Did Napoleon suffer a wardrobe malfunction (apologies to Janet!)
A few years ago, when the electronics industry was obsessing over the reliability of new lead-free solders dictated by RoHS regulations, the story about Napoleon’s buttons began circulating again.
Most students learned about this apocryphal wardrobe malfunction in an elementary chemistry class:
As it goes, Napoleon’s troops nearly froze to death during a brutal Russian winter when the tin buttons on their coats decomposed into powder. At low temperatures pure tin, which is metastable, undergoes a structural transformation, literally crumbling into dust. Called tin pest, this transformation can be halted by combining tin with elements like, well, lead.
This tale and others about the unintended consequences relating to the chemical properties of materials are chronicled in the book "Napoleon’s Buttons: How 17 Molecules Changed History,” an entertaining and thought-provoking look at chemical compounds and the role they played in historical events like the O-ring failure on the NASA space shuttle. I found the book to contain enough science to be credible, without feeling the need to run for my CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics.
So did Napoleon have a Janet-Jackson experience? I interviewed Penny LeCouteur, co-author of the book and a former chemistry professor to get the inside scoop. She says that no one really knows whether Napoleon’s army wore jackets with buttons of tin, though eyewitness accounts and paintings of the time confirm that they did endure horrific cold. However, she said, tin would have been a much more costly material than wood or bone.
LeCouteur also pointed out that tin pest is an extremely slow process. Though a frigid winter might seem endless, a few months time would probably not be long enough for tin buttons to decompose into dust.
I enjoying reading books about the history of technology - one of the best in recent years is "The Victorian Internet" -- the invention of the telegraph. When the first message was sent, people were saying "Oh no - information 24/7!! Infomration overload!!" LOL.
good suggestion for some history lessons with a pinch of science or other way around (i do not know yet). Does the book also have some interview quotes (like that of Penny LeCouteur) to get some expert opinions to segregate facts from fiction? I would like to know.
David Patterson, known for his pioneering research that led to RAID, clusters and more, is part of a team at UC Berkeley that recently made its RISC-V processor architecture an open source hardware offering. We talk with Patterson and one of his colleagues behind the effort about the opportunities they see, what new kinds of designs they hope to enable and what it means for today’s commercial processor giants such as Intel, ARM and Imagination Technologies.