The oldest book I own.

This is the oldest book I currently own:

Workshop Receipts For Manufacturers, Mechanics, and Scientific Amateurs by Ernest Spon.


This edition was published in 1879, and provides instruction in the art of “bronzes, cements, dyeing, electro-mettalurgy, enamels, etching, fireworks, fluxes, fulminates, gilding, gums, japanning, lacquers, marble working, nitro-glycerine, photography, pottery, varnishes, &c &c &c”.

Flicking through some of said instruction, it’s amazing that anyone survived to pass them on.  Victorian artisans were a bunch of absolute mentalists.

Take, for example, the preparation of Gold amalgam for use in gilding.

Amalgam of Gold in the Large Way – A quantity of quicksilver is put into a crucible or iron ladle, which is lined with clay, and exposed to heat till it begins to smoke. The gold to be mixed should be previous granulated, and heated red hot, when it should be added to the quicksilver, and stirred about with an iron rod till it is perfectly dissolved. If there should be any superfluous mercury, it may be separated by passing it through clean soft leather; and the remaining amalgam will have the consistency of butter , and contain about 3 parts mercury to one point gold.

So, in short, add red hot Gold to a container full of Mercury so hot that it is smoking.  This isn’t even one of the dangerous preparations in the book!  About a third of the way through, it gives instruction in the preparation of fulminate of silver, before explaining that the compound is so reactive that it is practically useless for any reasonable purpose.

It’s a fascinating look back at how chemistry was once an integral part of a workshop, and required no real specialised course of training, instead relying on recklessness bordering on the insane coupled with lots of ironware and a lightweight roof.

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