Nature’s infinite book of secrecy

Shakespeare knew that nature hides many secrets and that *man* (or in Antony and Cleopatra the Soothsayer) would be forever trying to seek them out.

*man* please forgive this sexist reference but at the time science was, wrongly, seen as a male preserve.

By the 1950s young boys were being persuaded to show an interest in chemistry:

or mechanics (physics):

or biology:

Birthdays or Christmas could bring one of these science kits to your home and you could learn things that were not taught in primary schools.

The chemistry set was filled with phials of chemicals; tweezers; test tubes; and suggestions for experiments which today would have the health and safety people in absolute fits.

Even worse if it had a bunsen burner as well which would allow you to heat iron filings in a test tube or make oxygen from potassium permanganate crystals, heat sulphur and plunge it into the oxygen to see the reaction.

Surely a microscope kit could not be as dangerous?

Of course not, unless you worry about your child having a scalpel to cut up specimens or a piece of dowel with a long sharp needle in it.

At least the Meccano was relatively safe and not only taught mechanical construction but also some basic physics principles especially if your kit had pulleys and levers.

This whetted the appetite for scientific discovery and when our age group made it into grammar school a lot of little boys (and I am sure girls) found all their birthdays and Christmases had come at once with science kits blown up to the size of large rooms.

Even in the first year the initial experiments were interesting but by the second year some of us wanted more exciting things to do.

Which is why a small group of us, Louis and Jimmy Parker, Tony Custy, Peter Horton, Roger Steele and myself, formed our own little out-of-school club.

The Parkers provided a room over one of the unused stables at their home and we all chipped in funds to buy chemicals by mail order (no internet then).

We used to meet up once or twice a week after school and for a couple of hours would try out various experiments which Harry Davies the chemistry teacher (and deputy head) would never have condoned in a million years.

Our little club was provided with some of the lab equipment courtesy of the school. After all there seemed to be more test tubes, beakers and pipettes than they could ever use even if all the pupils took lessons at the same time.

We always intended to return them before we left school.

Most of our experiments were moderately harmless and produced interesting coloured smoke or bright flashes. It would have been very handy if we had decided to form a magical act.

There were no real problems with our youthful experiments, except one time when a combination of various chemicals (to this day I still can’t remember all of them but a couple of acids were involved) made a bigger flash bang wallop than a Victorian photographer with one of those magnesium powder flashes that took half an hour to clear.

We all got out of the room coughing and spluttering but managed to get back in to open the windows and by wafting the door back and forth we eventually made things breathable.

We decided after that to disband the club and stick to what we could learn from Harry Davies.

It was many years later I checked out some of the chemicals we did have, and others easily obtainable from the school lab, and realised we had everything we needed to nitrate toluene.

This would have given us mononitrotoluene from which we could have continued to dinitrotoluene.

The third stage would have been . . .

Well figure it out for yourself. Now that would have been a real flash BANG wallop.

I did retain my interest in scientific experiment out of hours but it tended to move more to the biological side rather than the chemical side. I still have the junior microscope I was given at that time.

I actually ended up with my own dissection table in the warehouse in our backyard but the only clients on it were a rabbit (which ran out in front of my bike early one day as I was doing my paper round and dropped dead); and a pig’s head which we had used for the banquet scene when we performed Macbeth.

I discovered the rabbit was riddled with shot and must have kept running, not realising it had been shot, until it broke cover and died at my feet.

The pig’s head ended up in the bin on rubbish collection day because it raised too much of a stink.

Despite this it still left me with my ambition to become a forensic pathologist. I had read up on all the Sir Bernard Spilsbury cases that were published before I was 13.

Just to show I am aware my female classmates were also interested in science I unearthed this school laboratory picture:

*** *** *** ***

PS: yesterday’s yarn had a slightly spooky outcome.

I had been talking about the people in the Humpty Dumpty pantomime and Gwyneth Dillon (nee Roberts) told me that just before she read it she found an old newspaper cutting. It was the local newspaper review of the last week of that very pantomime.

Lots more names than I had remembered.

Published by Robin

I'm a retired journalist who still has stories to tell. This seems to be a good place to tell them.

2 thoughts on “Nature’s infinite book of secrecy

    1. I don’t know if they used the term forensic pathologist in those days but Spilsbury was certainly doing all the modern pathologists do and more.
      Ot of interest he identified the torso found in Crippen’s cellar as Mrs Crippen by an appendix scar.
      Decades later it was re-examined and the scar was then correctly identified as a fold of skin on the putrified torso.


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