Today, we learn not to cry over spilt medicine. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
I'll bet you've never heard
of collodion. Yet it was quite common in the last
century. You made it by dissolving cellulose
nitrate in ether and alcohol. You kept it on your
medicine shelf and used it to cover cuts. It
hardened into a protective shell that stuck to the
skin and covered the wound.
We're interested in collodion because it kept
feeding invention. People kept spilling the stuff
and inventing things after they did. For example,
let's visit John Hyatt in 1863.
Hyatt was looking for a substitute for ivory
billiard balls. Even then, the slaughter of
elephants had gone far enough to make ivory too
expensive. Hyatt cut his finger one night as he
worked on a mixture of sawdust and glue.
He put collodion on the cut, but he spilled the
bottle. Then he realized he might have what he
needed in the tough sheet of plastic that formed
when the liquid dried. He found he could improve
the result if he used camphor in the mixture
instead of ether. He gave us the first celluloid.
He patented celluloid, and we were soon using the
stuff to make everything from men's shirt collars
to children's toys. But his billiard balls didn't
do well. And therein hangs the next part of our
story. Collodion is a close relative to gun-cotton,
and so was the first celluloid. Hyatt's billiard
balls had a nasty inclination to explode under the
Ten years later, Alfred Nobel -- inventor of
dynamite and founder of the Nobel Prizes -- cut
himself while he was working on a better explosive.
He too poured collodion on the wound. At four the
next morning, it hit him. He could use collodion,
which was already explosive, to stabilize
nitroglycerin. The result was a vicious explosive
called blasting gelatin.
Three years later, Louis Pasteur was trying to save
the French silk industry from a disease that was
killing off silk worms. Same story. His assistant,
Henri Chardonnay, worked late at night. He also
spilled a bottle of collodion. The stuff was tacky,
but not yet dry, when Chardonnay tried to wipe it
up. His rag came away trailing long strands of
So Chardonnay said, "Aha!" He went on to develop a
process for making artificial fibers. He invented
an imitation silk that we later improved and gave
the name rayon.
Collodion may have been a primitive ancestor of the
Band-Aid. But it surely served to spur the
imagination. It proved to be a very special muse to
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds