Strong Water is designed to acquaint the student and the nonprofessional reader with the response of the inventive spirit to the interplay of political and economic forces and to illustrate how the principles of pure chemistry are applied by the chemical engineer. Nitric acid, an indispensable chemical component of gunpowder, some fuels, and many fertilizers, is the factual core of this informative and fascinating account. The author describes the history, the importance, and the methods of manufacture of nitric acid, demonstrating how one set of chemical compounds has affected political and economic change and has for centuries stimulated the ingenuity of the scientific community. The technical detail is necessarily extensive, but the historical anecdote and interpretive comment make this volume of new dimensions in the field of descriptive chemistry.
The book begins with the earliest recognizable mention of common nitrogen compounds (“Chinese snow,” or potassium nitrate, by an Arabian chronicler circa 1200 A.D.) and treats the history of nitrogen compounds from the first known experiments with gunpowder and firearms to the refinement of modern methods of production. It discusses the natural sources for nitrogen compounds and how science responded to a diminishing or inaccessible supply by synthesizing the chemical components necessary to manufacture nitric acid. The book describes the advance of chemical engineering achievement as political conditions increased the need for nitric acid, and it sketches out modern production methods and the newest uses for the compound.
To sample the tone and content of Strong Water: “It is almost forgotten that an old name for ammonia is 'spirits of hartshorn.'”“The English friar, Roger Bacon (1214-1294), gave directions for making what we now call gunpowder, though he took pains to conceal in an anagram of transposed letters in his Latin text the exact proportion of an essential ingredient – a practice of which writers of patent specifications have been accused in our own day....”“By the end of the war, in 1918, [the Germans had developed a huge plant capacity to make nitric acid from synthetic ammonia], for lack of which [they] undoubtedly would have been forced to capitulate much sooner.”