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Simple Science

201. Chemistry
Man's Conquest of Substances:
Man's mechanical inventions have been equaled by his chemical researches and discoveries, and by the application he has made of his new knowledge.

The plain cotton frock of our grandmothers had its death knell sounded a few years ago, when John Mercer showed that cotton fabrics soaked in caustic soda assumed under certain conditions a silky sheen, and when dyed took on beautiful and varied hues. The demonstration of this simple fact laid the foundation for the manufacture of a vast variety of attractive dress materials known as mercerized cotton.

Possibly no industry has been more affected by chemical discovery than that of dyeing. Those of us who have seen the old masterpieces in painting, or reproductions of them, know the softness, the mellowness, the richness of tints employed by the old masters. But if we look for the brilliancy and variety of color seen in our own day, the search will be fruitless, because these were unknown until a half century ago. Up to that time, dyes were few in number and were extracted solely from plants, principally from the indigo and madder plants. But about the year 1856 it was discovered that dyes in much greater variety and in purer form could be obtained from coal tar. This chemical production of dyes has now largely supplanted the original method, and the industry has grown so rapidly that a single firm produced in one year from coal tar a quantity of indigo dye which under the natural process of plant extraction would have required a quarter million acres of indigo plant.

The abundance and cheapness of newspapers, coarse wrapping papers, etc., is due to the fact that man has learned to substitute wood for rags in the manufacture of paper. Investigation brought out the fact that wood contained the substance which made rags valuable for paper making. Since the supply of rags was far less than the demand, the problem of the extraction from wood of the paper-forming substance was a vital one. From repeated trials, it was found that caustic soda when heated with wood chips destroyed everything in the wood except the desired substance, cellulose; this could be removed, bleached, dried, and pressed into paper. The substitution of wood for rags has made possible the daily issue of newspapers, for the making of which sufficient material would not otherwise have been available. When we reflect that a daily paper of wide circulation consumes ten acres of wood lot per day, we see that all the rags in the world would be inadequate to meet this demand alone, to say nothing of periodicals, books, tissue paper, etc.

Chemistry plays a part in every phase of life; in the arts, the industries, the household, and in the body itself, where digestion, excretion, etc., result from the action of the bodily fluids upon food. The chemical substances of most interest to us are those which affect us personally rather than industrially; for example, soap, which cleanses our bodies, our clothing, our household possessions; washing soda, which lightens laundry work; lye, which clears out the drain pipe clogged with grease; benzine, which removes stains from clothing; turpentine, which rids us of paint spots left by careless workmen; and hydrogen peroxide, which disinfects wounds and sores.

In order to understand the action of several of these substances we must study the properties of two groups of chemicals - known respectively as acids and bases; the first of these may be represented by vinegar, sulphuric acid, and oxalic acid; and the second, by ammonia, lye, and limewater.
202. Acids
Man's Conquest of Substances:
All of us know that vinegar and lemon juice have a sour taste, and it is easy to show that most acids are characterized by a sour taste. If a clean glass rod is dipped into very dilute acid, such as acetic, sulphuric, or nitric acid, and then lightly touched to the tongue, it will taste sour. But the best test of an acid is by sight rather than by taste, because it has been found that an acid is able to discolor a plant substance called litmus. If paper is soaked in a litmus solution until it acquires the characteristic blue hue of the plant substance, and is then dried thoroughly, it can be used to detect acids, because if it comes in contact with even the minutest trace of acid, it loses its blue color and assumes a red tint. Hence, in order to detect the presence of acid in a substance, one has merely to put some of the substance on blue litmus paper, and note whether or not the latter changes color. This test shows that many of our common foods contain some acid; for example, fruit, buttermilk, sour bread, and vinegar.

The damage which can be done by strong acids is well known; if a jar of sulphuric acid is overturned, and some of it falls on the skin, it eats its way into the flesh and leaves an ugly sore; if it falls on carpet or coat, it eats its way into the material and leaves an unsightly hole. The evil results of an accident with acid can be lessened if we know just what to do and do it quickly, but for this we must have a knowledge of bases, the second group of chemicals.
203. Bases
Man's Conquest of Substances:
Substances belonging to this group usually have a bitter taste and a slimy, soapy feeling. For our present purposes, the most important characteristic of a base is that it will neutralize an acid and in some measure hinder the damage effected by the former. If, as soon as an acid has been spilled on cloth, a base, such as ammonia, is applied to the affected region, but little harm will be done. In your laboratory experiments you may be unfortunate enough to spill acid on your body or clothing; if so, quickly apply ammonia. If you delay, the acid does its work, and there is no remedy. If soda (a base) touches black material, it discolors it and leaves an ugly brown spot; but the application of a little acid, such as vinegar or lemon juice, will often restore the original color and counteract the bad effects of the base. Limewater prescribed by physicians in cases of illness is a well-known base. This liquid neutralizes the too abundant acids present in a weak system and so quiets and tones the stomach.

The interaction of acids and bases may be observed in another way. If blue litmus paper is put into an acid solution, its color changes to red; if now the red litmus paper is dipped into a base solution, caustic soda, for example, its original color is partially restored. What the acid does, the base undoes, either wholly or in part. Bases always turn red litmus paper blue.

Bases, like acids, are good or bad according to their use; if they come in contact with cloth, they eat or discolor it, unless neutralized by an acid. But this property of bases, harmful in one way, is put to advantage in the home, where grease is removed from drainpipe and sink by the application of lye, a strong base. If the lye is too concentrated, it will not only eat the grease, but will corrode the metal piping; it is easy, however, to dilute base solutions to such a degree that they will not affect piping, but will remove grease. Dilute ammonia is used in almost every home and is an indispensable domestic servant; diluted sufficiently, it is invaluable in the washing of delicate fabrics and in the removing of stains, and in a more concentrated form it is helpful as a smelling salt in cases of fainting.

Some concentrated bases are so powerful in their action on grease, cloth, and metal that they have received the designation caustic, and are ordinarily known as caustic soda, caustic potash (lye), and caustic lime. These more active bases are generally called alkalies in distinction from the less active ones.
204. Neutral Substances
Man's Conquest of Substances:
To any acid solution add gradually a small quantity of a base, and test the mixture from time to time with blue litmus paper; at first the paper will turn red quickly, but as more and more of the base is added to the solution, it has less and less effect on the blue litmus paper, and finally a point is reached when a fresh strip of blue paper will not be affected. Such a result indicates infallibly the absence of any acid qualities in the solution. If now red litmus paper is tested in the same solution, its color also will remain unchanged; such a result indicates infallibly the absence of any basic quality. The solution has the characteristic property of neither acid nor base and is said to be neutral.

If to the neutral solution an extra portion of base is added, so that there is an excess of base over acid, the neutralization is overbalanced and the red paper turns blue. If to the neutral solution an extra portion of acid is added, so that there is an excess of acid over base, the neutralization is overbalanced in the opposite direction, and the solution acquires acid characteristics.

Most acids and bases will eat and corrode and discolor, while neutral substances will not; it is for this reason that soap, a slightly alkaline substance, is the safest cleansing agent for laundry, bath, and general work. Good soaps, being carefully made, are so nearly neutral that they will not fade the color out of clothing; the cheap soaps are less carefully prepared and are apt to have a strong excess of the base ingredient; such soaps are not safe for delicate work.
205. Soap
Man's Conquest of Substances:
If we gather together scrapings of lard, butter, bits of tallow from burned-out candles, scraps of waste fat, or any other sort of grease, and pour a strong solution of lye over the mass, a soft soapy substance is formed. In colonial times, every family made its own supply of soap, utilizing, for that purpose, household scraps often regarded by the housekeeper of to-day as worthless. Grease and fat were boiled with water and hardwood ashes, which are rich in lye, and from the mixture came the soft soap used by our ancestors. In practice, the wood ashes were boiled in water, which was then strained off, and the resulting filtrate, or lye, was mixed with the fats for soap making.

Most fats contain a substance of an acid nature, and are decomposed by the action of bases such as caustic soda and caustic potash. The acid component of the grease partially neutralizes the base, and a new substance is formed, namely, soap.

With the advance of civilization the labor of soap making passed from the home to the factory, very much as bread making has done in our own day. Different varieties of soaps appeared, of which the hard soap was the most popular, owing to the ease with which it could be transported. Within the last few years liquid soaps have come into favor, especially in schools, railroad stations, and other public places, where a cake of soap would be handled by many persons. By means of a simple device, the soap escapes from a receptacle when needed. The mass of the soap does not come in contact with the skin, and hence the spread of contagious skin diseases is lessened.

Commercial soaps are made from a great variety of substances, such as tallow, lard, castor oil, coconut oil, olive oil, etc.; or in cheaper soaps, from rosin, cottonseed oil, and waste grease. The fats which go to waste in our garbage could be made a source of income, not only to the housewife, but to the city. In Columbus, Ohio, garbage is used as a source of revenue; the grease from the garbage being sold for soap making, and the tankage for fertilizer.

FIG. - Liquid soap container.
206. Why Soap Cleans
Man's Conquest of Substances:
The natural oil of the skin catches and retains dust and dirt, and makes a greasy film over the body. This cannot be removed by water alone, but if soap is used and a generous lather is applied to the skin, the dirt is "cut" and passes from the body into the water. Soap affects a grease film and water very much as the white of an egg affects oil and water. These two liquids alone do not mix, the oil remaining separate on the surface of the water; but if a small quantity of white of egg is added, an emulsion is formed, the oil separating into minute droplets which spread through the water. In the same way, soap acts on a grease film, separating it into minute droplets which leave the skin and spread through the water, carrying with them the dust and dirt particles. The warmer the water, the better will be the emulsion, and hence the more effective the removal of dirt and grease. This explanation holds true for the removal of grease from any surface, whether of the body, clothing, furniture, or dishes.
207. Washing Powders
Man's Conquest of Substances:
Sometimes soap refuses to form a lather and instead cakes and floats as a scum on the top of the water; this is not the fault of the soap but of the water. As water seeps through the soil or flows over the land, it absorbs and retains various soil constituents which modify its character and, in some cases, render it almost useless for household purposes. Most of us are familiar with the rain barrel of the country house, and know that the housewife prefers rain water for laundry and general work. Rain water, coming as it does from the clouds, is free from the chemicals gathered by ground water, and is hence practically pure. While foreign substances do not necessarily injure water for drinking purposes (Section 69), they are often of such a nature as to prevent soap from forming an emulsion, and hence from doing its work. Under such circumstances the water is said to be hard, and soap used with it is wasted. Even if water is only moderately hard, much soap is lost. The substances which make water hard are calcium and magnesium salts. When soap is put into water containing one or both of these, it combines with the salts to form sticky insoluble scum. It is therefore not free to form an emulsion and to remove grease. As a cleansing agent it is valueless. The average city supply contains so little hardness that it is satisfactory for toilet purposes; but in the laundry, where there is need for the full effect of the soap, and where the slightest loss would aggregate a great deal in the course of time, something must be done to counteract the hardness. The addition of soda, or sodium carbonate to the water will usually produce the desired effect. Washing soda combines with calcium and magnesium and prevents them from uniting with soap. The soap is thus free to form an emulsion, just as in ordinary water. Washing powders are sometimes used instead of washing soda. Most washing powders contain, in addition to a softening agent, some alkali, and hence a double good is obtained from their use; they not only soften the water and allow the soap to form an emulsion, but they also, through their alkali content, cut the grease and themselves act as cleansers. In some cities where the water is very hard, as in Columbus, Ohio, it is softened and filtered at public expense, before it leaves the reservoirs. But even under these circumstances, a moderate use of washing powder is general in laundry work.

If washing powder is put on clothes dry, or is thrown into a crowded tub, it will eat the clothes before it has a chance to dissolve in the water. The only safe method is to dissolve the powder before the clothes are put into the tub. The trouble with our public laundries is that many of them are careless about this very fact, and do not take time to dissolve the powder before mixing it with the clothes.

The strongest washing powder is soda, and this cheap form is as good as any of the more expensive preparations sold under fancy names. Borax is a milder powder and is desirable for finer work.

One of the most disagreeable consequences of the use of hard water for bathing is the unavoidable scum which forms on the sides of bathtub and washbowl. The removal of the caked grease is difficult, and if soap alone is used, the cleaning of the tub requires both patience and hard scrubbing. The labor can be greatly lessened by moistening the scrubbing cloth with turpentine and applying it to the greasy film, which immediately dissolves and thus can be easily removed. The presence of the scum can be largely avoided by adding a small amount of liquid ammonia to the bath water. But many persons object to this; hence it is well to have some other easy method of removing the objectionable matter.
208. To remove Stains from Cloth
Man's Conquest of Substances:
While soap is, generally speaking, the best cleansing agent, there are occasions when other substances can be used to better advantage. For example, grease spots on carpet and non-washable dress goods are best removed by the application of gasoline or benzine. These substances dissolve the grease, but do not remove it from the clothing; for that purpose a woolen cloth should be laid under the stain in readiness to absorb the benzine and the grease dissolved in it. If the grease is not absorbed while in solution, it remains in the clothing and after the evaporation of the benzine reappears in full force.

Cleaners frequently clean suits by laying a blotter over a grease spot and applying a hot iron; the grease, when melted by the heat, takes the easiest way of spreading itself and passes from cloth to blotter.
209. Salts
Man's Conquest of Substances:
A neutral liquid formed as in Section 204, by the action of hydrochloric acid and the alkali solution of caustic soda, has a brackish, salty taste, and is, in fact, a solution of salt. This can be demonstrated by evaporating the neutral liquid to dryness and examining the residue of solid matter, which proves to be common salt.

When an acid is mixed with a base, the result is a substance more or less similar in its properties to common salt; for this reason all compounds formed by the neutralization of an acid with a base are called salts. If, instead of hydrochloric acid (HCl), we use an acid solution of potassium tartrate, and if instead of caustic soda we use bicarbonate of soda (baking soda), the result is a brackish liquid as before, but the salt in the liquid is not common salt, but Rochelle salt. Different combinations of acids and bases produce different salts. Of all the vast group of salts, the most abundant as well as the most important is common salt, known technically as sodium chloride because of its two constituents, sodium and chlorine.

We are not dependent upon neutralization for the enormous quantities of salt used in the home and in commerce. It is from the active, restless seas of the present, and from the dead seas of the prehistoric past that our vast stores of salt come. The waters of the Mediterranean and of our own Great Salt Lake are led into shallow basins, where, after evaporation by the heat of the sun, they leave a residue of salt. By far the largest quantity of salt, however, comes from the seas which no longer exist, but which in far remote ages dried up and left behind them their burden of salt. Deposits of salt formed in this way are found scattered throughout the world, and in our own country are found in greatest abundance in New York. The largest salt deposit known has a depth of one mile and exists in Germany.

Salt is indispensable on our table and in our kitchen, but the amount of salt used in this way is far too small to account for a yearly consumption of 4,000,000 tons in the United States alone. The manufacture of soap, glass, bleaching powders, baking powders, washing soda, and other chemicals depends on salt, and it is for these that the salt beds are mined.
210. Baking Soda
Man's Conquest of Substances:
Salt is by all odds the most important sodium compound. Next to it come the so-called carbonates: first, sodium carbonate, which is already familiar to us as washing soda; and second, sodium bicarbonate, which is an ingredient of baking powders. These are both obtained from sodium chloride by relatively simple means; that is, by treating salt with the base, ammonia, and with carbon dioxide.

Washing soda has already been discussed. Since baking powders in some form are used in almost all homes for the raising of cake and pastry dough, it is essential that their helpful and harmful qualities be clearly understood.

The raising of dough by means of baking soda - bicarbonate of soda - is a very simple process. When soda is heated, it gives off carbon dioxide gas; you can easily prove this for yourself by burning a little soda in a test tube, and testing the escaping gas in a test tube of limewater. When flour and water alone are kneaded and baked in loaves, the result is a mass so compact and hard that human teeth are almost powerless to crush and chew it. The problem is to separate the mass of dough or, in other words, to cause it to rise and lighten. This can be done by mixing a little soda in the flour, because the heat of the oven causes the soda to give off bubbles of gas, and these in expanding make the heavy mass slightly porous. Bread is never lightened with soda because the amount of gas thus given off is too small to convert heavy compact bread dough into a spongy mass; but biscuit and cake, being by nature less compact and heavy, are sufficiently lightened by the gas given off from soda.

But there is one great objection to the use of soda alone as a leavening agent. After baking soda has lost its carbon dioxide gas, it is no longer baking soda, but is transformed into its relative, washing soda, which has a disagreeable taste and is by no means desirable for the stomach.

Man's knowledge of chemicals and their effect on each other has enabled him to overcome this difficulty and, at the same time, to retain the leavening effect of the baking soda.


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