|The Secret of Everyday Things|
|by Jean Henri Fabre|
|Fascinating conversations with Uncle Paul reveal the mysteries behind the dyeing and weaving of cloth, the lighting and heating of homes, the processing involved in bringing oil, coffee, tea, spices, and other foodstuffs to the table, and the power of water in all its manifestations. Excellent as follow-on to The Story Book of Science. Ages 11-14 |
S tinder burns without flame, the glowing spark
obtained with flint and steel before the invention of
our matches did not suffice for obtaining fire; we had
to have recourse to sulphur, which possesses the
invaluable property of bursting into flame at the mere
touch of a red-hot substance.
"Sulphur is so well known to you as to render any
description of it here unnecessary. It is found
especially in the neighborhood of volcanoes, where it
occurs in the soil, sometimes in masses free from all
admixture, sometimes in mingled masses of sulphur and
earth or stone. Man's work consists merely in purifying
the sulphur by melting it as it comes from the mine.
"In the olden time matches were made of pieces of hemp
dipped at one end into sulphur. They were lighted by
having the sulphur-tipped end touched either to a live
coal that was kept glowing under the ashes, or to a bit
of tinder previously kindled by flint and steel. Thus
you see the mere lighting of a lamp was a process not
devoid of complications. First the flint and steel must
be struck together, at the risk of bruising one's
fingers by an awkward movement in the dark; then, when
the tinder had taken fire after many attempts which
often exhausted the
 patience, it was necessary to apply the sulphur match
in order to obtain a flame."
"Our matches of to-day are much to be preferred,"
remarked Claire. "All you have to do is to strike them
against the box cover or against the wall or a piece of
wood, no matter where, and the thing is done: the fire
"This inestimable benefit of being able to obtain fire
without difficulty and on the instant we owe to
phosphorus, a substance discovered, as I have already
by a learned investigator named Brandt, who
lived in Hamburg two hundred years ago. In attempting
the impossible transformation of baser metals into
gold, he hit upon an elementary substance until then
unknown, and thus gave us the self-igniting sulphur
match with its tip of phosphorus.
"If you examine one of our
common matches you will see that the inflammable end is
coated, first with sulphur, and then, over this, with
phosphorus, the latter being colored with a red, blue,
or brown powder, according to the maker's fancy.
Phosphorus by itself is yellowish and translucent like
wax. Its name means light-bearer. When it is rubbed
gently between the fingers in a dark place, the fingers
are seen to be covered with a pale light. At the same
time a smell like that of garlic is detected; it is the
odor of phosphorus. So inflammable is this substance
that it takes fire when heated only a very little or
when rubbed against any hard
 surface. Hence its use in the manufacture of
"These are little sticks of woo—willow, poplar, or
spruce—wrought with the help of steel plates
pierced with holes having sharp cutting edges through
which the wood is forced by powerful pressure. Then
these little sticks, held in position by frames made
for the purpose, are first dipped at one end into
melted sulphur. Over this first coating, which is
designed to feed the flame and give it sufficient
intensity to ignite the wood, must be laid a second
that will take fire by friction; and this latter
coating is composed chiefly of phosphorus. On a marble
table is spread a semi-fluid paste made of phosphorus,
glue, very fine sand, and some coloring matter. The
matches, still held in position by the frames just
referred to, have their sulphur tips touched for an
instant to this inflammable paste, and are then placed
in an oven where the paste is allowed to dry. Friction,
aided by the fine sand incorporated in the paste,
develops enough heat to ignite the phosphorus; this in
turn sets the sulphur on fire, and from the sulphur the
flame spreads to the wood.
"Phosphorus is a deadly poison, and therefore matches
must be handled with care, this precaution extending
even to the empty boxes that have held them. Contact
with our food might entail serious consequences.
Nevertheless this fearful substance is found in all
animal bodies. It is present in the urine, whence
Brandt was the first to extract it; it occurs in meat,
in milk, and above all in bones.
 Plants also, especially cereals, contain it, and hence
it enters into the composition of flour and of bread."
"What!" exclaimed Claire, "a substance so frightful, a
poison so violent, is found in milk, meat, and bread!"
"Don't be alarmed," her uncle reassured her. "We run no
risk whatever of being poisoned by drinking a glass of
milk or eating meat and bread. The phosphorus there
present does not occur by itself, but combined with
other substances which deprive it entirely of all
poisonous attributes and render it useful, in fact
necessary, to the strength of the body. It is to be
feared as a poison only in the condition in which it is
found in matches. I should add in conclusion that the
method adopted by Brandt for obtaining
phosphorus—namely, from urine—has long since
been abandoned. At the present time it is extracted
from the bones of animals."
"Then it is bones that furnish us with phosphorus?"
"Yes, bones are by an ingenious device made to yield us
phosphorus and, consequently, light and heat."
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