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How an Apron Changed Fighting in the Battlefield


Don’t know about some of you gals out there, but I much rather have my husband, as much as I love him, stay out of my kitchen. My reasons are many, one of which Mrs. Schonbein, the wife of chemist Christian Schonbein, may have shared with me. But in Mrs. S’s case her husband did something in the kitchen quite by accident that changed the world. How many hubbies can say that? Well probably many with what they come up with for dinner…Just kidding guys! I know there are a lot of you guys out there that can work wonders in the kitchen! 


Ah no husband, no tinkering in my kitchen!

Ah no husband, no tinkering in my kitchen!


Christian Schonbein was a German chemist in the 19th century, and from 1828 he taught at the Univ. of Basel (as professor from 1835). He discovered ozone (1840) and, through his work on nitrocellulose, developed guncotton and collodion.


Christian Friedrich Schonbein



My little known history fact on Mr. Schonbein begins on a sunny afternoon in 1845. The story goes that Mrs. S did not want her husband tinkering in her kitchen with his chemicals and gadgets. But Mr. S, like some hubbies today :D, “yes dear” her to death and did so anyway on this sunny afternoon.



On this day Mr. S accidentally spilled a mixture of nitric acid and sulfuric acid all over Mrs. S’s clean kitchen floor! You can imagine the panic that set in, which almost made Mr. S’s heart stop! I’m sure he felt like one of his test tubes in his lab about to be put over the flames to burn, baby burn. This spill on that clean floor was going to bring upon him the “wrath of God.” 😀



Long Victorian apron…one such as this is what Mr. S used 😀



So in his haste and panic, he grabbed his wife’s cotton apron to clean up the mess. It worked, well at least the clean-up did; he wiped off the sweat off his forehead and brow, and hung up the apron to dry over the stove. But when he hung the apron it went up in flames spontaneously! Oh my gosh poor guy! Talk about a bad day in the kitchen… Yikes!




What occurred was that he unintentionally converted the cellulose in the cotton apron into nitrocellulose. As the apron heated and dried, it oxidized. Of course it would be several decades later before a way was developed to manufacture the stuff safely. Manufacturing what they now called “guncotton,” (more on that later) proved very dangerous and failed as factories that produced it early on began to explode! However, by 1890 guncotton replaced gunpowder as the standard base for modern military ammunition.




This was an amazing finding by this chemist, and it all happened in a kitchen! At the time black gunpowder was what was used in the battlefield for 500 years, and that had its share of problems. When gunpowder exploded it became thick smoke, blackening, fogging up the sight of the gunners. It really was bad for the cannons and small arms alike. It was like fighting in total darkness! Nitrocellulose was thought of as a “smokeless powder,” and a propellant for artillery shells thus they called it “guncotton.”



Oh dear should I let this man in my kitchen????

Oh dear should I let this man in my kitchen????


So ladies the next time your hubby wants to tinker in the kitchen, give him a break huh…who knows what he’ll come up with.


Sources and further research: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_Friedrich_Sch%C3%B6nbein

Schönbein, Christian Friedrich. The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. 2014. Encyclopedia.com. 8 Jan. 2015 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.






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