An entertaining look at the unintended consequences of the chemical properties of materials
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.