2nd July 2002. Ammonia the Wonder Compound.

Geoffrey Chaucer in the 13thc refers to sal armonyak(sic) in the Yeoman’s Tale.

Later Dickens in his novel Hard Times, has Mr. Bounderby stepping into a chemist’s shop for a bottle of very strong salts.

‘By George’, he says, ‘if she takes it in the fainting way, I’ll have the skin off her nose.'(1).

These spirits or salts were also used by textile dyers in the Middle Ages, in the form of fermented urine to alter the colour of vegetable dyes.

In the 17th century, aqueous solutions of ammonia (aquila coelestis), before it was isolated by Joseph Priestley in 1774, was obtained from the horns and hooves of deer.

This when crystallized turned out to be ammonia carbonate (Salts or Spirits of Hartshorn), later known as smelling salts. It was also known as bakers’ ammonia, the forerunner of baking soda and powder.

By the 18thc ‘smelling bottles’ were vials filled with ammonia salts, but it was the 19th century, as revealed in many a novel, that it became the fashion for a swooning lady to take the salts.

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The ‘Salts’ are still in use, as revealed Today in 2002, when the BBC News Online, reported that tennis player Tim Henman had resorted to sal volatile (smelling salts), to increase his performance.

It described ‘A stricken Tim Henman turning to smelling salts to help revive his fortunes at Wimbledon.’

Smelling salts release ammonia gas which irritate the nasal and lung linings causing a reflex which increases breathing rate and alertness. The base of these salts is ammonium carbonate which stimulate the inhale reflex causing an intake of breath.

Ammonia (NH3), is a colourless toxic gas used for the manufacture of fertilizers, nitric acid, explosives and artificial fibres, not to forget its use in kitchen and window products.

Ammonia is the natural product of rotting matter, but is made in bulk by the Haber Bosch process from atmospheric nitrogen and hydrogen, ready for conversion into nitrates, vital for the cereal growth, which sustains the world population.

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(1) Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.  Chapter 16 in Hard Times.


Almost 67% of ammonia is protonated by the addition of a hydrogen proton, to an atom or molecule.

So when ammonia (NH3) which is readily dissolved in water (H2O), we get the  formula NH3+H2O. The water now has its pH raised.

Now acting as a base, we get a alkaline solution of NH4 OH (ammonium hydroxide) an unstable compound which cannot be isolated from the solution.

This protonation is thus an example of a reaction of an acid with a base to make a salt where we see the formation of ammonium group NH4 from ammonia NH3 : NH3+H+>NH4+

NB: A base is any substance whose pH is more than 7 and is any aqueous substance that can accept protons. This solution will react with acidic solutions to form a salt and water, a process called neutralisation.

TRIVIA: A well known brand was Dr. Mackenzie’s smelling salts first recorded by advert in 1894 and said to ‘cure colds in the head.’ They are still available today.

Ref: Wikipedia.org/smelling_ salts.

Ref: bjsm.com/content. P. McCrory Salts.

Ref: jasna.org/persuasion.

Ref: googleimages/Pictures.

Ref: wikipedia.org/ammonia.



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About colindunkerley

My name is Colin Dunkerley who having spent two years in the Royal Army Pay Corps ploughed many a barren industrial furrow until drawn to the 'chalk-face' as a teacher, now retired. I have spent the last 15 years researching all aspects of life in Britain since Roman times.

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