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Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Don't try this at home!


A period view of Sheep Station Point, Turon River, during the rush. One of my
key themes will be the environmental damage: imagine where all the dirt went!
As I said the other day, gold is big on my horizons at the moment. In fact, I'm about half-way through writing the story of how and why Australia had a gold rush at all.

A week or so back, I was out on the Turon River, walking over one of Australia's oldest gold fields. Not one of the richest, but good enough, and the finds there educated diggers in the art of gold finding, and provided an impetus for later discoveries,

People don't realise this, but a gold rush doesn't start just because somebody found gold.  There has to be a whipping-up of excitement, and that makes for an interesting study.

The other thing people don't realise is that gold can be dissolved.  We think of it as untarnishable, unrustable, a sort of forever metal, but the truth is a bit different.  When we grandly elected to have gold-plated taps a house or so back, the plumber warned us not to use bleach around them.

As a good practical chemist, I thought he was mad, but played safe. Whoever owns that house now probably inherited nice looking taps, because we left a sticky note on the mirror over the basin, repeating the warning. But I didn't believe any of it.  Gold is highly unreactive: every fool knows that.

Nope.  Now read on.

I was trying to get my head around how the cyanide process works, and that led me to the chloride of lime process, which took me to how gold miners were affected when Europe has a cholera plague, or when Sydney had bubonic plague in 1900, or when there was an outbreak of smallpox anywhere at all, because people liked to use chloride of lime (which is bleaching powder alias calcium hypochlorite), and so the price went up.

I decided to dig more into this "chloride of lime", and came across this article in the Portland Guardian (Vic.), Friday 24 May 1895, page 1s.)

Things worth knowing.
Coarse and red hands may be whitened by using a few grains of chloride of lime added to warm soft water for washing. All rings and bracelets must be removed before this is used as the chloride of lime will tarnish them. A soap containing this ingredient may be prepared as follows:—
White powdered Castile soap, one pound; dry chloride of lime, one and a half to two ounces. Mix and beat this up in a mortar to a soft mass with a sufficient quantity of rectified spirit; divide the mass into tablets, and wrap it up in oiled silk. It may be scented by adding to the mixture a couple of drachms of oil of verbena. In using chloride of lime, it is very important to be careful to avoid getting any of the powder into the eyes, as it is exceedingly irritating, and may even cause blindness.

*  *  *  *  *  *

In reality, the chloride of lime does more than tarnish rings and bracelets: it makes them lose weight, because it dissolves them!  Then again, that stuff doesn't do a lot for the skin, either, so like it says in the heading, don't try this at home!

So if you thought life was safer, albeit a bit less hygienic back in the olden days, think again!
Things like this were often repeated, and the Euroa Advertiser had the same article in May, 1896.  For all I know, it may still be out there, appearing in local newspapers.

That's the fun thing about being a writer: you keep on learning.

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