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Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Home Chemistry and Explosives Precursors

Tasker Dunham’s chemistry set boosted his school science marks, but how easy is home chemistry today?

Without anyone really noticing, new regulations relating to the “supply of explosives precursors” have recently been introduced in Britain. From September, 2014, you need a Home Office licence to buy chemicals that could be used in the illicit manufacture of explosives. From March, 2016, you need a licence simply to possess them. The list includes potassium chlorate, sodium chlorate, hydrogen peroxide and nitric acid. The licence also covers a number of poisons, including mercury, and there is a further secondary list of reportable substances for which any suspicious transactions or thefts must be reported. This includes sulphuric acid, acetone, and ammonium, sodium, calcium and potassium nitrates.

What strikes me most of all about these regulations, is that these are chemicals of interest to the home scientist. I used to have several in my childhood chemistry set. It seems we now need a licence to pursue an innocent educational interest. The licence costs £39.50 and must be renewed every three years. Children under eighteen will only be granted a licence in exceptional circumstances subject to additional conditions requiring adult supervision. See the web site for the official guidance.

Do these regulations really prevent terrorists from making explosives, or do they just make things unnecessarily difficult for innocent members of the public? I would have thought any chemist worthy of the name would easily be able to make or extract any chemical they need from sources such as weed killer, fertiliser, bleach and drain cleaner. It used to be common knowledge that if you wanted to make a bang, you just mixed sugar with weed killer, taking care not to blind yourself or blow your hands off. You can't have your hands sewn back on if you can't pick them up to take them to the hospital.

I have some concentrated acetone in my garage, a half-full nineteen-eighties bottle of nail varnish remover. It was my mother’s, but I kept it because acetone is useful as a solvent for removing sticky marks and so on, and as well as that, it's nice to have a quick sniff now and again. Am I in danger of being arrested for terrorism if I fail to take proper care of it?

Kay Chemistry Set 1960s

My Kay chemistry set was one of the best Christmas presents I ever had. I had drooled over it in the toy shop window for months. It had an array of exciting chemicals in stoppered glass test tubes: blue and green sulphates (sometimes irritatingly now spelt with an ‘f’, which just looks wrong) , purple needles of potassium permanganate, white powders, silver-grey chunks of zinc and glittering grey-brown iron filings. Its apparatus included further test tubes, a teat pipette and a round bottomed flask, together with litmus paper, a plastic funnel and filter papers. There was a stand to keep the test tubes upright, and a device to hold them as they were heated in the flame of a methylated spirit burner standing on a heat-resistant asbestos mat. There was a booklet of experiments, ‘The Wonders of Chemistry, prepared for the young experimenter by an experienced science master.”

The experiments in the booklet were interesting enough to begin with: growing differently shaped crystals from hot saturated solutions as they cooled – most memorably the bright blue diamond gemstones of copper sulphate; turning litmus paper from red to blue in alkalis, and blue to red in acids; mixing brown ‘logwood chips’ with alum to extract a vivid blue-purple natural dye. It was even possible to make small quantities of oxygen, carbon dioxide and hydrogen gas, but not enough to match the fabulous wizardry of some of the things we did in chemistry at school. Let’s face it, you don’t just want a chemistry set to grow crystals and change colours, you want to make invisible ink, smoke bombs, poisons, evil smells and explosions.

F Sherwood Taylor: The Young Chemist

I got hold of a better book, ‘The Young Chemist’ by F. Sherwood Taylor, which is not easy to find these days but my ragged copy remains in my bookcase. It was great. There were new experiments which, the dust jacket claimed, “… can be carried out at home cheaply, easily and without danger.” Looking at the contents now one has to question the absence of danger. There are sections on gases: carbon dioxide, oxygen, ammonia, hydrogen sulphide, chlorine; sections on acids: sulphuric, hydrochloric, nitric; and sections on various other substances: sulphur, caustic soda, iodine. But any nagging concerns were clearly unfounded because, as the dust jacket reassured, “… it [the book] has been ‘vetted’ by the Home Office.”

Most experiments in ‘The Young Chemist’ needed additional equipment - a Bunsen burner and a crucible - and additional chemicals. “Real iodine,” it says to distinguish it from tincture of iodine, “is a black shiny solid. Ordinary chemists stock it, and it costs 2s 4d an ounce. A quarter of an ounce will do for quite a number of experiments.” It seems unlikely that if you walked into your local branch of Boots today and asked for thirty grams of elemental iodine you would be very successful. In America you have to have Drug Enforcement Agency authorisation to buy iodine or its compounds because of its use in the clandestine manufacture of methamphetamines such as ‘crystal meth’.

But in those days, buying chemicals really was as straightforward as the book made out. My dad called at the chemists and came home with bottle of hydrochloric acid, in a hexagonal emerald-green poison bottle. That same bottle, empty, was still on a ledge at the back of his shed when I cleared it out forty years later. We mixed the acid with zinc to produce hydrogen gas which went pop to a match flame held at the mouth of the test tube. ‘The Young Chemist’ goes on to show how to make enough hydrogen to fill a balloon, but I could never get a seal tight enough not to leak.

Safely guided by the book, I made free chlorine gas from hydrochloric acid and bleaching powder. “It is not wise to make any considerable quantity of chlorine,” it warns, “but it is quite safe to make small quantities and use them at once, if care is taken not to let the gas escape.” So I carefully made just a small quantity of the greenish-yellow gas in a test tube, and was curious to know what it really smelled like. Having previously sniffed a tube of ammonia I’d made by heating ammonium carbonate, and lived to tell the tale, I felt sure the warning could be ignored. Maybe if I had reflected on the fact that my fascination with chlorine stemmed from its use as a chemical weapon during the First World War, I might have been a bit more sensible. Even a cautious sniff had me coughing and reeling with a burning pain inside my nose.

The book explains how to ferment glucose and distil alcohol, which it acknowledges as illegal, but “… as long as the alcohol is not drunk or sold it is unlikely that the excise authorities would object.”

Even the humble Bunsen burner had its potential dangers. Nineteen sixties houses had brass gas taps emerging through the floorboards beside the hearth for the purpose of supplying gas through a rubber tube to a free standing gas fire. As mains gas appliances now have to be permanently plumbed in by ‘Gas Safe’ engineers with all the right up-to-date certificates, gas taps and free standing gas fires that burn mains gas must now be illegal. I haven’t seen a domestic gas tap for years, yet all seemed perfectly safe at the time. You simply needed to be aware of the dangers. Everyone knew the fires gave off noxious fumes, caused terrible condensation and were easily knocked over, and that gas taps could be turned on by curious children wanting to know what happens when you fill a room with gas, which in those days was poisonous coal gas rather than the less toxic North Sea gas. So we were very careful. It seemed entirely natural to run a gas supply to my Bunsen burner through a long rubber tube, around ten yards in length, from the gas tap, across the room, out through a partly open window and then a short distance across the yard to my ‘laboratory’ in the shed. What could possibly go wrong?

Bunsen burners mixed gas with air so, unlike methylated spirit burners, they were hot enough to melt glass. ‘The Young Chemist’ shows how to bend tubes and blow glass bulbs. I only burnt myself once.

Today, the book’s claim to be without danger might not stand up litigious scrutiny, and the Home Office would be unlikely to ‘vet’ it so leniently. Perhaps this is why some of the cheaper chemistry sets now, especially for children under twelve, seem particularly feeble compared to sets from the nineteen sixties. Some are so safe they have only plastic test tubes and no glass, substances ‘warmed’ by immersion in hot water because there are no flames, and the biggest deficiency of all, no actual chemicals, or at least nothing you can’t eat. The bleaches and disinfectants under the kitchen sink are more dangerous and more poisonous than the contents of these so-called chemistry sets. Some sets contain only materials such as balloons, clay and starch, with serious warnings to handle them carefully. The largest and most prominent item is often a pair of safety goggles. Woe betide anyone who blows up a balloon without wearing safety goggles!

In America, things are even worse. In some schools, science teachers have to sign out ‘dangerous’ substances like vinegar and baking powder from locked cupboards. This, in a country where guns and ammunition are freely available! You even need a criminal background check to buy laboratory glassware. Coffee machines contain three items that would violate the drugs agency regulations if found in a home laboratory: a filter funnel, a Pyrex beaker and a heating element. There are reports of innocent home chemicals suppliers being raided by police under the Federal Hazardous Substances Act, accused of supplying banned substances such as sulphur and potassium nitrate which might be used to make illegal fireworks.

The most expensive chemistry sets now available, costing over £150 (such as Brightminds Chemlab 3000), do still seem to measure up to the old sets in terms of apparatus, but you have to obtain many of the chemicals yourself, especially anything liquid, such as meths for the burner, sodium hydroxide, ammonia solution, hydrochloric acid and silver nitrate solution. The internet now makes these easier to find, but safety and regulation still take precedence over interest. And £150 might be more than most families would be willing to pay, especially if a £39.50 licence is required as well.

It is all a far cry from my school science days, when bottles of sulphuric acid were always on the benches, we rounded up droplets of mercury spilled on the floor by the previous class, and wafted large asbestos mats at each other. One wonders how children are supposed to gain confidence in the handling of hazardous substances and with other risks, when chemistry sets are so bland, ineffectual and uninteresting. I was dismayed to see my own children’s uneasy clumsiness in trying to strike matches to light a candle.

One also has to wonder whether the hands-off passivity of demonstrations, videos and simulations, enthuses as much interest in science as running experiments first hand. My own chemistry set, at least for a time, boosted my school marks, and although in my case these interests later waned, there are many professional scientists who fondly remember how their careers developed out of a passion for carrying out experiments at home. It isn’t right to impose too many restrictions on these things.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Lookin’ for a ‘feet’

Tasker Dunham gets beaten up

“You two lookin’ for a ‘feet’?” said a coarse voice behind. We both pretended not to hear and kept on walking.

We were on our way home from school for what we used to call our ‘dinner’, now usually ‘lunch’, and had gone by way of the back lanes so we could take off our school caps. You had to wear your uniform to and from school at all times, including the hideous cap: navy blue, badge on the front, four showy yellow triangles joined on top. Be caught without it and you got an automatic Saturday morning detention. This applied just as much to sixth formers as younger pupils, even those who stayed on an extra year to try for Oxbridge entrance, and they could be nearly twenty! Caps on sixth formers looked even more ridiculous than on us, as nobody ever bought a new one, and so they walked to and from school with tiny first-form caps perched insecurely on huge sixth-form heads.

Nonetheless, we all knew that once out of sight, concealed beneath the high walls of the back lanes and cross streets where you were unlikely to be seen by a teacher, it was safe to put your cap in your pocket, so long as you kept away from where the German teacher lodged. The only danger was that the lanes and cross streets were frequented by secondary modern school boys who flaunted their toughness and maturity by walking home smoking. Modern School boys detested Grammar School boys, considering them anything other than tough and mature.

The voice behind was quiet for a time, so my friend Burling resumed talking about school work. He was usually top of the ‘A’ stream, and apart from cricket, talked about little other than what he was currently studying. That particular day he had been going on about surds, managing to convince me that the square root of fifty was equal to five times the square root of two, and had then switched to early nineteenth century history, prattling enthusiastically about William Pitt the Younger and George Canning. He could almost convince you it was fascinating, but from the way the disagreeable voice behind had pronounced fight as “feet”, I suspected we were being overheard by someone who thought surds were absurd, a pit was where you might get a job, and that canning was what they did with peas and carrots at the factory on the Doncaster Road.

“You two lookin’ for a ‘feet’?”

There were two modern school boys behind us, both smoking. I recognised one as the notorious Pete Jibson, who although only a couple of years older than us, was one of those lads who by the age of fourteen could pass for twenty. He was heavily built, with greasy hair, dark stubble, a lined forehead and a perpetually malicious expression. I had once seen him ask for three Woodbine in the corner shop. He was definitely not someone you would want to fight. My experience in these situations was that it was essential to be conciliatory; better to lose face than teeth. Unfortunately, Burling lacked any sense of self-preservation. He never went out enough to acquire it.

“I said you two lookin’ for a ‘feet’?” repeated Jibson.

“Why?” asked Burling, brightly. “Have you lost one?”

This, of course, was not at all a sensible thing say. Jibson pushed forward, picked up Burling by the lapels of his school blazer and rammed him backwards, hard against the wall.

“You clever grammar school c***,” he growled, Woodbine still in mouth. He let Burling go and turned to walk away with his accomplice, smirking.

“Charming!” I whispered as they left, but a bit too loudly, and Jibson turned back to give me the treatment.

“What was that, you b******? What did you say?”

“I didn’t say owt,” I protested in anxious, conciliatory, wide-eyed innocence. “I didn’t say owt.” I didn’t want to sound too posh.

Jibson let me go and turned again to leave. I was just about to give a sigh of relief when Burling, like the idiot he was, piped up, “He said you two were charming.”

“Oh! Right!” said Jibson menacingly as he turned back. There was a sudden flash, a heavy thump under my chin, and I staggered backwards to the ground. As I struggled to get up I could see Burling being smashed against the wall again. When Jibson had made his point he flicked the smouldering stub of his Woodbine at my head, and swaggered off.

We waited until they were well ahead before continuing home. Burling had a few scrapes and scratches, and I suffered no worse than damaged pride and a bruised chin. We took the main roads home for the next few weeks, and kept our caps on.

*                   *                  *

Such fiery animosity between the two different kinds of school is hardly surprising. Only around a quarter of eleven year olds went to the grammar schools, yet they enjoyed typically three times the resources of the secondary moderns. Grammar schools had the pick of the best teachers, and guided their pupils intellectually and culturally towards membership of an elite new middle class. Even their own families could feel left behind. As interests and horizons expanded and widened, old friends at the secondary moderns gradually dwindled away. Although perhaps none of us were truly aware of it at the time, it was social engineering on a grand scale. Grammar schools and modern schools were likely to lead to very different jobs, levels of pay and ways of life.

The vast majority at the secondary moderns were thought to have no future in education and encouraged to leave at fifteen, whereas most at the grammar schools were still in education at seventeen, and usually went on to university, teacher training, the civil service or the professions. Meanwhile, boys from the modern schools found themselves in blue-collar or unskilled jobs, typically in the engineering industries, the building and motor trades, the railways, road transport, shipping, the armed forces, mining and agriculture. Girls might at first go to work in shops or factories, but most saw this as a temporary measure on the road to marriage, children and home making.

At the grammar schools, we enjoyed for free the kind of privileged, public-school style of education some parents now pay tens of thousands of pounds for. We had rugby, cricket and hockey teams, summer athletics sports days, outdoor pursuits such as climbing, rambling and pot holing at the school hut in the Yorkshire Dales, foreign exchange trips to Belgium and Germany, geography and biology field excursions, drama productions, arts, crafts, hobby and debating societies, all led by highly-qualified, experienced, content and enthusiastic staff. We studied for G.C.E. ‘O’ and ‘A’ level qualifications across the full range of sciences, humanities, arts and classics. We had well stocked science laboratories with work benches for individual experiments in physics and chemistry, dissections and examinations in biology, all housed in a purpose-built science block. There was a magnificent, fully equipped stage with a proscenium arch and modern lighting rig, and in the hall, a multi-keyboard organ with bass pedals, the preserve of the ancient but gifted head of music who accompanied our uplifting Christian hymns at daily morning assembly. We had a dedicated gymnasium with retractable beams, ropes and wall bars, with vaulting horses, spring boards and basketballs in the overflowing store cupboards. Everything was respected and looked after; there was very little theft or vandalism. They only things the modern school had that we didn’t were vegetable plots, greenhouses and chicken pens for lessons in horticulture and animal husbandry.

Even the buildings shouted different levels of privilege; the grammar school’s attractive Georgian architecture in Flemish-bond yellow-orange brick, its Queen Anne cupola, the town coat of arms carved over the door, and the foundation date in prominent Roman numerals high above, all scorned the modern school’s plain functional redbrick.

The injustices become even more conspicuous when one realises that selection for the grammar schools was not entirely based on merit. Middle-class children, perhaps from homes full of books, culture, intelligent conversation, and the time and space to enjoy them, were far more likely to get through the ‘eleven plus’ than those from poorer backgrounds, and if there was any doubt about their abilities, ambitious parents would pay for private tuition to ensure they did. One study found that in Nottingham, two thirds of children from one middle class suburb went to grammar school, against fewer than one in fifty from a neighbouring poorer area. In some depressed northern industrial towns, less than ten per cent of all children got in. Then there were children who actually did make the grade, but found their grammar school place turned down by their parents, often on grounds of cost, as they were needed to earn a wage as soon as possible. I also remember two boys from council houses who would easily have passed, except they were discovered to have ‘dirty magazines’ in their school desks, and in an act of such unbelievably small-minded, puritanical snobbery, were peremptorily denied any opportunity of a grammar school education. They were eleven for goodness’ sake! Their places must have gone to two others, innocently unaware of the inexcusable circumstances of their arbitrary good fortune.

Even the ideology of selection at eleven was influenced by the outrageous fraud of the educational psychologist and government advisor, Sir Cyril Burt, who faked his studies of separately-raised identical twins to declare that intelligence and ability were fixed at conception, primarily determined by genetics rather than upbringing. Had he been right, then selecting children for different kinds of education by measuring their intelligence might have been sensible, but the Nottingham findings, mentioned above, are just one of the many pieces of evidence that he could not have been more wrong; such a large difference between communities could never be down to intelligence alone, indicating that they were measuring something other than what they thought was fixed at birth. 

Not only was selection so very, very unfair, it was also wasteful of talent. Many late-developers found it impossible to recover from eleven plus failure. They and countless others, given the opportunity, could have succeeded in the grammar schools just as well as their more fortunate peers. I know of several eleven plus ‘rejects’ who went on to demonstrate this in the most superlative way. One, after a year at the modern school, was thrown the lifeline of a transfer back into the first form at the grammar school, which he then passed through a year late before getting into Cambridge University and qualifying as a veterinary surgeon. Another first form transfer went on to qualify as a solicitor, although he did need two goes at his ‘A’ levels, which meant he was nearly twenty-one by the time he left the sixth form. Thankfully for him, a new headmaster had by then pronounced the old school caps and uniform archaic. Significant numbers of others too, allowed to transfer to the grammar school at sixteen after having overcome the considerable hurdle of passing their ‘O’ levels at the modern school, went on to respectable careers. It goes to show that with encouragement and determination, most of us can achieve anything. But how many ‘false negatives’ and ‘late developers’ did the system miss?

Grammar schools brought in a never-before, and perhaps never-again seen era of social mobility for those lucky enough to get in. When we had left, we could look forward to a wide range of influential and well-paid careers throughout the country, if not throughout the world, at the highest level our abilities could take us. Despite being from fairly ordinary homes, the opportunities were limitless.

Perhaps today there may be something in the view that we have gone too far the other way. Almost half of young people now go to university, which means that large numbers of recent graduates would never in the past have got through eleven plus. This is undoubtedly a change for the better, but during my later career at one of the less-prestigious universities, I came across some students who simply lacked the basic levels of literacy, numeracy, ability or diligence to gain much at all from degree level study. They didn’t seem to grasp what we were doing, or why they were there. “Pass them anyway,” said the management, off the record, “because that’s what the government wants us to do.” I suppose at least now, few can genuinely claim they were not given some kind of a chance. But if comprehensives and academies had achieved their declared aim of providing a universal grammar school quality of education, it seems unlikely that private education would have flourished as it has. Selection and networking through wealth and class now seem even more prevalent.

*                   *                  *

Jibson and his mate of the ‘feet’ incident both left school soon afterwards. In all likelihood, Jibson would never have enjoyed a grammar school or university education. I heard he went to work at the local concrete factory making reinforced panels - dangerous, corrosive and life-shortening work. I saw his accomplice again only a few months later. To my consternation he was at our house, whistling and joking noisily with the local firm of decorators as they painted the outside woodwork. I don’t think he recognised me, but just in case, I crept in quietly from school each day and made myself scarce until they had all gone home. His job, as a new apprentice, seemed to consist mainly of fetching and carrying things for the more experienced decorators, and pushing an enormous two-wheeled flat barrow around the town, loaded with boards, ladders, paint pots, brushes, turpentine, and so on, which was how tradesmen moved their tools and equipment before they all had vans. He may later have progressed from fetching and carrying to become a qualified painter, perhaps even rising to the heights of grainer, a specialist in creating artificial grain effects in paintwork to give ordinary wood a façade of quality. That would have been his working life, until, that is, we all installed uPVC doors and windows, renewed our interior woodwork with laminated grain-effect surfaces, took up DIY and did our own decorating, and painters and grainers were no longer needed.

Ironically, one of the factors in putting so many tradesmen out of work by facilitating our home DIY efforts, was the availability of a particular, ingenious, folding workbench, initially patented by one of my grammar school near-contemporaries (although it is said that he and the company he worked for may have stolen the idea after seeing it on display at a trade fair). As for Burling, he went up to Oxford to read philosophy, politics and economics. He later became an economist at the Bank of England.