Napoleon’s Buttons by Penny Le Couteur and Jay Burreson

Napoleon’s Buttons by Penny Le Couteur and Jay Burreson (2004). This book is about the role of chemistry in history. It is a brilliantly written narrative of how several chemical inventions changed the course of history and how the people behind these inventions, sometimes inadvertently, contributed to drive entire nations towards making and sustaining wars and to make peace. Even if the reader is not interested in chemistry, this book offers  a lot  to learn in terms of history.

My favourite part is probably the chapter on Magellan and his crew of 256 sailors on their  quest to travel around earth to pursue new trade relations for Portugal. Only 18 sailors completed the trip. 

The precarious living conditions that these explorers had to endure five hundred years ago, made me  think from a new perspective a lot of things that nowadays I have for granted: refrigeration, soap, preserved food, antibiotics, painkillers  and a lot more products. If you are travelling the world by ship in the XV century, you are on the ocean for months at a time. Then it comes the question of how do you store food? There are no food preservatives to avoid mould on your dried meat, there are no waterproof containers to store grains, there are no plastics and then how do you store rice and wheat? There are no fire extinguishers and the ship is highly flammable, so you have a problem whenever you decide to cook food. And you can cook only in good weather otherwise the risk of fire is enormous. 

And what about vitamins? The human body doesn’t produce its own vitamins, so you need to get vitamin C from fruits and vegetables, but you can’t store these for a several months trip in the open sea. So you have deficiency of vitamin C in your diet due to lack of fresh  vegetables and fruits. 
Thus you get sick and then comes the worst part: there are no medical drugs in the XV century: no antibiotics, no fever relievers, no antihistamines and certainly no antibacterial soap. So, the lack of hygiene and the lack of a large number of other chemical products made life so miserable that the life expectancy back then was about 35 years. This book is an eye-opening experience.

Quite often in the 21 century we forget how fortunate we are to live a long and easy life with fewer lethal dangers throughout life. Chemicals and other technologies have widened the scope of our hopes and dreams.  Nowadays people can travel all over the world with little worries and come back home safely. Chemicals and other technologies have made us free as Nina Simone yearned for with her enchanting voice.
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