkers who smoke. When their bodies are found, there is nothing left of them but a pair of feet and a greasy residue on the walls. To simulate the conditions: pigs were wrapped in blankets; doused in alcohol; and set on fire. What they found was that the pig’s skin would split – the fat soaking into the blankets, which acted like a wick for a grotesque candle. A complete pig can be reduced to trotters in about five hours this way.

So we go from not-so spontaneous human combustion to spontaneous non-human combustion: namely cotton stores. Due to microbial action, cotton is self heating. If left entirely to its own devices, it can get hotter and hotter… Until it sparks, creating a chain reaction which engulfs the entire stock in no time.

A particularly bad warehouse fire in Tooley Street, London, started on the 22nd June 1861. Safety procedures for containing the fire were not followed and the fire quickly got out of control. At that time, the fire brigade was run by the insurance companies – previously there had been multiple fire brigades for each company that would only put out fires in houses that had a policy with them but this was unsustainable, given the spreading nature of fire. The fire spread from London Bridge to Tower Bridge and raged for 14 days. The total cost to the insurance company was £2 million – a huge sum in those days! The insurance companies told the government they couldn’t support the fire service any more. Three prompt years later, the fire service was nationalised. Such is the explosive power of small particles, that it can bring insurance firms to their knees and de-privatise emergency services.

We didn’t really get a handle on how combustible dust particles and spores were until the late 19th century and mining deaths by tunnel explosion triggered by dust were a common occurrence. Even when Europe finally gave in and accepted the evidence, the Americans didn’t regulate the dustiness of their mines until well into the 1920’s – it was just too hard to believe that a bit of dust could be so volatile and deadly.

Which brings us on to the most unstable and dangerous discovery of the Victorian era: Nitroglycerin:

When this substance was first discovered, it was immediately treated as dangerous but the full extent of the danger was not fully appreciated after the 2nd factory burnt to the ground: two years in a row. Nitroglycerin was deemed too dangerous to work with. That could have been the end of the story, were it not for Dr. William Murrell, who decided to try and use it for medicinal purposes! As it turns out, nitroglycerin (labelled “Trinitrin”) is still one of the best angina treatments out there.

So there you have it: explosions and fire shaped the Victorian world and will, no doubt, continue to do so: we may need an equivalent of the dust particle explosion if the National Health Service continues the way it has been recently.

Join us next month at PubSci for a special on Charles Darwin by Rachel Jennings.


1. DeHaan JD (1997), “A case of not-so spontaneous human combustion”, Fire & Arson Investigator 47 (4): 14-6.