Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Brief Technical Note on "Winged Death"

A bit technical, but shows that "science" was an integral part of his stories his entire mature life.

In a short passage in "The Winged Death" Lovecraft casualy throws in some chemistry.

"Dye experiments coming along finely. An isomeric form of ferrous ferrocyanide, with some admixture of potassium salts, can be dissolved in alcohol and sprayed on the insects with splendid effect. It stains the wings blue without affecting the dark thorax much, and doesn’t wear off when I sprinkle the specimens with water." (Winged Daeth, 1933)

In, "Systematic inorganic chemistry from the standpoint of the periodic law", Page 484, by Robert Martin Caven, George Druce Lander, Archibald Barclay Crawford - Science – (1939) - 546 pages, we read, "The suggestion that potassium ferrocyanide may exist in isomeric forms has been disproved (Bennett, 1917)".

However, the complex tetramethylferrocyanide was consider isomeric, as per p.451, "A dictionary of applied chemistry", Volume 2, Sir Thomas Edward Thorpe.

Prussian blue was a most important dye, thus: "Commercial blues are usually mixtures of the compounds already described. J. G. Gentele (Lehrbuch der Farbenfabrikation, 2nd ed. 1880) says that the best blues are obtained by precipitating a ferrous salt with potassium ferrocyanide, and then oxidising the precipitate." (discussion, Ibid, p. 448-452).

What Lovecraft may have remembered was a digest of a 1910 notice that summarizes, thus:

Two isomeric forms, with the same molecular weight, have been separated from the reaction product. The a-isomer is much more readily soluble in water, alcohol, and chloroform…. This was announced in the very technical journal literature, (E. G. J. Hartley, Chem. Soc. Trans. 1910, 1066 and 1725 ; ibid. 1911, 1549; ibid. 1912, 705; ibid. 1913, 1196).

This is about the time that HPL was taking his correspondence course (and listed himself as a "chemist" on the 1910 census forms.) It would have been breaking news in industry, and so he may have slightly misremembered it, or he might have chosen to "dumb-down" the geek-speak in the 1933 story.

In any event, he could not resist speaking of chemistry in this story.

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