Summary of Napoleon’s Buttons by Penny LeCouter and Jay Burreson

BookSummaryClub Blog Summary of Napoleon’s Buttons by Penny LeCouter and Jay Burreson

We often learn about historical events – who was responsible for them and what difference it made in the world. However, it’s always a person, an event or a discovery that seems to be the topic. Have you ever really analysed a situation and broken it down to its absolute cause? We have all learned about chemistry and the molecules which make up our planet. What we have failed to consider is just how these molecules have influenced the course of history. As much as this may seem a bit abstract, it is the truth.

The title of this book is the best example. Napolean’s army marched on Russia with determination but ended up dying not only because of the battle but also because of the cold and starvation. It has been argued that the sole reason for their loss was the buttons that held together their coats, cloaks and trousers. They were made of tin which, when exposed to the cold, disintegrated. It was referred to as tin disease and if Napoleon’s army had used another type of button, they may have survived the cold better and won their battle. There are many instances like this throughout history, some of which have been put together in this summary.

In this book summary readers will discover:

  • Why New Yorkers should be grateful to nutmeg
  • How rubber came into being
  • How colours made the chemical industry
  • Why witches were actually just chemists of their time
  • The birth of birth control
  • How malaria made the Dutch rich

Key lesson one: Why New Yorkers should be grateful to nutmeg

Spices were a hot commodity back in the day. Nutmeg was so desirable at the time that it led to a war between the Dutch East India Company and the English. Why? Well, at the time nutmeg wasn’t just a humble ingredient in food, it was extremely expensive and sought after because it could keep the Black Death at bay. At least, that was what was thought at the time. People used to wear pouches of nutmeg around their necks as protection against infection. There was some truth to it as the chemical isoeugenol, which is responsible for the smell of nutmeg, is a natural pesticide that repels ruminants and insects from plants. As the plague was spread by the fleas carried by rates, nutmeg may indeed have had some effect on them. 

The battle between the English and Dutch lasted three years. The Dutch were after the Island of Run which would secure their global domination of the nutmeg market. The island would enable them to produce nutmeg all year round.  New Amsterdam on Manhattan was originally a Dutch colony before being taken over by the English. The Dutch tried to take the Island of Run by force and this led to war. A treaty was eventually signed after three long years. The Dutch kept the Island of Run and the English took the island of Manhattan.

It’s seemingly trivial but imagine if this had not occurred. Would New York be known as New Amsterdam instead? Would it have even been the thriving city that it is now? While we would never really know the answer, it is clear that New Yorkers should at least have a little extra appreciation for nutmeg.

Key lesson two: How rubber came into being

Rubber was first extracted from plants in 1600 BC. It was first used to make balls, hats and boots in Latin America. When Europeans first came across it, they were mesmerised. They only used it to make golf balls though as they didn’t see much other use for it. This was mostly because rubber, in its natural state, was not durable, melted in the heat and became brittle in the cold. 

It was not until later that techniques were developed to make it more useful. Charles Macintosh, a Scottish chemist used a flammable oil called naphtha to make a flexible fabric covering from rubber. This was essentially the first waterproof jacket and is the reason why raincoats are called mackintoshes in Britain. Charles Goodyear then figured out that by combining sulfur and heat, he could vulcanize rubber and turn it into a more practical form. These examples of human ingenuity made rubber into the essential material that it is today. It inspired the development of mechanized tractors which became important to agriculture as it reduced the need for ploughs. 

Nowadays, the majority of the rubber we use is in fact synthetic and not derived from plants as was done earlier on. World War II resulted in huge demand for rubber, much more than plants could provide. Russia used dandelions as a last resort as a rubber source whilst the United States began to mass-produce the synthetic versions we are familiar with today.

Key lesson three: How colours made the chemical industry

Historically, everyone dressed in vibrant colours. The most interesting dyes were used to create the colours of clothes for many centuries. The Aztecs used carmine beetles for their crimson colour, the Greeks collected shellfish to be used to produce indigo dye and saffron was handpicked for its rich colour. However, there were many problems with these natural dyes.

For starters, they were expensive. Can you imagine handpicking the stamens of flowers to get saffron? Or hunting down carmine beetles? The next issue is that although they produced vibrant colours, they didn’t last very long. Therefore the invention of synthetic dyes was a huge breakthrough. An 18-year-old chemistry student was behind the accidental discovery of synthetic dyes. William Henry Perkin was attempting to synthesize quinine from coal tar in order to produce a drug to prevent malaria. During this process, he created a dark purple liquid which proved to be an effective stain. After contacting a few people to determine if it would be useful, Perkin quit school and opened a factory that produced mauve. The colour became a popular choice amongst royals and Perkin’s discovery spurned a whole new industry. His methodology was used to produce more colours and in the decades that followed more than 2000 synthetic hues were produced.

Key lesson four: Why witches were actually just chemists of their time

Witches were basically healers. They were the ones who people looked for when they were sick or injured. Witched provided herbal remedies and some charms to help people. So, where exactly did they become the evil, cackling, broom flying villains who were burned at the stake?

There’s a simple answer, sabbat. This practice gave witches their bad reputation. Witches were known to create something called flying salves. They were ointments that were made from alkaloid containing plants like mandrake and nightshade. Alkaloids affect the nervous system and when these flying salves were applied, they would cause out of body experiences and visions. There are some stories of witches smearing the salve on broom handles which they then straddled whilst naked. This is probably where the stories of witches flying off on brooms came from but in their defence, they probably thought they were. 

Thus, witches and their herbal remedies were no longer trusted. They were hunted, tortured and murdered because of their practices. However, many of their herbal remedies are used by the pharmaceutical industry today. For example, witches used willow extract to treat headaches – nowadays an acid of the same extract is used in the production of aspirin. 

Key lesson five: The birth of birth control

Before the production of the contraceptive pill, women really had no effective means of birth control. There were many suspicious concoctions up for offer like the eggs of spiders and snakes but they weren’t very effective. Two women, Margaret Sanger and Katharine McCormick changed the course of history with their determination to provide women with the right to have control over their own bodies. 

In the early 1950s, the steroid norethindrone was produced. It was not considered a contraceptive but more a way of relieving irregular menstrual cycles by stopping them completely for a few months. It was this drug that was the basis of the contraceptive pill. Sanger and McCormick approached a laboratory to create a reliable and affordable pill for women. The entire process was funded by McCormick and by 1965 there were already 4 million women on the pill. This number increased exponentially over the years and its effect on society was unprecedented. As expected birth rates dropped but what increased was the number of women obtaining an education and entering the workforce.

Key lesson six: How malaria made the Dutch rich

Quinine was the first compound discovered by man that treated malaria. It was originally harvested from the bark of a tree from the cinchona genus found in the Andes Mountain. The locals brewed tea from the bark as a cure for fevers and this was passed on to Europeans somehow. 

Once it was determined that it could be used for its antimalarial properties, demand for the bark of the tree grew and the supplies quickly dwindled. The European governments then decided to plant trees on other continents. However, since the South Americans knew that they were valuable, they banned the export of seeds of the cinchona trees. Thereafter, seeds became valuable and were smuggled out of the country. There was a setback though, the trees that grew had variable quinine content which made most of them economically impractical.

Whilst all this was going on, the Dutch purchased Bolivian seed from an Australian botanist. They paid $20 for seeds that contained a high percentage of quinine. The recommended content for it to be viable was 3 per cent, these seeds were 13 per cent. This purchase by the Dutch was one of the greatest investments made and allowed them to practically supply the world with quinine by the 1930s.

The key takeaway from Napolean’s Buttons is: 

There have been many times in history when the events that have occurred have been caused by a small little molecule. It is often overlooked as the discovery itself is seen as more important. However, the more we understand these events, the more we can see the true potential of the molecules of this world.

How can I implement the lessons learned in Napoleon’s Buttons:

Chemistry is often long forgotten after school but maybe we should not be so quick to forget about it. The more we understand the roles it plays in our lives, the better equipped we are to deal with many everyday situations. Just like the historical events mentioned above, maybe you too can make a discovery that gets your name in the history books.

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