Filed by Ivan Amato
When I go to a national meeting of the American Chemical Society, I like to hunt around for signs of chemistry’s overt and unseen roles that would be apparent in the host city anyway, even if thousands of chemists were not converging on the city for a celebration of all things chemical.
I found a few such signs on Saturday when I ventured into the city’s wonderful central public library on Boylston Street. Up and running were several fantastic exhibits, including one on miniature books—some smaller than a penny—and one on Alexandre Vattemare, a Frenchman touted as the most famous ventriloquist of the 19th century and whose gift of 50 books in 1841 to the people of Boston was an influential act in the creation of the library.
As I wandered through the exhibit titled “United We Will Win: World War II Posters of Victory,” I found a few signs of chemistry. Amidst a frying pan with dripping fat and an ominous salvo of bombs, one 1943 poster commanded Americans to “Save waste fats for explosives—take them to your meat dealer.”
The chemical backstory of the poster, which was published by the Government Printing Office for the Office of War Information, is that 1 lb of waste fat could be used to make 1/10 lb of glycerine. From the 1/10 lb of glycerine, according to information gleaned from a website of the New Hampshire State Library, which also has a collection of World War II posters, 1/5 lb of nitroglycerine could be derived, from which 1/3 lb of gunpowder or ½ lb of dynamite could be made. During the war, the poster’s artist, Henry Koerner, also illustrated articles that appeared in Time and Life magazines. He emigrated from Adolf Hitler’s birth country, Austria.
Another sign of chemistry in the poster exhibit, though with more of a materials engineering emphasis, showed up in the poster asking Americans to donate their scrap rubber so that it could be reused in gas masks, life rafts, and war vehicles. A gas mask requires 1.11 lb of rubber, the poster states, whereas a heavy bomber requires 1,825 lb. The poster was printed in 1942 for the War Production Board.
One of my mantras around the office is that chemistry is everywhere, and I have had little trouble finding evidence of that in Boston.