Necessity is the mother of invention. Greek philosopher Plato said these words noting that a problem encourages creative efforts to solve it.
During the American Revolutionary War, soldiers had to get pretty creative as gun powder was scarce. To fill the void and their guns, they decided to make their own powder with pee, soil, ash and sticks. Whether or not they knew that the ammonia in urine would react with oxygen to form nitrates that would bond with potassium ions in the ash to form potassium nitrate -- the main ingredient in gun powder (aka black powder) -- isn’t clear. And the pee, soil and ash slurry certainly didn’t help them win the war as it took too long to ferment and process. But it is pretty impressive that someone would even consider the byproduct of their wilderness bio-break to be useful.
This short Reactions video from the American Chemical Society details the innovation and eventual introduction of better alternatives to black powder. Although, black powder is still used for fireworks. So, if you’re enjoying an Independence Day display, you can think about peeing soldiers in 1776.
Traci Purdum is Chemical Processing’s senior digital editor. She is fascinated by how inventive people can be. She also wonders if this really where the term “powder room” originated from. You can email her at email@example.com.