Saturday, June 19, 2010

Guncotton and the Utility of Failure

From Rockets, Missiles, and Men in Space by Willey Ley, 1968 edition, pp. 80-81:

Guncotton [...] had been discovered [in 1845] by German chemist Christian Friedrich Schönbein, who had tried to dissolve cotton in a mixture of nitric and sulfuric acids. Of course, the cotton had refused to dissolve and Schönbein, writing off the experiment as a failure, had gone home for supper, after putting the still wet strands on top of the hot stove to dry. Schönbein lost his laboratory, but discovered guncotton in the process.


  1. Why, for all the world, was he trying to disolve cotton? Why would that be useful? Cotton burns, you can throw it away, it rots...

  2. Why was he trying to dissolve cotton? I have no idea; the book doesn't say. The different version of these events that can be found in Wikipedia says he was experimenting with making explosives. In which case he succeeded, just not in the way he expected. If he wasn’t trying to make explosives, but was focused instead on the specific task of creating dissolved cotton, then I can imagine a number of uses for it, provided that something highly cotton-like would precipitate out of the solution: Principally, one could eliminate the process of weaving (and the various preceding and following processes) from the manufacture of cotton goods. They could, instead, be made using any number of manufacturing techniques suitable for use with materials with plastic properties including molding and laminating.