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Napoleon’s Buttons: How 17 Molecules Changed History

by Penny LeCouteur and Jay Burreson

The story goes that during Napoleon’s Russian campaign tin buttons on the French soldiers’ uniforms disintegrated in the cold. The soldiers were too busy holding up their pants to fight. This is history from an organic chemist’s point of view and an unfortunate start to an otherwise uniquely interesting book.

Napoleon’s Buttons is a fascinating attempt at recognizing the role of chemistry in the wider world. With its many structural diagrams, the book can resemble a course in organic chemistry, but the chemist-authors are good guides.

Olive oil, salt, and spices were at the heart of many cultures’ economies and histories. Glucose, or sugar, was part of the infamous triangle trade of raw materials-slaves-rum that fuelled European expansion to the Americas and led to the enslavement of an estimated 50 million Africans. Chemistry continued to affect society into the 20th century with the development of antibiotics, chlorofluorcarbons (CFCs), and nitro compounds.

The best chapter is the one on dyes, describing how exotic colours were produced in the ancient world. Indigo (used for blue jeans) was obtained from mollusks, and mounds of shells dating back to ancient Phoenicia can still be found on the beaches of Tyre. In modern times, companies that learned how to synthesize dyes became the corporate giants BASF (indigo), Hoechst (magenta), and Bayer (fuchsine red). There is a brief biography of William Perkins (mauve), but surprisingly no mention of Friedlieb Runge, the first chemist to obtain dye from coal tar (kyanol or blue-black) and who also isolated caffeine.

Less successful are the history lessons. There are small errors and, more importantly, larger misreadings of history. It’s very disputable, for instance, that the need for Cornish tin prompted the Romans to invade Britain (Edward Gibbon says it was the false rumour of pearl fisheries). Adding a historian to the mix would have been a welcome catalyst for a broader look at these issues.


Reviewer: Steven Manners

Publisher: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin Books


Price: $37.5

Page Count: 361 pp

Format: Cloth

ISBN: 1-58542-220-7

Issue Date: 2003-5

Categories: History