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Inventory no. 41667 - Former Display Label #1

early 19th century

A bottle from the Daubeny Laboratory, labelled "Nitre from the walls of the Museum". The substance (a mixture of potassium and calcium nitrates) is exuded by the walls of this room, which was formerly the chemistry laboratory of the University. The process (which continues) was observed as early as 1691, and first studied by Dr Martin Wall (see adjacent label). At Wall's suggestion, it was further investigated by William Higgins (1763-1825); see his A Comparative View of the Phlogistic and Antiphlogistic Theories (London, 1789), pp. 176-178. This specimen may have been collected by Dr John Kidd (1775-1851), the first Aldrichian Professor of Chemistry, who published a further account of the efflorescence, entitled "Observations respecting the natural production of Saltpetre on the walls of subterraneous and other Buildings", Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, vol. 104 (1814), pp. 508-526.

Some years ago a sample of the contents of this bottle was analysed by Professor T. S. Wheeler of University College, Dublin, for comparison with the analysis given by Higgins:

Wheeler Higgins
Per cent soluble nitre 28.5 28.1
K as KNO 20.2 18.8 'nitrated fixed
vegetable alkali'
Ca (NO ) none 9.3 'calcareous nitre'
CaCo also present

See T. S. Wheeler and J. R. Partington, The Life and Work of William Higgins Chemist (1763-1825) (Oxford: Pergamon Press, 1960), P. 67.

Nitre as a source of nitrogen compounds was employed from the 13th century in the preparation of nitric acid and in the manufacture of explosives and fireworks. It was also used in medicine and as an agricultural fertilizer, hence the interest taken in this substance by the Oxford chemists.


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