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24th March 1933. Polythene.

Polythene is the most common plastic and the Brand Name for Polyethelene (Polyethene) which resulted from experimentation Today in 1933.

Two organic compounds were heated to 170°c to a pressure of 1700 atmospheres by two Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) scientists, Reginald Gibson and Eric Fawcett,  but they later found that instead of the Ethylene and Benzaldehyde combining as expected, a white, waxy solid was left.(1)

First Polythene pill-box presented to a technician involved in the experiment..

It was then demonstrated that this was a Polymer of Ethylene (Ethene) (C2H2 or H2C=CH2) that could be melted and drawn into threads of varying lengths of polymer chains of Ethylene units.

Ethylene is the most widely used of any organic compound and much of it to produce Polyethylene plastic, which under the Brand Name Polythene was first manufactured in 1948.(2)

The apparatus used in 1933 was presented by ICI to The Science Museum on the 50th anniversary of the first experiment.

There is a plaque commemorating the discovery of polythene in 1933 at Winnington (Northwich) Cheshire the former Brunner Mond (ICI) laboratories built in 1873. 


The plastic fibres were derived from fossil fuels, coal and oil in the 20thc and created by companies such as Courtaulds and ICI.

Polythene was to join Polystyrene, Polyester, PVC and Nylon, but all posing problems of decomposition. The future lies with bio-derivatives from the likes of sugar-cane.

(1) Benzaldehyde consists of a Benzene ring with a Formyl substituent and is the simplest aromatic Aldehyde and one of most industrially useful.

Benzaldehyde and similar chemicals occur naturally in foods such as almonds, apricots, apples and contain Amygdalin.

(2) Ethylene is a colourless flammable gas with sweet musky odour and is the simplest of the Alkene Hydrocarbons with C-C double bond.

Ethylene is a natural plant hormone and ripens fruits and its hydrate is Ethanol.

Ethylene molecule.





23rd March 1899. Hertha Ayrton?

Hertha Ayrton was Jewish, born Sarah Marks, but adopted the name Hertha, the Teutonic earth goddess. eulogised by the poet Swinburne.

Portrait of Hertha Ayrton.

It was Today in 1899 that scientist Hertha Ayrton (28.4.1854-23.8.1923), was the first to read her own paper to the Institute of Electrical Engineers (IEE), which had only recently opened its doors for the first time to women.(1)

Hertha, as a woman, had many obstacles to overcome, becoming a fighter for women’s suffrage, and denied access to institutional laboratories in her own right, and despite studying at Cambridge couldn’t receive a degree. Luckily she married a physicist.

Largely unknown, she was one of about 60 women, at that time, working in science, but mostly hidden from its formal records.

In 1902 she became the first woman nominated for fellowship of The Royal Society, but The President, astronomer, William Huggins  was against women ‘trivialising’ his elite scientific institute.

Later Ayrton was awarded The Hughes Medal by the Royal Society for work on electric lamp- arcs, a precursor to the field of plasma physics when she discovered the connection between pressure in arcs and the current length.

Arc lamps were the first practical use of lighting in streets, factories and also cinemas, emanating from the bright, white spark generated by a current travelling between two carbon rods, but the hissing meant the arcs were unstable and less efficient.


Ayrton addressing the Royal Society.

She decided the hissing was caused by a crater formed on one side of the carbon with the drop in current produced due to the affect of oxygen reaching the crater through oxidisation.

She concluded a more efficient arc would be obtained by thinner carbon and an infinitely shorter arc.

Then from her observation of the formation of ripples in beach-sand, it led to an analysis of fluid dynamics which she put to good use with her invention of the Ayrton Fan in WWI, which helped to dispel the heavy Chlorine gas which had been deployed.

(1) Herton was agnostic when in her teens adopted  the name of Hertha after the eponymous heroine in a poem by Algernon Charles Swinburne, a critic of organised religion. She was the first woman elected to become member of IEE.

Reference: The Northern Blog. Alan Sykes. 7.3.2013. of Hertha. of Hertha.


22nd March 1824. Paintings for the Nation.

Unlike comparable museums in Europe, the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square to be opened in 1838, was not formed by nationalising royal collections but came from private sources.

It was Today in 1824 that Parliament voted to buy 38 painting at a cost of £57k to establish a National Collection to be bought by Lord Liverpool’s Government.

Early engraving of National Gallery.

Two years later the painter Sir George Beaumont (Bt) offered his collection to the nation on condition a suitable venue could be found.

Water colour by Frederick Mackenzie (1787-1854) showing artists copying the great works inside 100 Pall Mall.

This and the Angerstein collection was put on display originally in Angerstein’s former town-house 100, Pall Mall, London, which had been built for Frederick, Prince of Wales, father of George III. 

100 Pall Mall

The acquisition of these paintings came from the heirs of Russian emigre, patron of the arts, John Julius Angerstein, who had made a fortune from slave owning in Granada, also a broker who had developed Lloyds of London, Insurance.

With the subsidence of 100 Pall Mall the collection moved to 105, which author Anthony Trollope described as, ‘dingy and narrow and ill-adapted for housing the treasures’.

Thus when William Wilkins’ new National Gallery in Trafalgar Square, on the site of the old Royal Mews was opened in 1838, it was the third to house the early collections.

The site was chosen as convenient for the poor, foot-passengers from the London’s east-end, and carriage people from the west, the mission was to make it free and accessible to all not for profit.

Despite these noble motives the Gallery had no official acquisition policy being based as it was, on personal taste of Trustees.

Patrons of all classes.

In 1871 the Gallery bought 77 paintings from the estate of the late Prime Minister, Robert Peel.

A windfall came when J.M.W. Turner left over 100 watercolours, sketches and other paintings to the Gallery so large they had to be displayed elsewhere until space was acquired.

To enter the National Gallery for the first time, as the Author did in the 1970.s, and not to be moved, as I was, by seeing the enormous Fighting Temeraire, by Turner, and other paintings, must be dull indeed.





21st March 1829. Pistols at Dawn.

‘The Field of the Forty Steps at the back of Montague House a place of appointment for duellists’, was replaced by Robert Smirke’s 1823, Greek Revival building: the British Museum.

‘A man may shoot the man who invades his character as he may who breaks into his house’. Dr. Johnson.

Vintage depiction of Victorian duel.

Duelling came with the arrival of Italian courtesy and honour literature at the end of the 16thc with a desire to protect one’s reputation and ‘face’.

By the reign of James I (VI) duelling had become so established among the militarised nobility that the king issued an edict against the practice. By the 18th century, pistols, as opposed to swords were the preferred weapon.

Four British Prime Ministers, two serving, have risked life and limb duelling, the last being Today in 1829 when the Duke of Wellington fought a duel with George William Finch-Hatton, the 10th Earl of Winchelsea at Battersea Fields.(1)

Twenty years before the future Prime-Minister, George Canning, then Foreign Secretary, fought a duel on Putney Heath, being wounded in the leg by a future Foreign Secretary, Lord Castlereagh who thought that Canning was privately demanding his sacking; Castlereagh had a button shot off in return.(2)

One future P.M. Robert Peel was challenged to a duel in Ostende in 1815 , but his adversary Irish Nationalist Daniel O’Connell was arrested en-route.

However the most publicized ‘calling-out’, which never happened, was in 1876 when Edward, Prince of Wales on an Indian trip, with Lord Aylesford, who received a note that his wife intended to elope with one of the Prince’s friends, Lord Blandford, eldest son of the Duke of Marlborough.

The Prince said Blandford ‘was the greatest blackguard alive’, causing a response from his younger brother Lord Randolph Churchill who produced letters from Lady Aylesford which implicated Prince Edward himself in an affair, which Randolph said their release would mean, ‘the Prince will never sit on the throne’.

Queen Victoria was not amused saying it was a ‘dreadful disgusting business’. The Prince told Lord Randolph to ‘name his seconds’ for the duelling grounds of Northern France with pistols, which never happened.

However Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, as intermediary, told the two adversaries, Blandford and Aylesford, to compromise. It ended with Marlborough being dispatched to Ireland as Viceroy, on the condition he took Blandford with him, a true British compromise.

Duelling appears in much 18thc literature continuing in the next century in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (1811) when Colonel Brandon and Willoughby ‘met by arrangement’, after the latter had seduced Eliza the Colonel’s ward.

Then Dickens in Nicholas Nickleby, Sir Mulberry Hawke and Lord Verisopht ‘met’ over an incident over whist, where honour was at stake.

The British have a happy knack of showing contempt for some dubious activity with humour, as in Dickens’, Pickwick Papers (1837) when Mr Winkle nudges his ‘second’ Mr.Snodgrass to prevent a duel with the ferocious Dr. Slammer.

However Snodgrass hilariously persists his friend is a ‘brave warrior committed to honourable combat’: duelling in British literature was thus laughed off page.

(1a) It resulted after Winchelsea had suggested the Duke’s dishonesty over Catholic Emancipation. However both aimed wide and apologised afterwards.

(1b) William Petty the 2nd Earl of Shelburne fought Lt. Col. Fullarton on 22nd March 1780; William Pitt (Younger) fought George Tierney MP on May 27th 1798.

(2) Canning was PM for the shortest term of a 100 days.

References: Duels in Literature.J.Leigh. Harvard Press. Pistols at Dawn.



20th March 687. The Cuthbert Gospel.

The Cuthbert Gospel of S. John (the Evangelist) was buried in his tomb in 698, after the Saint’s death Today in 687.

In 1104 it was removed to repose at Durham until the Reformation, after which passing through many hands, it was acquired in 2012 for £9m, by The British Library.

Opening page of the Cuthbert Gospel, written in Latin.

It is a remarkable tale of survival as the  Northumbrian Bishop’s remains were constantly carried from place to place by monks of Cuthbert’s Lindisfarne Monastery, seeking refuge from the invading Vikings.

Why the Gospel was placed in the coffin relies on an anecdotal report by the Venerable Bede who in his life of Cuthbert recorded that Prior Boisil  recommended that he learn from him, the book  of S. John the Evangelist, the emblem and epitome of Christianity, thus it was deemed appropriate for Cuthbert to be buried with the Gospel.

The Cuthbert Gospel is the earliest surviving western binding, in a deep red-dyed, goatskin with a raised pattern of vines on the front.

Cover of the pocket sized Gospel which contains 92 leaves.

Made by tooling of the leather over cords on the board of thin birch wood with the gathering of the pages sewn into holes in the boards with flax thread.

It is a technique which can be traced back to the early Egyptian codices of the early days of Christianity. The Gospel is not distinguished by ornate ‘carpet pages’ as in the Lindisfarne Gospels, but by its simplicity.

The Book’s was traditionally kept in three leather satchels inside a box, and often, in the middle ages, worn as an amulet around the neck.

Kept at Durham until the Reformation it passed from the 3rd Lord Lichfield to The Jesuit College at Liege in 1769 until destroyed by Napoleon.

After which it finished-up at Stoneyhurst College in England, to where it was restored after being lent to the Society of Antiquities by the Jesuit, William Strickland. He ironically was buried in Old St.Pancras graveyard adjacent to the British Library, the home of the Gospel. (1)

The Cuthbert Gospel before capital letters for names, punctuation and verse numbers, is written in a small, legible, Uncial Capitals Hand, with it being obvious that the scribe had needed to make corrections.(2)

The Gospel along with the once jewel-encrusted, covered Lindisfarne Gospels and the Book of Kells are the glory of Dark Age Britain, giving a lie to any notions that it was a Dark Age for art and culture. 

(1) Strickland was a Jesuit at a time when the Society of Jesus had been suppressed all over the world.

(2) Uncial were used between the 4th-8thc by scribes to write Greek, Latin and Gothic.



19th March 1883. Vitamin C.

In 1937 biochemist, Walter Norman Haworth, born Today in 1883, received the Nobel Prize for determining the structure of Ascorbic Acid.(1)

Ascorbic Acid.

It was an Hungarian scientist who discovered that the spice, Paprika Pepper was a rich source of Hexuronic Acid  and sent a sample to Haworth, the sugar chemist who deduced from this the correct structure of Vitamin C (Ascorbic Acid), and in 1934 was responsible for first synthesizing the Vitamin.

With its anti-scorbutic (scurvy) properties, the name proposed was ‘a-Ascorbic Acid’, (against scurvy), for the compound.

It was a Royal Naval Surgeon James Lind in 1742, who was the first to establish the connection with diet and scurvy and gave lemon juice and citrus fruit  to scurvy patients, who survived, which led eventually to the discovery of Vitamin C.

The term Vitamin has had a chequered history as the study of Amines derivative of Ammonia (NH3) in the early 1900.s suggested-wrongly- their ability to cure diseases such as Beri-Beri, Scurvy and Rickets.

Originally termed Vitamine from Vital (Latin meaning Life) and the suffix Amine, as it was originally thought all Vitamins were Amines, which contain Nitrogen.

When it was discovered this was untrue, biochemist Jack Drummond in 1920 suggested that the final  ‘E’ be dropped so de-emphasizing the Amino reference after it was discovered that ‘Vitamin C’ had no Nitrogen Compound. Thus now we have ‘e-less’ Vitamins!

An Amine is a molecule of Ammonia (NH3), found widely in biology and results from the breakdown of amino acids.

The release of liquid Amines smells like decaying fish, the smell of Trimethylamine, whilst gaseous Amines have the smell of ammonia.(2)

(1) He was assisted by Sir Edmund Hirst at Armstrong College, Newcastle on Tyne.

Haworth also did work on our understanding of Starch, Cellulose and Glycogen.

(2) Amines are organic compounds containing a base with a Nitrogen atom plus a ‘lone pair’ where one or more Hydrogen atoms is replaced by such as Akyl or Aryl Groups.

References: c.






18th March 978. Edward the Martyr.

Thomas Hardy reflecting on the ruins of Shaftesbury Abbey: ‘Vague imaginations of its castle its three mints its magnificent apsidal abbey the chief glory of south Wessex, its shrines, chantries, hospitals, all now ruthlessly swept away… throw visitors…into pensive melancholy’. Only a few stones remind us of the great Abbey today.

King Edward later known as the Martyr, of the House of Wessex, ruled from 975 to 978.

After the death Today in 978 of Edward the Martyr,  in which his step-mother Queen Elfrida was implicated, wanting the throne for her 7 years old son Ethelred, the relics of Edward were transferred from Wareham to Shaftesbury Abbey.(1)

Elfrida in an act of repentance was to build two monasteries at Wherwell and Ambresbury.

Shaftesbury, one of four Dorset towns mentioned in the Burghal Hidage, after the death of Edward became a place of pilgrimage, being renamed Edwardstowe, before reverting to its original name after the Reformation.

It was in 880 that Shaftesbury was founded, probably by Alfred whose daughter Aethelgifu was the first Abbess of the Benedictine Nunnery, the richest in England, benefiting as most abbeys, did from pilgrimage, endowments and Chantries.

However in 1424 the summons to parliament to which the Abbey was entitled by tenure was omitted on grounds that only men could serve: sexism 15thc style!

Angel from Shaftesbury.

Great Seal of Shaftesbury Abbey.








At the Dissolution of the Nunnery in 1539 the relics of Edward were hidden, not to be recovered until 1931 by Mr. Wilson-Claridge.

The Martyr’s identity was circumstantially confirmed by osteologist Dr T.E.A. Stowell in 1970 who suggested a boy had died in similar circumstances to Edward.

Sir Thomas Arundell 1st Baron Arundell of Wardour after the suppression bought Shaftesbury Abbey and most of the town until charged with treason and exiled, when it was acquired by Anthony Ashley Cooper 7th Earl Shaftesbury and later the Grosvenors. Another case of how wealth cascaded down in Britain to the present.

(1) Edward was son of Edgar the Peaceful and uncle to Edward the Confessor.