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The flaming apron that sparked the invention of gun cotton and the motion picture industry

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Gun cotton, or nitrocellulose, is a staple of a certain era of science fiction — and a certain era of firerarms. In the mid-nineteenth century, it was called 'smokeless powder' and used by the French military. Meanwhile, Jules Verne was using it, in his novels, to launch things into space and fight off bad guys. And smokeless powder was discovered because of a cooking accident and an apron.

Christian Schonbein was a chemistry enthusiast who like to conduct his chemistry experiments in the kitchen of his home. Schonbein was only able to experiment when his wife was away, as she disapproved of the kitchen also being a laboratory, due to being a sane person. On one particular day, he was mixing nitric acid and sulfuric acid on the stove when, clumsy him, he spilled the mixture all over the counter.


Still engrossed in his experiment, he grabbed the nearest thing to hand, and soaked up the mixture. It was his wife's apron. Thinking he had gotten away with the whole mess, he draped the apron over a hook and went on his way. It dried beautifully. And then it spontaneously burst into flames. Fortunately, his wife was not inside it at the time. It's likely that he had some explaining to do, though.


Gun cotton gave off a big bang, but little smoke or heat, which made it seem wonderful for the firearms industry. It became the next big thing . . . for a year. At the end of that year, it was established that gun cotton had to be kept clean, dry, and cool, or it would spontaneously blow up. Nitrocellulose was dead as a practical instrument of violence.

But it was resurrected as art. Nitrocellulose could be encased in waxes or resins, at which point it was a used extensively by a little company called Kodak. It played its part in pictures, in X-rays, and eventually in the film industry. So the next time you are watching a great film, remember that it all came from an apron that gave its life for science.

Via FSU, Purdue, and

Top image of gun cotton demonstration via Gail Carmichael