Saturday, September 25, 2010

CHEMISTRY made Joseph Florey family rich and famous

Tanning leather is an ancient and highly skilled activity involving many chemical processes --- a process humans have been doing world wide for tens of thousands of years.

But tanning leather by use of formal chemistry (man-made rather than naturally found chemicals) is only about 150 years old and was brand new to the Southern Hemisphere when Joseph Florey set out to make his fame and fortune in the backward colony of South Australia.

This new method was called "chrome leather"  and consisted of tanning leather by means of various compounds of the metal chromium.

 The traditional, natural way, was via using tannin from the bark of various hardwoods, together with urine,dung and brains of animals and humans, as well as involving a lot of expensive, capricious hand labour.

 And a lot of time.

Joseph Florey was also a part owner of a new wattle plantation near Mount Cone in the interior of South Australia.

Wattles make an important variant of leather, suitable where chrome leather was too soft.

Till then,  virtually treeless South Australia had to import its tannin at great cost.

Chrome leather, by contrast, was modern, fast, machine-oriented, capital oriented.

It was made without the use of foul-smelling human urine and excrement collected by little poor children on the street corners of the poor neighbourhoods .

The chemically active ingredients of those natural products had been learned and synthetically made equivalents were used instead.

This was Victorian Progress and Joseph Florey never let anyone forget it - it was the focus of his firm's static displays at the Exhibitions of Industry and Progress so beloved by the Victorian and Edwardian middle class.

It was encompassed in his trade mark,Chromella, which he had secured throughout all of Australasia (sic). He repeatedly defended that trademark in expensive court cases.

Joseph Florey hadn't invented chrome leather but he acted as he had.

He successfully won via the courts , at least locally, the right to prevent any other competitor from using any trade name that hinted that their leather was produced by the 'chrome' method - though the patents on the original process had gone by then.

Chemistry - and a very competitive and ligatious nature - made the Florey fortune.

These were lessons learned well by Howard Florey and why he wanted to become a chemist - and why he was so highly competitive.

Ironically, chromium, a heavy metal, in those days and today gives many  customers contact dermitious or worse -- it is banned in very young children's shoes.

And its waste products are far worse for the environment than urine and dung ever were.

So today a new progressive modified organic, natural, method called 'wet white' is replacing the Old School chrome, wet blue, method......

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