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There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Seventy Eight

Dr Louis Slotin (1910 – 1946)

We’ve all done it, I’m sure – moaned about the red tape of bureaucracy and ‘Elf and Safety which hinders us from getting on with what we are trying to do. But, occasionally, there are good reasons why a bit of safety awareness wouldn’t come amiss as this cautionary tale involving our latest inductee into our illustrious Hall of Fame, Canadian scientist Louis Slotin, amply illustrates.

Slotin was one of the scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos during World War 2 and he earned a reputation as one of the pre-eminent assemblers of nuclear warheads. Following the destruction of Horoshima and Nagasaki and the conclusion of the war, Slotin continued to experiment with nuclear fission. His particular sphere of interest was measuring the beginnings of the fission reaction, by bringing two semi-spherical pieces of radioactive material into close proximity. Of course, if the two actually touched there would be an almighty explosion and so a degree of precision, as well as a steady hand, was called for.

For some people, playing your part in developing something that could fry large portions of the world’s population is not enough. It would seem Slotin was a bit of a character who liked to spice up his life. That may be the reason why he eschewed any of the fancy-dan safety equipment available and relied upon a humble screwdriver to keep the two hemispheres apart.

On May 21st 1946 Slotin was training a colleague, the aptly named Alvin Graves, at the Omega Laboratory and for his piece de resistance a small crowd of his colleagues assembled to watch his performance. Unfortunately, at the critical moment at around 3 o’clock in the afternoon, the screwdriver slipped and the two pieces of radioactive material made contact. The official report into the incident reported, “The blue flash was clearly visible in the room although it (the room) was well illuminated from the windows and possibly the overhead lights. . . . The total duration of the flash could not have been more than a few tenths of a second.”  Showing a remarkable presence of mind, Slotin pushed the top hemisphere of plutonium off with his bare hands, thus ending the reaction.

It was calculated that Slotin’s screwdriver slip had set off about three quadrillion fission reactions – it sounds a lot but the bang, in fact, it was about a million times smaller than the first atomic bombs. The blue flash was caused by the high-energy photons emitted when the electrons in the air settled down after their agitation. But the damage was done. Slotin complained of a burning sensation in his left hand and a sour taste in his mouth. He was rushed into a car and taken to hospital, but during the journey started to vomit, a symptom of severe radiation poisoning. Slotin said to his colleagues, “You’ll be OK, but I think I’m done for.”

He was not wrong, dying nine days later of radiation exposure. He was commended for his actions in a citation read to him before meeting his maker; “Dr Slotin’s quick reaction at the immediate risk of his own life prevented a more serious development of the experiment which would certainly have resulted in the death of the seven men working with him, as well as serious injury to others in the vicinity.” It was a rather optimistic assessment; within two years of the incident, two of his colleagues had died of radiation sickness.

Clearly, Slotin’s approach to the experiment had been cavalier.  After all, there had been an incident a few months earlier when Harry Daghlian dropped a brick of tungsten carbide onto a plutonium mass, bathing him in radiation. He died a month later from radiation sickness.

For conducting an experiment that caused your demise, Louis Slotin, you are a worthy inductee into our Hall of Fame.

If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone which is now available on Amazon in Kindle format and paperback. For details follow the link


A Measure Of Things – Part Eleven

Having explored the unnecessary complications of the British Imperial paper size system, let’s get up to date. Paper, at least in Europe and the UK – we will deal with the pesky Americans later – comes in what is known as the A-series of sizes. Office workers will be most familiar with the A3, the A4 and the A5 sizes, although the starting point is the A0. The A0 paper size is exactly I square metre in area, although its dimensions are 841 millimetres by 1,189 or, if you prefer, 33.1 inches by 46.8.

What underpins the A-series of paper sizes is that the height to width ratio of all the sizes is the square root of 2 or 1.4142 to 1, if you prefer. It was a German scientist and philosopher, Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, who first noticed in 1798 how useful exploiting a standard height to width ratio would be in dealing with paper. If you cut a piece of paper parallel to its shorter side to make two equal pieces, each of the resulting pieces would have the same height/width ratio of the square root of 2.

So the A1 size is half that of the A0 and is derived by halving the larger piece across its larger side. A2 is half the size of the A1 and so it continues – the A3 being half the A2, the A4 half of the A3 and the A5 half of the A4. You get the drift now with each size retaining that all important common height to width ratio. Clever, really. It was not until the 20th century that Lichtenberg’s observations were put into practical use, Dr Walter Portsmann creating a defined system of paper sizes, which were adopted in Germany in 1922 as the DIN standard.

The overpowering logic and convenience of the system meant that it was rapidly adopted elsewhere – even by the Brits in 1959 – and it became the internationally recognised standard by 1975. But what about B-series paper and C-series envelopes, I hear you cry. Well, not all of the many paper formats conform to the A-series and so the B deals with them but they are linked to the A-series. The B1 size is the geometric mean between the A0 and the A1 and so on and, of course, retaining the all-important height to width ratio of the square root of two. The C-series relates to envelopes and it is based on the geometric mean between the A and B-series of the same number. So that is why if you get a C4 envelope an unfolded A4 piece of paper fits in it like a glove.

Adopting a more metric-based system of paper sizing encouraged the Brits to change the quantities in a quire and ream to 25 and 500 respectively which is why you now buy your computer paper in bundles of 500.

In the USA, Canada, Mexico and a few other countries, the ISO 216 standard has not been adopted and they use letter paper which at 8.5 inches by 11 is slightly wider and shorter than A4, legal which is 8.5 inches by 14 and Ledger or Tabloid which is 11 inches by 17. The letter size only became a recognised standard in the States in 1921, although, somewhat bizarrely, the US government didn’t adopt it until the early 1980s, adopting a size of 8 inches by 10.5 in the interim. Presumably, the increasing sharing of digital documents forced their hand. The major problem with the American system, aside from the inconvenience of sharing and printing documents between countries adopting the different standards, is that it does not have the standard height/width ratio and so switching from one size of paper to another can cause no end of formatting problems.

It will only be a question of time before they adopt the A-series, methinks.

Quacks Pretend To Cure Other Men’s Disorders But Rarely Find A Cure For Their Own – Part Sixty One

Merchant’s Gargling Oil

The keys to success in quackery are to come up with something that “cures” a multitude of complaints, advertise the bejeebers out of it and sit back and wait for the money to roll in. If you can extend the panacea’s remit to include the animal kingdom, so much the better. This was the route adopted by the purveyors of George W Merchant’s Gargling Oil and it served them in good stead for almost a century.

The liniment, launched on the unsuspecting American public in 1833, was intended to cure burns, scalds, flesh wounds, a bad back, piles, tooth ache, sore throats, chilblains and chapped hands. According to the adverts “Merchant’s Gargling Oil is a diffusible stimulant and carminative” – so you could use it to deal with flatulence. – “It can be taken internally when such a remedy is indicated, and is a good substitute for pain killers, cordials and anodynes. For Cramps or Spasms of the Stomach, Colic, Asthma, or Internal Pain, the dose may be from fifteen to twenty drops, on sugar, or mixed with syrup in any convenient form, and repeated at intervals of three to six hours.”

The first thing to note is that despite its name it could be applied externally as well as internally. Secondly, it was marketed as good for animals as well as Homo sapiens. Apparently, horses went mad for it. Initially, there was just one version of the liniment but from the 1870s there were two distinct versions – in yellow for animals and in a lighter colour for humans. Never mind if you could only get your hands on the animal version, you could still use it.  The ads did warn, though, “it will stain and discolour the skin, but not permanently.”

The Gargling Oil made extensive use of advertising. As well as the standard newspaper ads, there were almanacs, song books and stamps. In the 1870s Darwin’s evolutionary theories and the suggestion that man descended from apes was causing waves. Disraeli noted “Is man an ape or an angel? My Lord, I am on the side of the angels. I repudiate with indignation and abhorrence these new-fangled theories.” The stushie was too good for the copywriters for Merchant’s Gargling Oil to miss and they ran a series of ads featuring an ape with the quatrain, “If I am Darwin’s grandpapa/ It follows don’t you see/ that what is good for man or beast/ is doubly good for me.

So what was in it and was it any good? The former is the easier question to answer as the adverts were unusually forthcoming. It was a mix of petroleum, soap, ammonia water, oil of amber, iodine tincture, benzene and water. It is hard to imagine what possessed Merchant to knock up this concoction but as it must have tasted awful, the instruction to take it with sugar must have been very welcome.

As to its efficacy, it is not clear. It would have been messy to apply and the petroleum base may have been off-putting but it evaded the attentions of the Food and Drug Association. What did for it was a serious fire at the Merchant factory in Lockport in New York in 1928 which completely destroyed the building – I wonder if the Gargling Oil was flammable? – and it was so destructive that the company never got back on its feet again. It did leave us, though, with some wonderful adverts.

Quacks Pretend To Cure Other Men’s Disorders But Rarely Find A Cure For Their Own – Part Sixty

Dr King’s New Discovery for Consumption

Some diseases, which are still with us, have changed their names over time. A major killer in the 19th century was consumption. We now know this wasting disease as tuberculosis and whilst there are vaccines available to immunise you, I still read of outbreaks in the press. In the days before the vaccine had been discovered, the consumptive proved to be fair game for the practitioners of the art of quackery. One such was Herbert E Bucklen.

In around 1878 Buckland purchased the rights to some patent medicines from a Dr Z.L.King and moved the business from Elkhart in Indiana to Chicago. The crown jewel in his Gladstone bag  was King’s rather prosaically named New Discovery which was aimed specifically at consumptives. Bucklen was a tireless advertiser – no journal was too big or small – and by 1885 he had established the New Discovery as a nationally recognised brand. His major coup came in 1893 when at the Chicago World Fair he offered for 50 cents a 31 page booklet which contained colour lithographs of the world fair buildings together with extensive advertising for his products.

Naturally, the advertising was fulsome. Adverts proclaimed that the New Discovery was the only sure cure for consumption in the world and that it struck terror to the doctors, presumably because it showed their inadequacy with dealing with what was hitherto nigh on incurable. It was also efficacious, the ads went on, in dealing with “all diseases of the throat, chest and lungs and permanently cures coughs, asthma, bronchitis, incipient consumption, lung fever, pneumonia, loss of voice…” – the list goes on and on. The copy becomes almost lyrical when it describes the perils of delay; “delay not a moment when that hacking cough and flushed cheek admonish you that the insidious viper, Consumption, is secretly gnawing at the vitals and, ere long, your doom will be sealed.

All the patient had to do was send off for a free sample and then further bottles would be available for just one dollar a time. The patient was warned to beware all imitations and make sure that they only consumed the potion bearing Dr King’s name. The advertising worked, bottles flew off the shelves and Bucklen made a fortune.

The big questions, though, were what was in it and did it work? Well, what might fill honest medical practitioners with a degree of dread was that it was a mix of morphine and chloroform. For the consumptive, this was a pretty deadly concoction. The chloroform would supress the cough – a tick in the box there, then – but the problem was that it would suppress the natural reaction to try and clear the lungs of the stuff that was blocking them. Regular ingestion of morphine would induce a cheery disposition in the patient and the sense amongst relatives that the potion might be working. So a vicious circle would develop, hastening their eventual demise.

Naturally, there was no warning as to the potential harm that regular doses of the New Discovery could cause, either in the advertising or on the label of the bottles. After all, the aim of the game was to maximise sales, not to look after the patient’s welfare. It took exposure from the likes of the Journal of the American Medical Association and Samuel Hopkins Adams in his book, the Great American Fraud, to bring Bucklen’s money-making scam crashing down.

A Measure Of Things – Part Nine

It was not until the development of the coal-burning furnace in the 16th century which produced the temperatures necessary to manufacture thick glass and the discovery of cork as an efficient sealant, that the bottle came into its own as a means of transporting wine. Although the bottle has been challenged by the box in recent years, it stands triumphant as a means of selling and serving wine. Wine bottles come in a bewildering array of shapes and understanding the relativity of sizes reacquaints us with some biblical characters along the way.

Surprisingly, it was as recent as 1979 that the United States adopted 750 millilitres as the standard size for a wine bottle, a measure quickly adopted by the European Union to facilitate trade. Prior to that the sleek, long bottles with which we are familiar varied in size from anywhere between 700 and 800 millilitres. What determined the size of the bottle was the capacity of the glassblower’s lung!

Typically, the smallest size of bottle that wine comes in is the piccolo which is a quarter of a standard bottle of wine. It is also known as a pony, snipe or split. The half bottle, unsurprisingly, holds 375 millilitres or half a standard bottle of wine. Moving up the scale we have the magnum which is the equivalent of 1.5 litres or two standard bottles and the double magnum which holds twice the volume. A box of wine is usually the equivalent of a double magnum.

The first biblical character we come across is Jereboam who was the first king of the northern Kingdom of Isreal after the revolt of the ten northern Israelite tribes against Rehoboam. Confusingly, a jereboam when used in respect of champagne is 3 litres or four standard bottles but in the context of still wine equates to six standard bottles. The term for a volume equal to six standard bottles of champagne is Rehoboam, after the biblical king who, following the rebellion, was left with what was known as the Kingdom of Judah.

A methuselah, named after the oldest man in the Bible, is the equivalent to eight standard bottles of champagne. In the world of still wines, this measure is known as the Imperial. As we move up in size, the terminology used in respect of champagne and wine harmonises so a salmanazar, who was an Assyrian king, is the equivalent of twelve standard bottles or nine litres. A balthazar, one of the three wise men, is the name given to a bottle which holds 12 litres or the equivalent of sixteen standard bottles while a Nebuchadnezzar, named after the famous Babylonian king, is 15 litres.

The granddaddy of all bottles in terms of champagne is the Melchizedek or Midas which holds thirty gallons of the sparkling wine. You would probably need to share Midas’ fabled touch in order to afford such a bottle.

Most wine drinkers stick to standard bottles but perhaps they should try a magnum. After all, as one rather sexist former colleague of mine once told me, wine bottles are like breasts – one is not enough and three are too many. Cheers!

Quacks Pretend To Cure Other Men’s Disorders But Rarely Find A Cure For Their Own – Part Fifty Nine

Dr Velpeau’s Magnetic Love Powders

In cultures and times when arranged marriages were not the vogue, one of the principal concerns for the male member was how to win over the fairer sex. And where there is insecurity, there is fertile ground for the practitioner of quackery to till.

Dr Velpeau – of course, that was not his real name, it was the more prosaic J C Merrill and may have been an attempt to associate his product with the French surgeon, Alfred Velpeau – offered his dupes powders which were supposed to transform their amatory fortunes. What was most enterprising about the scam was that the adverts were in the form of a job advert for salesmen, offering a salary of 800 dollars and commission. When someone responded, all they received was a sample of the powders and some instructions as to their use. “These powders” the literature proclaimed, “properly administered, are warranted irrespective of age, circumstances or personal appearance, to win them the love or unchanging affections of any one they may desire of the opposite sex.

The problem was in the proper administration of the powder. The male was not the one to consume it but rather he had to find a way to induce the object of his affections to take the powder. This might be an insuperable hurdle for someone who is particularly gauche in the presence of the opposite sex. Slipping some surreptitiously into a beverage might just work. If he succeeded in getting the woman to consume the powder, the man would have an anxious wait to see whether she went weak at the knees and threw herself at him. Astonishingly, at the height of the scam in 1855, Velpeau was getting upwards of forty letters a day from men desperate enough to send him two dollars for the keys to unlock a woman’s heart.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, nothing happened. Many would put the failure down to experience but some were incensed enough in late 1855 to write to the Mayor of New York, complaining about Merrill’s sharp practice. The scam hit the newspapers but the victims didn’t find a sympathetic press. One paper commented, “Only think of it! For two dollars, any enterprising young man – no matter if he is as poor as an editor, and as ugly as a baboon, can through the instrumentality of these powders, make himself “lord” of the most charming lass of “sweet sixteen” to be found within the limits of our friend’s agency, which comprises four counties!”

The Mayor, though proved to be more sympathetic and Merrill had his collar felt and was charged with fraud. He eluded incarceration by promising to stop flogging his powders and to return the monies extracted from his victims. Whether he returned the victims’ money is unclear but the lure of easy money was too much to resist and six weeks later he was still at it, selling his miraculous powders and fleecing his victims. This time, though, Merrill couldn’t evade the long arm of the law. He was arrested, charged with defrauding his victims and thrown in jail. And that was the end of the Magnetic Love Powders.

A Measure Of Things – Part Eight

Having looked at beer, it would only be appropriate to look at some of the measurements associated with wine. Perhaps it is no surprise that until 1826, a wine gallon was different from a beer or ale gallon. From at least the 16th century and by statute from 1707 a wine gallon was designated as 231 cubic inches or 3.7854 litres or about 6.66 imperial pints. This reflected the amount of liquid you could store in a cylinder six inches high and seven inches in diameter, if you allocate the approximate value of 22/7 to pi.

But there were variants. John Wybard, who conducted some experiments between 1645 and 1647, found that the wine gallon standard adopted at London’s Guildhall was 224 cubic inches while John Reynolds, a colleague of Wybard’s, found that the standard used at the Tower of London was 231 cubic inches. These variations not only caused confusion but meant that as the tax man based their excise calculations on the 231 standard, those who used the other measures were either overpaying or underpaying tax. To sort out the mess, an Act of Parliament in 1707 imposed the 231 standard. In 1826 the imperial gallon was adopted as the measure for the wine gallon.

We’ve met the Single Bottle Act of 1861 before but this had a transformational effect on the consumption of wine. It meant, for the payment of a licence fee, retailers could sell wine for drinking off their premises. The principal means for conveying the vino from the offie to the home was a bottle, a glass one at that. Before then, wine was stored in casks and barrels and these came in a bewildering range of shapes and sizes.

The largest was a tun which held 252 wine gallons. However, the standard seems to have been a bit fluid because there is a list of custom duties dating to 1508 which equates a tun to sixty sesters, a sester being four gallons. Whether 252 or 240 wine gallons, the tun was the measure against which the other, smaller sizes were compared. When the imperial gallon was adopted, a tun was 210 gallons.

A pipe or a butt was half a tun in volume. Perhaps the most famous butt was that in which the Duke of Clarence was supposed to have been drowned on 18th February 1478. Although there is no incontrovertible evidence that this was the way poor old George was assassinated, it makes for a good story. A puncheon held a third of a tun and possibly was so called because the barrel was marked with a punch to denote its contents. A puncheon had an alternative name, tertian, which clearly denotes that its volume was a third of a tun.

A hogshead of wine was the next size down and that denoted a volume equal to half of a butt or a quarter of a tun. A tierce held half a puncheon or a third of a butt or a sixth of a tun. The Oxford English Dictionary notes that the term was first used in printed English to denote a measurement of volume in 1531. The poet and playwright, Ben Johnson, in his role as poet laureate, successfully negotiated a pay rise in 1630. Part of the enhanced pay and benefits package was an annual tierce of Canary wine, doubtless to aid inspiration. This not inconsiderable perquisite went with the position until the disastrous appointment of Henry James Pye in 1790 – his verse could have done with the benefit of copious quantities of alcohol.

To complete the set, a wine barrel was half a hogshead or an eighth of a tun or 26.25 gallons and rundlet a seventh of a butt or a fourteenth of a tun.

I think I will just stick with a bottle for the time being.

Quacks Pretend To Cure Other Men’s Disorders But Rarely Find A Cure For Their Own – Part Fifty Eight

Dennis Dupuis and Radol

A few months ago I found a lump on my neck and decided to get it checked out. Fortunately it turned out to be benign but a century or so ago I may have been interested in a nostrum plugged heavily by a Dr Rupert Wells from St Louis – his real name was Dennis Dupuis. The adverts offered hope to those who had contracted any form of cancer. A typical example was this advert from 1907; “I have discovered a new and seemingly unfailing remedy for the deadly cancer. I have made some most astonishing cures. I believe every person with cancer should know of this marvellous medicine and its wonderful cures, and I will be glad to give full information to those who write me and tell me about their case”.

The symptoms that the respondent described would always convince Wells that they had a form of cancer or consumption, if they responded to the consumption advert. They would receive a standard letter which was so designed that all the ingenious Wells had to do, as well as fill in the date and name and address of the would-be victim, was to enter the location of the body where the cancer was located. The letter boasted of Wells’ credentials – he had carried out investigations into radium-administration at the college where he was a professor, hogwash all – and claimed that he was able to cure consumption and cancer through the internal and external application of Radol, a proprietary brand containing radium in fluid form. It went on to claim he had effected many cures and, of course, contained testimonials of some grateful recipients of this wonder cure.

For ten dollars you would receive a nice bell-shaped, blue-coloured bottle, standing ten inches tall with a four and a half inch diameter. The label affixed to it claimed “This bottle contains Radol, a radium impregnated fluid, prepared according to the formula and under the supervision of Dr. Rupert Wells. St. Louis MO. This fluid is not expected to retain its radio activity beyond 40 days from the date of this label.” To add extra authenticity the label would then detail the name and address of the customer and directions for use which were basically to take a tablespoon in a wineglass of water before each meal and at bed time. This was followed by the name and address of the customer, directions for use e.g. “take one tablespoon in a wineglass of water before each meal and at bed-time.

Radol was only available by mail and for a while, though, Wells was on to a good thing, In 1908 he shipped out some 7,800 bottles at ten dollars a time. But what was in it and was it any good? Wells claimed that the bluish fluorescent glow of the liquid was down to the radium contained it. But tests carried out by Lederle Laboratories showed that it was a mix of quinine sulphate and alcohol, a combination which would also produce a bluish glow. As the exposer of quackery, Samuel Adams, wrote in his The Great American Fraud, “Radol contains exactly as much radium as dishwater and is about as efficacious in cancer or consumption.

Following this revelation Wells was put out of business in 1910 when the US Mail refused to handle his packages.

There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Seventy Four

Ludwig Boltzmann (1844 – 1906)

Science in general and physics in particular, whilst fascinating, has always been a closed book to me. Thank goodness there have been cleverer people than I who have made a significant contribution to the understanding of how the universe works like the latest inductee into our illustrious Hall of Fame, Austrian born Ludwig Boltzmann.

Take entropy or the degree of disorder and uncertainty in a system. I have always thought that tidying up was a bit of a waste of time and now I have the scientific evidence to back up my empirical observation. If I’m prevailed upon to tidy up a pile of clothing, have I contributed to a decrease in disorder and a corresponding reduction in entropy? Not a bit of it. You see, there are side effects to my attempt to restore order to my unruly pile of glad rags. I will be breathing, probably cursing, metabolising and warming my surroundings. When everything is totted up, the total disorder measured by entropy will have increased.

Boltzmann’s contribution to the corpus of scientific knowledge was to apply statistical techniques to understanding the second law of thermodynamics, first articulated by the French scientist Sadi Carnot in 1824, that stated that the total entropy of an isolated system can only increase over time. He was an atomist and believed that these tricky little devils held the key to the understanding of entropy. By blending the laws of mechanics as applied to the motion of atoms with probability theory, he concluded that the second law of thermodynamics was essentially a statistical law. The formula he derived to describe entropy in 1877 was S = k · log W. Clear as mud to me but it became the foundation of statistical mechanics.

Our hero didn’t finish there. Between 1880 and 1883 he continued to develop his statistical approach to explaining the mysteries of the universe and refined a theory to explain friction and diffusion in gases. In the late 1880s, following Hertz’s discovery of electromagnetic waves, Boltzmann devised a number of experiments to demonstrate radio waves, lecturing on the subject.

Impressive as this all is, Boltzmann did not find favour with his colleagues. Atomism, which is the bedrock of modern-day physics was under attack at the time and Boltzmann’s theory that entropy was irreversible was counter to prevailing thought at the time. After all, the equations of Newtonian mechanics are reversible over time and the great Poincare had demonstrated that a mechanical system in a given state will always return to the state over time.

One of Boltzmann’s leading critics was Wilhelm Ostwald who paid no heed to atoms, preferring to explain physical science purely in terms of energy conditions. Ostwald put the energist case against Boltzmann succinctly, “The actual irreversibility of natural phenomena thus proves the existence of processes that cannot be described by mechanical equations, and with this the verdict on scientific materialism is settled.” Scientific discussions at the time were lively affairs, one contemporary describing a debate between Boltzmann and Ostwald as resembling “the battle of the bull with a supple fighter”.

The constant criticism of his theories and the need to defend himself vigorously against all-comers wore Boltzmann down. Whilst on holiday with his wife and daughter at the Bay of Duino near Trieste in 1906, he committed suicide by hanging himself. Ironically, shortly after his death discoveries in atomic physics such as the Brownian motion – the random movement of particles in a liquid or gas which can only be explained by statistical mechanics – reinforced the primacy of atomic theory and established Boltzmann’s work as the cornerstone of modern-day physics.

For this, Ludwig, you are a worthy inductee into our Hall of Fame.

If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone which is now available on Amazon in Kindle format and paperback. For details follow the link

A Measure Of Things – Part Seven

As a regular drinker, I have a mild fascination with the size and measurements associated with alcoholic beverages. I still get into a firkin muddle with them and so to get some clarity (or should that be clarety?) on the subject, I will spend a bit of time explaining the many archaic terms and measurements.

Let’s start with the gallon. In 1884 the British or Imperial gallon was standardised as the equivalent of ten pounds of water at 62 degrees Fahrenheit. This amounts to eight pints and there are four (surprise, surprise) quarts in a gallon, two pints in a quart and twenty fluid ounces in a pint. It wasn’t ever thus and there was a bewildering variety of standards for the gallon. The Winchester or corn gallon was 157 fluid ounces while the Old English Ale gallon was 162 fluid ounces. The Queen Anne Wine gallon was 133 fluid ounces while the Irish gallon was a measly 125 fluid ounces. You can see why they decided to standardise the measure. The question is why it took them so long.

The firkin takes its name from the Middle Dutch word vierdekijn which means a fourth or a quarter and this gives a clue to its size. When used in the context of beer or ale, it denotes a quarter of a barrel. But it was not until 1824 that the amount of beer represented by an imperial beer or ale firkin was standardised. It represented 9 imperial gallons or 72 pints and most pubs to this day buy their beers in this quantity. From around the mid 15th century an ale firkin was 8 gallons, moving up to 8.5 gallons in 1688 and settling at 9 gallons in 1803. The beer firkin was always 9 gallons until the adoption of the imperial gallon measurement.

Then we come to the pin or polypin. Real ale aficionados who are holding a party and are reluctant to settle for the modern-day equivalent of the Watney’s Red Barrel Party Seven – what fun we had trying to open those blighters in the seventies – will go to their local brewers or offie to secure a polypin of their favourite hooch. This is the equivalent in volume to half a firkin or 4.5 gallons or 36 pints – enough to lubricate the whistle.

The next measure we need to get our heads around is the kilderkin and this rather strange word again owes its origin to the Dutch. It means a small cask and in volume a kilderkin is the equivalent of two firkins or half a barrel – in other words, 144 pints. Until the adoption of the imperial measures, ale kilderkins and beer kilderkins reflected the differences in the quantity measured by their respective firkins. Beer festival organisers tend to order their stock in kilderkins in an attempt to ensure there is enough to go round. They often fail miserably in my experience.

The daddy of the beer measures is the barrel which, as you might have worked out by now, equates to 36 imperial gallons or 288 pints. To complete the set we have a tun which is the equivalent of six barrels or 216 imperial gallons, the butt which is half a tun and the hogshead which equates to a quarter of a tun or one and a half barrels or three kilderkins.

Phew! After all that it is surely time for a pint.