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The Secret of Everyday Things by  Jean Henri Fabre





HERE does kerosene come from?" asked Claire. "Is it a kind of oil something like olive oil and nut oil?"

"Notwithstanding the name of oil generally given to it," her uncle replied, "kerosene has nothing in common with real oils. These are extracted from certain kinds of fruit, the olive for example, or from certain seeds like nuts and the seeds of flax and rape. Kerosene has no such origin; it is found ready-made in the bowels of the earth where certain stones are impregnated with it and let it ooze out drop by drop. The word petroleum (another name for it) alludes to this mineral origin, for it signifies stone-oil."

"Stone-oil!" exclaimed Jules. "I have never seen stones that let anything like oil ooze out of the them."

"Nevertheless there are some, and in a good many countries, too. I have already told you the history of pit-coal. You know that it comes from prehistoric vegetation buried to a great depth by the cataclysms which earth and sea have undergone. This coal, when heated without exposure to the air, gives the illuminating gas that burns with a white flame superior in brightness to the light of our best lamps; [142] it also yields coal-tar, which contains in large quantities certain inflammable liquids, mineral oils closely resembling petroleum. Layers of vegetable matter buried by convulsions of nature in the bowels of the earth, and converted into something like coal, have managed to undergo in one way or another the kind of decomposition accomplished in our gas-works. Thence have come natural tar, bitumen, black pitch, which the miner encounters in his excavations; thence also comes the inflammable gas which in various countries escapes from fissures in the ground and serves as an inexhaustible supply of fuel; and thence too we derive the liquid fuel designated by the name of petroleum. So heat from coal and light from petroleum are both a heritage coming down to man through centuries from the ancient vegetation of the world."

"You speak," said Marie, "of the supply of fuel in decomposed vegetable matter buried in the interior of the earth. Does this supply furnish light and heat?"

"Most assuredly it does. There issues from it an inflammable gas, a gas that burns with an intense heat. Such supplies of natural gas are not rare in the oil-fields, as for instance around Lake Ontario in North America. The inflammable gas escapes through crevices in the rock, in the soil, and even in the bed of the lake itself. It catches fire at the approach of any lighted object and, where the volume of accumulated gas is large enough, sends forth long, brilliant flames that even heavy rains sometimes fail to extinguish. The spectacle is wonderful beyond [143] description when these jets of fire burst forth from the very bosom of the lake and art hither and thither over the liquid expanse. In winter the effect is still more remarkable. Then around each gas-jet is an ice chimney several decimeters long forms and takes the shape of a huge crystal candelabrum, at the top of which blazes the flame. The people in the neighborhood make use of this reservoir of natural gas: it is conducted to their dwellings through pipes, and there it is burned in the fireplace for cooking or in gas-burners for lighting. One of these burners gives as much light as four or five candles combined."

"Those jets of flame must be very odd," remarked Emile, "especially when they come out of the water; but Lake Ontario is a long way off, and I shall never see them."

"Without going so far as Lake Ontario," his uncle assured him, "you can see flames bursting out of the water in the nearest ditch. Choose one abounding in black mud made of decayed leaves, and stir that mud with a stick. Big bubbles of gas will rise and show themselves, bladder-like, on the surface of the water. Well, if you hold a piece of lighted paper near one of these bladders, the gas will catch fire, producing a slight explosion and giving a very feeble light which would be invisible in the full glare of the sun, but can easily be seen at nightfall or in the shade. This inflammable gas comes from vegetable matter decaying under the water, just as the inflammable liquid petroleum has its origin in vegetable refuse buried in the depths of the earth.

[144] "The same gas also escapes from coal, as is only natural, since coal is formed from the remains of ancient vegetation in the same way that black ditch-mud is made principally of decayed leaves. Sometimes the subterranean excavations pushed to great depths for extracting the coal become filled with this inflammable gas. If a workman carelessly brings his lantern near this formidable substance—which gives no warning of its existence, as it is invisible and has no odor—a terrible explosion takes place, the mountain is shaken to its foundations, the scaffolding of the galleries falls down, and hundreds of people perish at such a depth, alas, that no succor is possible. Miners call this dangerous coal-mine gas 'fire-damp.'

"Around the Caspian Sea these fountains of fire, as we may call them, are numerous. All you have to do is to stir the earth a little way down and hold a light near the place, when instantly flames will spring up that will burn indefinitely. One of these fountains, that at Baku, is the object of superstitious reverence on the part of a religious sect, that of the Guebers or fire-worshipers. A magnificent temple encloses it. The inflammable gas gushes out through the cracks in the walls, from the summit of the vaulted roof, from the tops of the columns surrounding the edifice, from the very ground of the sanctuary, and from the entrance door. If a torch is applied, all these jets of gas catch fire in the twinkling of an eye and the temple is enveloped in a splendid curtain of flame."

"That would be better worth seeing," said Claire, [145] "than the inflammable bladders on the surface of a muddy ditch. But unfortunately, as Emile has already remarked, it is rather too far away."

"I hope I have said enough," Uncle Paul resumed, "to show you that the presence of a combustible liquid in the bowels of the earth has nothing in it that cannot be easily explained. Coal, inflammable gases, petroleum, all three have a common origin in the ancient vegetation of the globe buried and decomposed underground.

"Now let us talk about kerosene. North America furnishes most of it. Excavations similar to our wells are carried to a greater or less depth, and through the walls of these excavations the oil oozes, collecting little by little at the bottom as water does in our ordinary wells.

"Kerosene has an oily appearance, but is easily distinguished from oil by this peculiarity: whereas oil makes a translucent blot on paper and does not go away, kerosene makes a blot similar in appearance but disappears with heat without leaving any trace. That is because kerosene evaporates, while oil remains. Furthermore, the smell of kerosene is strong, penetrating, and somewhat like that of the tar that comes from our gas-works.

"The great inflammability of kerosene is a source of serious danger, which it is important to understand in order to exercise the prudence called for in handling this liquid. If you spill ordinary oil on the ground and hold a piece of lighted paper near it, you will not succeed in making it catch fire. Do the same with kerosene and it will take fire more or less [146] quickly according to its quality. If it catches fire instantly it is a very dangerous liquid and should be used as little as possible, if one does not wish to be exposed to the risk of serious accidents. But if it takes fire with some difficulty, it can safely be used in our lamps. The best kerosene is the one that is slowest in catching fire."

"I should have thought, on the contrary," said Marie, "that the best would be the one that catches fire the easiest."

"It seems so to you because you overlook the danger attending a too high degree of inflammability. Suppose you are carrying a lamp filled with ordinary oil; you stumble and fall, and the oil, together with the lighted wick, is dashed against your clothing. What is the result? Nothing very serious. The oil spilt, being unable to catch fire even close to the wick, will soil your clothes, it is true, but at least you will not be burned. What a frightful risk you run, on the contrary, if the lamp is filled with kerosene, which takes fire so easily! Your face and hands are splashed with the terrible liquid, your clothes are soaked with it, and instantly you are all on fire and in imminent danger of being burned alive."

"Oh, goodness gracious! if that should really happen to one of us!"

"If that should happen to one of you either with kerosene or with any other inflammable liquid, such as alcohol or ether, the first thing to do would be to keep your presence of mind and not run about distractedly, this way and that, frightened out of your [147] wits; for with your clothes flying in the wind thus created you would only make bad worse by fanning the flames. You should snatch up the first thing you can lay hands on, carpet, table-cloth, shawl, or cloak, and wrap yourself snugly in it so as to stifle the fire; you should wind it around your body very tightly and roll on the floor while waiting for some one to come to your aid."

"Who can flatter himself," said Claire, "that at such a time he will preserve his presence of mind?"

"You must do your best. Life may depend on it."

"Would it not be well," asked Marie, "to have nothing whatever to do with this dangerous liquid?"

"No, indeed, because we have nothing better for lighting purposes, and with a little prudence all danger is avoided. In the first place, we should use only kerosene that catches fire with difficulty when tested by pouring a little on the ground and applying a lighted match. Also, the supply should be kept in a tin can and not in a glass bottle, which might get broken; and when a lamp is filled it should be done at a distance from the fire. Finally, it is advisable to use this liquid as little as possible for hand-lamps, lamps that are carried from place to place as we carry a candle; it should be reserved for stationary lamps, those fastened to the wall or hanging from the ceiling and not likely to be touched after they are once lighted. In that way the inflammable liquid is not in danger of being spilt over us."

"These precautions make me feel safer," Marie rejoined; "but I know enough now to see that with kerosene prudence must never be forgotten."

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