Thursday, October 21, 2010

All Hail Comrade Chlorine

The following post originally appeared at Covenant Zone, and I'm placing it here as well to keep things orderly, as it were, part of a collection of posts on Modernity.

Colour my world

I got an email recently about hydrogen peroxide. I felt compelled to respond. I'll pass it one to the general public here:

[X.], you recently sent me a piece on hydrogen peroxide and its benefits compared to chlorine bleach. Well, in defence of chlorine I feel I must respond with at least this:

In the early 1760s in Britain Josiah Wedgewood was having trouble refining enough blue glaze to keep pace with his pottery production, and worse than that, the wool industry had a bottleneck with the rise of production due to increasing use of increasingly sophisticated looms, and then power looms. Usual production techniques were not keeping pace with the new technologies.

"Traditional methods of bleaching wool involved dipping the fabric in water, boiling it in weak lye water, exposing it to sunlight ofr several days or weeks in bleach fields, and finally 'souring' the fabric by soaking it in sour milk." Richard Olson, Science Deified, Science Defied, Vol. 2. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990,) pp. 340-41.

That process is time, space, and resource wasting. The wool industry couldn't afford to wait a few weeks for the sun to process fabric. They needed it NOW. Where there's money involved, yes, we can expect some clever fellow to figure out how to make some.

Francis Home writes in Experiments in Bleaching, (1754) that diluted sulfuric acid is a good substitute for sour milk that also cuts the 'souring' process time by 90 per cent. Still, there was inefficiency. In 1774 Karl Scheel completely transformed the bleaching industry. (Ibid. p. 341.) He produced dephlogisticated marine acid, or chlorine, as we know it today. In March 1788, Joseph Baker took 28 yards of Grey calico, bleached it in the evening, printed it the next day, and sold it to the public on the third day. (Ibid. p. 341.)

Now, as is happened, I was researching something unrelated to chlorine bleach when I got your email on peroxide, and next day read about chlorine. Who on earth would care? Take a man named Walker. Think wool trade, and imagine plump and sexy Italian girls mushing grapes. But not Italian girls, Scots and English wool trade workers. "Walkers" in the wool trade weren't named as such because they traipsed the glens of the bonny Highlands: no, instead, like Italian girls, they trod in vats, these filled with wool and piss. I'm starting to like chlorine much more. It got me curious, so I looked a bit further, and this is some of what I found. I hope it interests you and your friends and makes us all a little more sympathetic to bleach than we might have been otherwise.

Although ancient methods of bleaching remain unknown, historians have evidence that early civilizations must have known how to bleach fabrics. White cloth was produced by the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Phoenicians, and Hebrews, as well as by the Greeks and Romans. After the Crusades of the 1100s and 1200s, the practice of bleaching fabric spread throughout Europe. In the old days, people simply spread wet cloth on the ground outdoors and left it to dry in the sunlight until it turned white, which could take weeks or even months. This process came to be called crofting, after the Scottish word for a small meadow (croft). As early as 1322, crofting was practiced on bleaching grounds in England near Manchester. In Scotland and Ireland, some people still bleach their cloth on the grass in this way. High-quality linen that was dried on plots of grass became known as lawn.

By the 1700s, Dutch weavers had improved the bleaching process and emerged as the leaders of Europe's bleaching industry. They discovered that linen, which was still the most common type of cloth, could be bleached more efficiently by first soaking it in lye (a concentrated alkaline solution of potassium or sodium hydroxide). After the lye was washed out, the linen was spread on the ground as usual. After repeating this step a few times the Dutch soaked the linen in buttermilk, or soured milk, then washed it and dried it outdoors again. Although major bleaching operations were known outside Holland, the Dutch enjoyed a near-monopoly on bleaching linen through the 1700s. Fabric produced by the Dutch process was called holland cloth. However, this process was problematic in that it could take several months, especially in northern countries with limited sunlight. Furthermore, it used up large amounts of valuable space.

In 1756, scientists found that dilute sulfuric acid would work better than buttermilk and the time required for the bleaching process was greatly reduced. An even more dramatic improvement in bleaching technology resulted from the discovery of chlorine in 1774 by Swedish chemist Karl Wilhelm Scheele (1742-1786). French chemist Claude Louis Berthollet (1748-1822) discovered that this gas is a very effective bleaching agent. Berthollet, who was director of a French tapestry factory, developed a method of using chlorine to bleach textiles. In 1785, he introduced a bleaching liquid called lye de Javelle and publicized his technique without patenting it. When James Watt learned of the method, he passed the information on to Scottish chemist and manufacturer Charles Tennant, who began using the bleaching liquid in Glasgow. But the chlorine gas needed for the liquid bleaching process was not readily available, so Tennant invented a more convenient bleaching powder and introduced it in 1799. The solid powder, which was made by combining chlorine with slaked lime (calcium hydroxide), was much easier to handle and ship to other fabric manufacturers. When added to a little dilute acid, the powder released the chlorine gas which bleached the cloth very quickly. By the 1830s, factories were churning out huge quantities of bleaching powder for textile use. This abundant supply of chlorine bleach helped stimulate the cotton industry. [More]

I have nothing against peroxide, to be honest, but I do feel some sympathy for chlorine. I care enough about this area of history to spend some time reading a two volume book on the history of science so I can find out about, among other things, chlorine bleach. Why would a man who spends most of his time writing about Islam and Leftist promotion of Islamic fascism care about bleach and the wool industry? Look at yourself at this moment, assuming you're not nekked. You must be wearing something, and it is coloured. It's coloured because of bleach and dye. Nature doesn't throw up coloured fabric from the ground: we have to manufacture it, i.e. we must use our manos, our hands, to factura, to work it. Industrial hands can do so much more than man alone. It makes me love machines and chemistry and sciences I can't begin to comprehend. It makes me decidedly happy to live in a world of bleached wool, for example, that is dyed. Better still, for me, is cotton. I thought about this a bit and took out my camera and went looking for things that, thanks to the wool industry and the revolution in cotton spinning, also lead to colouring it all. I looked for things yellow, red, and blue, which you might recall.

Primarily Blue


Primarily Yellow

We can take our modern world for granted because we aren't involved in making much of it ourselves, most of us limited to some tiny fragment of making something that makes a part of something else we don't see till maybe it shows up on a shelf somewhere at Walmart. But all of us together make this greatness of Modernity. We all rely on the whole of production to give us things like "yellow." Some would have us "get back to Nature." We'd have to give up a lot of colour in our world if we did so. Colourful peasant costumes? They come from Walmart. Cf. "Contempt and Authenticity."

I love the Modern world, and in part because it's been bleached and dyed to become vibrant and beautiful. So, if you will, take a moment to thank Chlorine for its part in this incredible journey to what I think of as Paradise on Earth.

No comments: