December 13th, 2009, 08:38 AM   1
Pierre Galafassi

Join Date: Oct 2009
Posts: 30
No Alum, no party.

Dear all,
Every Turkoteker must be acutely aware that without Alum, his beloved rug collection would feature mostly pieces like the one below, said with all due respect for Berber tribes and brown sheeps.

I would like to share with you Adam Hart-Davis’ wonderful story of how the wool dyeing industry of Tudor’s England was saved from bankrupcy.
(Mr. Hart-Davis is a British scientist, author and broadcaster. His well researched and ironic series have delighted Britons for 40 years.)

Taking the Piss-Urine Through the Ages. By Adam Hart-Davis.

In the olden days, words and expressions for urine seemed to be a common part of the language: there is a place called Wyre Piddle in Worcestershire, and Lant Street in South London (lant means stale urine), while in Dorset the River Piddle flows through Piddletrenthide and Piddlehinton to Puddletown. Today, however, urine is for some reason unmentionable in polite conversation, but that does not prevent it from being interesting stuff.

Human urine contains a chemical called urea, which slowly decomposes to make ammonia, often used as a household cleaning agent, especially for glass. Ammonia has various useful properties and was difficult to make before Victorian times; so urine was valuable. Poor people could sell a bucket of urine for a penny, or half as much again for redheads. The Roman emperor Vespasian put a tax on the stuff, and centuries later the pissoirs in Paris were called vespasiennes in his honour.

Urine was used for stiffening the skirts of Roman soldiers, for preparing raw wool, as a lubricant for wire-drawing, and in the first gas masks, but perhaps its most spectacular historical use was in the alum industry that grew up on the coast of North Yorkshire in the early 1600s.

A profitable industry: In Tudor times most clothes were made from wool, and coloured with natural dyes. The colours were brighter and longer-lasting if the dyeing was done with a mordant, a chemical that locks the dyestuff to the fibres of the wool. The best mordant was alum, and all Europe's alum came from the Tolfa hills, near Rome—until Henry VIII had a row with the pope because he wanted to divorce Catherine of Aragon, and the Vatican cut off our supply of alum.

So the hunt was on for alum in Britain. They tried Alum Chine in Dorset and Alum Bay on the Isle of Wight, to no avail. And then one Thomas Challoner discovered a way to make it. His recipe was to dig the grey shale from the cliffs on the North Yorkshire coast, roast it for nine months over a slow fire, and wash the ashes with water. Then add buckets of stale urine and warm the mixture, to evaporate the water, until a fresh chicken's egg just floats to the surface, showing that the concentration is right. When the mixture is allowed to cool, beautiful crystals of alum form in the container.

At first the urine was collected locally, and then from Newcastle and Hull, but demand grew, and eventually it was brought from London, where buckets were left on street corners, inviting men to contribute. Every week a horse came round carrying barrels to collect the stuff—like a milk round in reverse —and the barrels of decomposing urine were taken to the docks and shipped up the North Sea to Whitby. The story goes that the skippers of these ships, embarrassed about their cargo, would claim they were carrying wine. "Rubbish! You're taking the piss..."
In spite of this, carrying urine one way and alum the other was good business for the ship owners. Vast quantities of urine were needed: in November and December 1612, 16,000 gallons of "country urine" and 13,000 gallons of "London urine" were taken from Whitby to the alum works at Sandsend, a couple of miles north. Whitby mariner Luke Fox is documented as having carried 23 tonnes of urine to Whitby, and returned to London with 29 tonnes of alum.

Astonishingly this alum production business, Britain's first chemical industry, employed hundreds of men for 250 years, until synthetic dyes were invented in the 1850s, and you can still see the huge quarries hacked from the cliffs for 15 miles either side of Whitby.
What amazes me is how anyone worked out the process, hundreds of years before any real chemistry was understood. Can you imagine someone saying "There's a nice bit of grey rock. Let's roast it for nine months and piss on it and see what happens."
December 13th, 2009, 09:30 AM   2
Steve Price

Join Date: May 2008
Posts: 90

Hi Folks

Pierre contacted me before posting this, as he was concerned that the extensive reference to urine might offend some. I assured him that it's perfectly OK.

Public misconceptions of urine are widespread, at least among the public that has never taken my human physiology course. My students learn that urine is not toxic except when it came from someone with a urinary tract infection, and is a handy source of fluid under pressure that can be used to irrigate wounds on battlefields (it's sterile, at body temperature, easily aimed if the assistant is a man, and almost always available).

Urea is a major metabolic end product, and is synthesized from ammonia. We expend considerable energy to convert ammonia to urea because ammonia is terribly toxic and, like other terrestrial mammals, we'd die quickly if we carried it around in our bloodstream. Urea, on the other hand, is nontoxic and can even be used as a food additive (cheap source of nitrogen for cattle). It's also one of the most water-soluble of all compounds - the limit is something like 8 molar - so precipitation in the circulation is never a problem.

Aquatic animals don't make urea. Being in the water, ammonia can simply diffuse away as they generate it. One of Mommy Nature's important discoveries was how to convert ammonia to urea metabolically. Without it, we'd never have evolved into terrestrial beings. Metamorphosis in amphibians involves the transformation of an aquatic animal into a terrestrial animal. That transformation includes the appearance of the enzymatic machinery that converts ammonia to urea.

Take that!

Steve Price
December 13th, 2009, 11:05 AM   3
Filiberto Boncompagni

Join Date: May 2008
Location: Cyprus
Posts: 15

Metamorphosis in amphibians involves the transformation of an aquatic animal into a terrestrial animal. That transformation includes the appearance of the enzymatic machinery that converts ammonia to urea.
...perfectioned by humans by converting beer into pee...

December 14th, 2009, 05:55 PM   4
Rich Larkin

Join Date: Jun 2008
Location: Massachusetts
Posts: 10

This may be the single most informative salon in the history of the TurkoTek, if not the world. Congratulations to all.

Rich Larkin
December 15th, 2009, 09:23 PM  5
Chris Countryman

Posts: n/a

Don't let this information leak out!!