26 April 2011
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Memories of (Memories of) Chemistry

A Blast From The Past

When I start using worn out radio clichés for headings, think "literal."  When I write about personal experiences with chemistry, there were blasts involved, albeit small ones.  I can still touch-type (and can still see).  A few years ago, I wrote about the John H. Winn Chemical Company, a hangout of my youth before my parents strongly encouraged me to select a different hobby.  Sulfuric (sulphuric) acid?  No problem!  Powdered magnesium?  One ounce or four, sir?  When I wrote my original blogitem, I didn't exactly doubt my own memory, but I was surprised that I could find nothing about Winn on the internet and petitioned my thousands of millireaders to augment my recollections.  That blogitem consistently draws scattered replies and comments even after almost five years.  Apparently, despite the line of kids that reached into the hall, there is essentially nothing on the internet except for my blogitem, which appears right at the top of the very meager search results. 

Most of the comments I receive confirm my memory that Winn existed.  Abe from Alaska found a book published by Winn.  But this past weekend, Richard T was kind enough to share the reminiscence below.  Richard actually was employed (sort of) at Winn, and has a typically New York story for us.

In 1960, when I was 16, I worked behind the counter at Winn on Saturdays, when the place was so packed with kids that the crowd reached out into the hall, and after school during the week, when my job was to fill those little one- and four-ounce bottles with chemicals bought from Fisher Scientific and to fill mail orders, which was a major part of the business. They couldn't pay me "on the books," or even with cash, so I took my pay in chemicals and apparatus, which was actually the better deal considering the retail value of what I got.

Prior to working there, I had been a regular customer at Winn for at least six years, starting two years after my mom bought me the biggest Gilbert chemistry set, now a part of Americana.

The guy who ran Winn was Dorian, a wonderful man who singlehandedly was responsible for my pursuit of chemistry in high school (Brooklyn Tech) and college. Dorian was black, and as he explained it to me one day, he could not get a "regular" job because of his race, despite his Master's Degree in Chemistry from Columbia University. That was my first personal encounter with an adult who had such an experience, and today, 51 years later, I still think about how awful those times must have been for a major segment of our society and how much talent must have gone to waste.

One day Dorian told me to fill a lot of four-ounce bottles with concentrated sulphuric acid (they spell it 'sulfuric' nowadays), from a carboy we had bought from Fisher Scientific. The carboy was a gigantic glass bottle with a wooden frame around it to facilitate shipping; it had a cork stopper. I had some trouble getting the stopper out and had to use a sharp tool; I managed to get a lot of cork fragments into the acid, so Dorian told me to filter it with something as I poured it into the small bottles. I put a big wad of cotton into the funnel, and began filling the four-ounce bottles, which were dark amber and prevented me from noticing that the acid was desiccating the cotton, turning the acid dark black with carbon. I must have filled over a hundred bottles that way, until I eventually saw that the cotton in the funnel was gone.

I asked Dorian what to do. He understood how to market chemicals, so he arrived at a clever solution: we made a sign announcing a special sale of sulphuric acid which had been purified with activated charcoal, and was therefore most suitable for analytical chemistry -- a very popular interest among hobbyists -- and we jacked up the price accordingly.

The whole lot sold out in one day, much higher than the normal volume.

-Richard T.

I'm not sure we'd have had this story if the daily special were nitric acid.  Thank you, Richard!

Any other John H. Winn chemistry stories out there?  Care to share?

15 July 2011

Here's a nostalgic photo from Charles: Methyl Orange anyone? 

"Grimly Forming"
The Great Society




Heather went to Cambodia, and all I got was this T-shirt.

I don't think she "got" anything.  She loves to travel, and is pretty robust.

Cambodia T-shirt
© 2011
Richard Factor

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