Napoleon’s Buttons – Book Review

“For the want of a nail, the shoe was lost.

For the want of a shoe, the horse was lost.

For the want of a horse, the rider was lost.

For the want of a rider, the battle was lost.

For the want of a battle, the kingdom was lost.

And all for the want of a horse-shoe nail.”

~ Old English Nursery Rhyme

How could Napoleon Bonaparte, one of the greatest military leaders of all time, go from leading a world dominating superpower to a straggling band of no more than 10,000 tattered soldiers in seven months? Believe it or not, chemistry may hold the answer to that baffling question. This old English rhyme may sum up Napoleon’s defeat when said, “And all for the want of a button.” The buttons that held together every garment from Napoleon’s own greatcoat to the pants of his soldiers was made from tin, a shiny metallic element. However, in cold temperatures, like the ones that would have been present in the Russian winter of 1812, tin undergoes a chemical reaction that transforms it into a crumbly gray substance. Yes, it’s still tin, but in a very different structural form. Does this mean that the soldiers would have been too busy trying to keep their shirts and pants closed? Was the bitter cold too much for the Grande Armée to handle without their coats? Could Napoleon’s defeat really be traced back to something as simple as a couple thousand tin buttons disintegrating in the cold? Maybe not, but it’s still a possibility.

Napoleon’s Buttons explores the intricate world of chemical structures, all while telling the story behind major chemical advances. Did you know that TNT came from a kitchen experiment that involved an exploding apron? Or how about the fact that today’s golf balls were a by-product of the search for rubber tires? Did you realize that one of the highly addictive substances in cigarettes, Nicotine, is a potent natural insecticide? Did you know that the hallucinogen LSD is actually just one of twenty-five synthetic derivatives for a compound known as Lysergic Acid? The world of molecules in an interesting place. The addition of an extra OH here and a few more double-bonds there can change a harmless substance into a lethal poison.

¡Christos E Espiciarias! The search for spices fueled much of early exploration. Pepper, once a highly valued and expensive commodity, is still the most commonly used spice. It’s “spiciness” comes from it’s chemical makeup. The hot sensation you experience when pepper makes contact with your tongue isn’t really a taste; it’s a response from our nerve endings when they encounter Piperine. This chemical has a special shape that allows it to bond to the nerve endings in your mouth and induce the fiery pain that has made pepper famous.

Ascorbic acid, otherwise known as Vitamin C, is found in citrus fruits or in over-the-counter supplements. However, for sailors in the early 1500s, it was incredibly hard to come by. One of the most infamous killers on the high seas was known as Scurvy. This disease causes exhaustion, swelling of the limbs, softening of the gums, diarrhea, bad breath, rotten teeth, nose hemorrhages, kidney malfunctions…the list of symptoms goes on and on. Needless to say, Scurvy was a miserable experience for anyone unlucky enough to contract it, and most likely meant death while at sea. It wasn’t until Captain Cook required his men to drink lime juice on their voyages that Ascorbic acid was finally recognized as an antiscorbutic, and gained widespread attention (and implementation) as a way to lower the high death toll at sea.

Sugar is something that makes life a lot more enjoyable. Whether it’s glucose, glycerol, sucrose, lactose, or fructose, sugar makes our world go ’round. The search for sweetness actually introduced the concept of artificial compounds. The Vitamin C produced in a lab is synthetic, or chemically identical to the Vitamin C found in oranges. Artificial sweeteners, however, are substances that are unlike sugar’s chemical structure at all – the only similarity is that they are sweet.

Cellulose is one of the most uninteresting, but most important, things you’ll ever eat. It usually goes by the name of dietary fiber. Why is this so important? Because humans cannot digest it! Cellulose makes up the bulk of all plant matter. There’s tremendous amounts of energy stored in it, but only plant-grazing animals can break it down for use.

Nitrated compounds have increased our ability to wage war, blast through tons of solid stone, and light the sky with fireworks. The process of nitration was first discovered by the ancient Chinese. Gunpowder was their invention, mainly used to launch rockets and fireworks. You are probably familiar with one very popular nitrate compound. Trinitrotoluene, sometimes called TNT.

In the early days of Europe, silk was a luxury. The only way to get silk was to cultivate a mulberry bush and grow tiny caterpillars fed on the leaves. These tiny silkworms spin cocoons of silk fibers that the ancient people of the orient would harvest, turn into fabric, and sell to Europeans at high prices. It’s chemical makeup makes it incredibly hard to duplicate, however, in the 1870s a scientist named Chardonnet created artificial silk. (Remember, since it’s artificial it’s not identical in structure to silk, it just has some of the same desirable qualities as silk.) Later, another scientist at the Du Pont Fibersilk company invented Nylon, a replacement for silk that’s still used today.

The first totally man-made polymer went by the name of Phenol, and was used for its antiseptic abilities in surgery. It was a huge success and effectively lowered the rate of death in hospitals. Later, however, phenol was used in a different application. For centuries the cue ball in billiards was cut from the heart of an ivory elephant tusk. However, ivory was expensive and “perfect” cue balls were hard to come by. Phenol was the answer. By combining it with other compounds it formed a substance called Bakelite – a versatile thermoset material that is used in everything from billiard balls to artwork.

Rubber has literally changed the entire world. From tires to golf balls to erasers to chewing gum; rubber has a huge impact on day-to-day life. When it was first discovered and experimented with, rubber was a horrible compound. It was either too brittle or too malleable; it was either freezing stiff or melting into a shapeless mound; and it always stunk! Through time it developed into something more. Charles Goodyear took the novelty “Eraser” and turned the substance called rubber into an automobile tire. What had once been a frustration to chemists turned into a goldmine!

Dye is essential to the clothing, printing, and paint companies of today. Dyes color our clothes, our furniture, our walls, our books, our appliances, even some people’s hair! While pigment has been a human fascination since pre-historic times, dye wasn’t perfected for thousands of years. Before synthetic and artificial dyes were invented, color came from nature. Brown, green, and red were common colors while blue and purple were harder to come by. (Hence purple was associated with royalty. They were the only ones who could afford expensive purple dyes for their clothes.) Today dyes are all factory-mixed from a variety of elements. It’s a wonder to think that the modern dye industry was born in the kitchen of a British teen on summer vacation.

As you could guess, medicine is all chemistry. Sulfa drugs were the primitive beginnings, followed by penicillin, and then by modern antibiotics. In the 1900’s the life expectancy for a U.S. Male was only about 46. By contrast, the average U.S. Male lived to be 72 within the next century. What made the difference? Chemicals! Medicine helped people to stay healthy, fight infection, and recover from disease like never before. It’s little wonder that people started to live longer.

Chemistry has led to moral conflicts more than once. One of these is that of birth control. Often referred to as “The Pill,” birth control wrecked havoc when it was first developed. (Although the scientist who invented it meant it to be used to enhance fertility, not hinder it.) From the medieval remedy of spitting into a frog’s mouth to the oral contraceptives of today, birth control has always been a hot topic for some chemists.

Who would have thought that the Salem Witch trials could have roots in chemistry? It’s true! The Witches of Salem were likely descended from the Herbalists of old Europe. Before witchcraft was known as an evil sin, it was simply thought of as the ability to control nature for your own gain. Some of this witchcraft still exists today. The popular Botox treatment comes from potent toxins in herbs known to these so-called witches – just applied in smaller doses.

It’s little wonder that with the human desire to feel good, three different alkaloid molecules have had such a huge impact on our lives. Morphine (From the Opium poppy), Nicotine (Found in cigarettes), and Caffeine (In coffee, tea, energy drinks, and chocolate) have had a profound influence on our lives. While both Morphine and Nicotine are illegal, there is no restriction on Caffeine. This lack of legal restraint was led to energy drinks that are little more than cans of liquid Caffeine, and are marketed as such! It brings up an interesting discussion. What is it that we’re trying to outlaw? The chemical or the effects of the chemical? If you answered “the effect” do you think we should outlaw energy drinks as well as Heroine and Marijuana?

The ancient lore surrounding olives gives us a sneak peek into just how valuable they were to the old world. A chemical spin on a good claim to the market would define it as, “an uneven distribution of highly desired molecules.” Olive oil was like this. The olive tree was only cultivated in certain areas of the world; Greece and Italy, to be exact. Why? The Romans said that it was because Heracles planted the first olive tree in their land. Greece credited Athena with its cultivation. Wherever it’s origin, you can still see the impact it has on the modern world. It’s key in cooking and the ideas fostered from ancient Greece’s affluence (made by the olive) still impact Western civilization.

Salt, with the chemical name Sodium Chloride, has one of the most interesting histories of any molecule. Early on in history people collected salt for preservation or to enhance flavor. Evaporating seawater, mining rock salt, or boiling brine were common ways to obtain salt. In the days of Rome, the fastest way to cripple and demoralize a city was to cut off their supply of salt. The ultimate irony surrounding salt is the fact that by the time modern technology had made it widely affordable, modern technology had also made it obsolete as a form of preserving food.

Refrigeration was definitely a huge leap into the future. Since 2,000 B.C. humans have been using ice to keep things cool. It wasn’t until 1748 that the first primitive refrigerant was invented. Refrigeration was a tricky business, though. Many of the first refrigerants were explosive, flammable, bad-smelling, toxic, or a combination of all of these. Freon was invented as a solution. It was non-flammable, non-toxic, and orderless. The dark side turned out to be the fact that they destroyed the Ozone layer. While people may point fingers of blame, the fact that refrigeration has revolutionized the world cannot be discounted.

Malaria is an infamous killer. Transmitted by a female mosquito searching for a meal, Malaria has devastating symptoms. It would silently strike and kill the great and the small. (Alexander the Great supposedly died of Malaria.) The search for Quinine, a known antidote took several years. While it could be obtained from the bark of certain tropical trees, it was an expensive and labor-intensive process. The manufacture of Quinine has never fully been recognized. To fix the problem DDT, a powerful insecticide, was developed. (Although it was quickly put out of use when multiple negative side-effects were exposed.) Malaria has been reduced from it’s “glory days” when it would kill multiple millions of people each year, but it is still a problem in many places of the world. Perhaps chemistry still holds the answer to eradicating this fatal disease once and for all.

If you don’t believe that chemistry has shaped your life; look around! The clothes you wear, the food you eat, the car you drive, the house you live in…all of it is there because of chemistry. Chemicals make up the world around us. They are literally everywhere. While some molecules may not have made any significant impact on society, most have played a major role in how history has played out. If it were not for spices, cellulose, sugar, rubber, or medicine, where would we be today? Chemical compounds can be both a blessing and a curse to humanity – and often, we don’t know which it will be at the time it’s first synthesized. In future generations, what will be the chemicals that have shaped our lives? We are in good company if we hesitate to guess at which molecules will make our posterity say, “Now that changed the world.” I doubt that few scientists would have guessed that the molecules they were working with would someday shape the modern world.