21st March 1831. Vitriolic.

Sulfuric Acid, oil of vitriol, is the most important industrial chemical with a wide range of uses in steel, fertilizers and plastics.(1)

It was Today in 1831 that Peregrine Phillips ( Jnr) a Bristol vinegar maker was granted a patent for the Contact Process, now the most efficient process for the manufacturing of Sulfuric Acid.

Phillips’ process has been the dominant method for producing Sulfuric Acid ever since. It involves making Sulfur Dioxide (SO2), oxidised to Sulfur Trioxide (SO3). (Ref 2)

When this is dissolved in water (H2O) it converts to Sulfuric Acid (H2SO4).

Sulfur Trioxide in gaseous form is a pollutant and primary agent in acid raid.

Sulfuric acid was a means of revenge in Victorian times used in 1883 by the 40 years Mary Morrison against her husband for which she got five years.

It was also the preferred acid of Haigh in the 1949 gruesome Brides in the Bath murders.

In literature it was used in a Sherlock Holmes case, The Case of the Illustrious Client, where an ex paramour takes revenge on the dastardly Baron Adelbert Gruner.

The highly reactive Sodium (Na) is a soft, silvery metal which when reacting with Sulfuric Acid produces the soluble salt, sodium sulfate, used today in detergents, wood pulp, textiles and glass.(3)

However this salt is bad for buildings as it crystallises with implications for decay of porous masonry, cement and mortar.

Salt weathering is thus a problem for the construction industry where soluble salts of both sodium and calcium (sulfates), are released from Portland Cement.

Sodium Sulfate crystals, in a porous material, may precipitate as the mineral Thenardite or as Mirabilite (in humid conditions) and is found in old mine workings and caves.

(1) Alternative spellings sulphuric, sulphate etc.

(2) When an element is oxidised it loses electrons so now has more protons, thus it rises a cation (positive) level.

(3)  Salts depend on the metal and acid used so Zinc and Sulfuric Acid produce the salt Zinc   Sulfide.


Sodium sulfite when exposed to air is oxidised to sodium sulfate.

The oxidation state of sulfide is II; for sulfite IV and for sulfate VI means it they have to lose those numbers in electrons to be oxidised.

The hydrate (containing water) of Sodium Sulfate (Glauber’s Salts) is also known as Sal Mirabilis, once used as a laxative.

Ref: The Repository of Patent Inventory: And other Discoveries and Improvements.

Ref: wikipedia.org/ The Contact Process.

Ref: chemguide.

Ref: vias.org/genchem/inorgcomp/sodium sulfate.

Ref: jstor.org/stabt. Science New Series.

Ref: Ref: academia.edu.

Ref: blogs.mcgill.ca/sherlock-holmes.


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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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