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Napoleon’s Buttons

How 17 Molecules Changed History

By Penny LeCouter & Jay Burreson
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Napoleon’s Buttons by Penny LeCouter & Jay Burreson

Napoleon’s Buttons (2004) is all about the molecules that have guided the course of human history in the unlikeliest of ways. These blinks explore how major geopolitical and social changes can be traced back to the simple bonding of atoms in a molecule.

Key idea 1 of 9

Chemistry has had a major impact on the course of history.

How much do you remember from high school chemistry class? Well, while your teacher probably went on at great length about electrons and the periodic table, it’s unlikely that you learned anything about the impact of molecules on the course of history – which has been significant, to say the least.

Just take the molecular composition of the buttons worn by the soldiers in Napoleon’s army; this little detail might well have lost them their catastrophic Russian campaign.

When Napoleon’s army marched on Russia in June of 1812, they were over half a million strong. By December of the same year the Grande Armée, as it was called, numbered less than 10,000, ravaged by battle, starvation and the cold.

One theory that explains the army’s rapid collapse blames the buttons that held together the soldiers’ cloaks, trousers and coats. The buttons were made of tin, a material that doesn’t hold up well when exposed to low temperatures; when it gets cold, this hard and shiny material crumbles into powder.

This shocking transformation was known as tin disease and could explain why, by the time they reached the city of Borisov, Napoleon’s soldiers were described by some as ghosts wrapped in hole-riddled carpets and cloaks.

And that’s not all chemistry can explain about history. The distinctive properties of molecules have been center stage for major events throughout the course of recorded human life. After all, material properties can be affected by even the most minute changes in molecular bonds, and such transformations can have dramatic consequences.

For instance, cotton, which is made of cellulose, is much more effectively produced in humid climates. The ambient moisture helps the fibers stick to one another, making them less likely to split during weaving.

As a result, rainy northern England became an ideal place for the expansion of the cotton industry, which transformed this part of the country from a simple agrarian society into an industrial powerhouse. With the rise of industry came abominable working conditions in factories, which in turn resulted in widely implemented legislation to improve working and living conditions.

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