Not A Podcast Episode 8: Sweaty Blues

Potion, By Steve Jurvetson, Via Flickr

“Potion” by Steve Jurvetson, via Flickr, CC-BY-2.0

In which we learn how cyanide gives art the blues.


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Show Notes

Yes, Art has Practical Uses: Prussian Blue’s Place in the History of Cyanide

Some quotes from TBH:

“Whether swallowed or inhaled, all members of the cyanide family kill in the same way–they shut down the body’s ability to carry or absorb oxygen”

“…most murderers tended to avoid cyanide–the poison left a too-obvious trail of evidence. The resulting corpse would be a textbook study in violent death, marked by bruising discoloration, twisted by the last convulsions, often eerily scented with cyanide’s characteristic warning perfume, a faint, fruity scent of almonds.”

Deborah Blum, The Blue History of Cyanide

Almonds, peach/apricot pits, blue green algae, lots of plants contain some level of cyanide that can be concentrated down. But cyanides became much more readily available after Heinrich Diesbach, German Painter, chemist, inventor, invented Prussian Blue in 1704.

The original recipe; “dried blood, potash (potassium carbonate), and green vitriol (iron sulfate), [stewed] over an open flame.” He called it Berlin blue, and the English later named it Prussian Blue. This was the first modern synthetic paint. Cheap to make, lightfast, nontoxic, and a very strong color.

In the 1770’s or 80s, a Swedish chemist used Prussian blue in a concoction that yielded a very potent acid (Prussic or hydrocyanic acid). This also resulted in a gas called Hydrogen Cyanide, which could be made into poisonous cyanide salts – all of which turned out to have industrial uses.

More from TPH:

“Hydrogen cyanide (gas), if it was distilled into a liquid, a mere drop, a raindrop-sized dose (about 50 milligrams) could be fatal.”

“pesticides, explosives, engraving, and tempering steel, as a disinfecting agent, in creating colorful dyes, … in mining, as well as in photography, electroplating, metal polishing.” Cyanotypes, blueprints.

And from Wikipedia:

“Pharmaceutical-grade Prussian blue in particular is used for patients who have ingested thallium or radioactive caesium. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, an adult male can eat at least 10g of Prussian blue per day without serious harm.”

“To date, the Entombment of Christ, dated 1709 by Pieter van der Werff (Picture Gallery, Sanssouci, Potsdam) is the oldest known painting where Prussian blue was used. Around 1710, painters at the Prussian court were already using the pigment. At around the same time, Prussian blue arrived in Paris, where Antoine Watteau and later his successors Nicolas Lancret and Jean-Baptiste Pater used it in their paintings.”

More on the history of Prussian Blue

A great site that gives all sorts of interesting info for color nerds

We don’t have any experience with these, so can’t recommend them, but let us know if you do:

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