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5 Delightful Science Experiments From 100 Years Ago

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In 1892, the dubiously named Mr. Tom Tit published a book of at-home activities for children called Magical Experiments: or, Science in Play. He made sure each scientific exploration could double as a parlor trick; something exciting and strange to impress as well as instruct.

Some of his experiments are all but impossible to do today (even if you can find spermaceti candles, you really shouldn't use them), and some of his once common ingredients haven't been available at drug stores for decades. But that doesn't mean you can't do them. If the product still exists, you can find it online. This accessibility re-opens a whole forgotten world of fantastic science fun, one that leaves the tired vinegar and baking soda volcanoes looking hollow.

1. Bottle cannon

You'll need: Empty champagne or wine bottle with cork, baking soda, tartaric acid, a notecard rolled into a tube, thread, wadded paper, two pencils, and thumbtack.

The trick: The original text phrases it better than I ever could:

Would you like to imitate at table the explosion of cannon, listen to the thunder that frightens nervous people, and even observe the actual recoil of your artillery? You may safely answer, "Yes;" for the experiment I now propose is a quite harmless one, as you shall see.

Fill the bottle a third full of water and dissolve "a certain quantity" of baking soda into it. (My guess is, the more soda the bigger the bang, so you may want to start small). Pour the tartaric acid into the rolled up note card (again, amounts aren't specified, so best start small) and plug it with pellets of wadded paper. Tie the roll with a thread that you then pin to the underside of the cork with the thumbtack. Replace the cork. The roll shouldn't touch the water until you've laid the bottle on its side, on top of the pencils. Then, the paper will dissolve, the tartaric acid will meet the baking soda, and BOOM, your bottle blasts forth its cork missile and rolls back upon its gun-carriage (pencils), just like a real cannon.

The science: Baking soda is a base, tartaric acid is, of course, an acid. When the two combine, carbon dioxide gas is quickly created. This gas is much less dense than the powders it came from, and needs more room. Blasting the cork out of the bottle is one of the ways it makes that room.

2. Wet coin, dry hand

You'll need: Bucket or pot of water, small object that will sink, and lycopodium powder.

The trick: First, stomp out anything flammable within a 10-foot radius. Then, submerge any little object, like a ring or coin, in your pot of water. Next, apply a liberal puff of your "magic powder" to the surface of the water. Finally, reach your hand into the water and retrieve the object. When you pull your hand out, the object will be wet, but your hand, even though your audience saw you soak it in a bucket of water, will be completely dry. Huzzah!

The science: It's the miracle of a fat little clubmoss called Lycopodium. I say fat because the spores of this plant, when dried, have an amazingly high fat content. The resulting powder is highly flammable but quickly burns out, which is why it is popular as a flash powder for magicians (and often sold under the name "Dragon's Breath"). But more importantly, all that fat hates water. When you reach slowly through the powder, it forms a waterproof glove around your hand, repelling water molecules and allowing you to stay dry in the process.

3. The punishment of tantalus

You'll need: A strong chair and a small treat, someone strong to "spot" Tantalus.

The trick: Thirsty Tantalus was cursed forever to reach for a pool of water that dried up as soon as his hands came near. Here Tantalus just has to pick a taffy up only using his mouth, while not falling off a dining room chair that's been placed on its front legs. Unless Tantalus figures out how to maintain his center of balance, the chair will begin to tip (hopefully into the arms or sofa cushions waiting to catch such an unbalanced snacker).

The science: There is no more fun way to learn about physics than through candy and improper use of mother's good chairs. In this experiment, we use those tactics to explore center of mass. You and the chair each have your own, but you're also sharing one. When you put weight toward the candy, you defy your joint center of balance and the chair responds to the insult by throwing you off. However, if you crouch low (the lower the center of mass, the easier it is to balance) and give as much weight as possible to the heavier end of the chair, you can maintain your center of gravity and retrieve the candy.

4. Magic salad dressing

You'll need: Oil and vinegar, a sealable clear container, and a dinner party

The trick: This experiment is described in the form of a story about a "jolly company" on a picnic together. This company is distraught to see that the man responsible for bringing the oil and vinegar salad dressing saved himself the trouble of carrying two bottles by mixing them together. Not everyone likes the same proportions of oil and vinegar on their salads, after all. So they are astonished when the young men walks around the picnic, distributing both the oil and vinegar, from the same bottle, in the exact proportions requested by each diner. How does he manage it?

The science: We know that a lot of liquids mixed with oil immediately separate. This is because the lipids in oil don't like water molecules, but they love their fellow fat molecules. Vinegar is mostly water, so the two liquids naturally separate when allowed to settle. The oil floats to the top of a bottle and is easily poured out. When the vessel is slowly turned upside down, both components stay put, so the vinegar is now right near the mouth. So, for oil, just tilt the bottle and pour very slowly. For the vinegar, turn the bottle upside down and open the mouth just a little.

5. Automatic drinking fountain for pets

You'll need: A bottle (plastic is fine) that you can affix upside down to or against a wall (it must be removable). A shallow pan and water.

The trick: Technically this device was meant to water barnyard fowl, but it should work just as well for any small animal. The device isn't so much a trick as it is a clever solution to what must have been a common problem: disgusting water-troughs for outdoor animals. The bottle is set up so that the mouth does not quite touch the bottom of the pan, but goes halfway below the brim. The pan will fill with water, but only to the level of the water inside the up-turned bottle mouth. Every time a significant amount of water is drunk, or even evaporated, fresh water comes forth to replace it.

The science: Atmospheric pressure! Water is only able to flow out of the bottle because the bottle is simultaneously sucking in air, trying to match the air pressure of the air outside. But once the water level of the pan rises to the same level as the water in the upturned bottle, the mouth of the bottle is sealed. No more air can enter the bottle to displace the water. At least not until enough water is drunk.

All images courtesy Google Books: Magical Experiments: Or, Science in Play**

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History
A Very Brief History of Chamber Pots

Some of the oldest chamber pots found by archeologists have been discovered in ancient Greece, but portable toilets have come a long way since then. Whether referred to as "the Jordan" (possibly a reference to the river), "Oliver's Skull" (maybe a nod to Oliver Cromwell's perambulating cranium), or "the Looking Glass" (because doctors would examine urine for diagnosis), they were an essential fact of life in houses and on the road for centuries. In this video from the Wellcome Collection, Visitor Experience Assistant Rob Bidder discusses two 19th century chamber pots in the museum while offering a brief survey of the use of chamber pots in Britain (including why they were particularly useful in wartime).

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Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
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History
Tomb Raider: The Story of Saint Nicholas's Stolen Bones
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock

Throughout history, corpses have been bought and sold, studied, collected, stolen, and dissected. In Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses, Mental Floss editor Bess Lovejoy looked into the afterlife of numerous famous corpses, including Saint Nicholas, one of the many canonized bodies whose parts were highly prized by churches, thieves, and the faithful.

Don't tell the kids, but Santa Claus has been dead for more than sixteen hundred years. No, his body is not at the North Pole, and he's not buried with Mrs. Claus. In fact, his remains are thousands of miles away, on Italy's sunny Adriatic coast. And while Santa might be enjoying his Mediterranean vacation, he's probably not too happy about what happened to his remains. They were stolen in the eleventh century, and people have been fighting over them ever since.

Of course, the Santa Claus of folklore doesn't have a skeleton. But his inspiration, Saint Nicholas, does. That's about all we can say for sure about Nicholas: he was a bishop who lived and died in what is now Turkey in the first half of the fourth century. Legend tells us that he was born into a rich family and delighted in giving gifts. Once, he threw three bags of gold into the window of a poor family's house, saving the three daughters who lived there from a life of prostitution. Another time, he raised three children from the dead after a butcher carved them up and stored them in a vat of brine. He also protected sailors, who were said to cry out his name in rough seas, then watch the waves mysteriously smooth.

The sailors spread Nicholas's cult around the world. Within a century of his death, the bishop was worshipped as a saint, lending his name to hundreds of ports, islands, and inlets, and thousands of baby boys. He became one of the best-loved saints in all of Christendom, adopted by both the Eastern and Western traditions. Christmas probably owes something to his December 6 feast day, while Santa Claus’s red outfit may come from his red bishop’s robes. "Santa Claus" is derived from "Sinterklaas," which was how Dutch immigrants to New Amsterdam pronounced his name.

As one of the most popular saints in the Christian world, Nicholas had a particularly powerful corpse. The bodies of saints and martyrs had been important to Christianity since its beginning: the earliest churches were built on the tombs of saints. It was thought that the bodily bits of saints functioned like spiritual walkie-talkies: you could communicate with higher powers through them, and they, in turn, could manifest holy forces on Earth. They could heal you, protect you, and even perform miracles.

Sometimes, the miracles concerned the saints' own bodies. Their corpses would refuse to decay, exude an inexplicable ooze, or start to drip blood that mysteriously solidified and then reliquefied. So it was with Nicholas: at some point after his death, his bones began to secrete a liquid called manna or myrrh, which was said to smell like roses and possess potent healing powers.

The appearance of the manna was taken as a sign that Nicholas’s corpse was especially holy, and pilgrims began flocking by the thousands to his tomb in the port city of Myra (now called Demre). By the eleventh century, other cities started getting jealous. At the time, cities and churches often competed for relics, which brought power and prestige to their hometowns the way a successful sports team might today. Originally, the relics trade had been nourished by the catacombs in Rome, but when demand outstripped supply, merchants—and even monks—weren't above sneaking down into the crypts of churches to steal some holy bones. Such thefts weren't seen as a sin; the sanctity of the remains trumped any ethical concerns. The relics were also thought to have their own personalities—if they didn't want to be stolen, they wouldn't allow it. Like King Arthur's sword in the stone, they could only be removed by the right person.

That was how Myra lost Saint Nicholas. The culprits were a group of merchants and sailors from the town of Bari, located on the heel of Italy's boot. Like other relic thefts, this one came at a time of crisis for the town where the thieves lived, which in this case had recently been invaded by a horde of rapacious Normans. The conquerors wanted to compete with the Venetians, their trading rivals to the north, who were known for stealing the bones of Saint Mark (disguised in a basket of pork) from Alexandria in 827. And when the Normans heard that Myra had recently fallen to the Turks, leaving Nicholas’s tomb vulnerable, they decided to try stealing a saint for themselves.

According to an account written shortly after the theft by a Barian clerk, three ships sailed from Bari into Myra's harbor in the spring of 1087. Forty-seven well armed Barians disembarked and strode into the church of Saint Nicholas, where they asked to see the saint’s tomb. The monks, who weren't idiots, got suspicious and asked why they wanted to know. The Barians then dropped any pretense of politeness, tied the monks up, and smashed their way into Nicholas's sarcophagus. They found his skeleton submerged in its manna and smelled a heavenly perfume wafting up from the bones, which "licked at the venerable priests as if in insatiable embrace."

And so Nicholas of Myra became Nicholas of Bari. The relics made the town, and the men who stole them. The thieves became famous in the area, and for centuries their descendants received a percentage of the offerings given on the saint’s feast day. The townspeople built a new basilica to hold the remains, which drew thousands of pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages. Even today, Bari remains a major pilgrimage site in southern Italy, visited by both Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Every May an elaborate festival, the Feast of the Translation, celebrates the arrival of Nicholas’s relics. As one of the highlights, the rector of the basilica bends over Nicholas’s sarcophagus and draws off some of the manna in a crystal vial. The fluid is mixed with holy water and poured into decorated bottles sold in Bari's shops; it is thought to be a curative drink.

But Bari is not the only place that boasts of the bones of Saint Nicholas. If you ask the Venetians, they will say their own sailors visited Myra during the First Crusade and stole Nicholas’s remains, which have been in Venice ever since. For centuries, both Bari and Venice have claimed the saint's skeleton.

In the twentieth century, scientists waded into the dispute. During renovations to the basilica of Bari in 1953, church officials allowed University of Bari anatomy professor Luigi Martino to examine the remains— the first time the tomb had been opened in more than eight hundred years. Martino found the bones wet, fragile, and fragmented, with many of them missing. He concluded that they had belonged to a man who died in his seventies, although because Martino was given only a short time with the bones, he could say little more.

Four decades later, Martino and other scientists also studied the Venetian bones. They concluded that those relics and the ones in Bari had come from the same skeleton, and theorized that the Venetian sailors had stolen what was left in Myra after the Barians had done all their smashing.

As for Demre, all they have is an empty tomb. And they want their bones back. In 2009, the Turkish government said it was considering a formal request to Rome for the return of Nicholas's remains. Though the bones have little religious significance in a nation that’s 99 percent Muslim, there’s still a sense in Turkey that the centuries-old theft was a cultural violation. Its restitution would certainly be an economic benefit: according to local officials, tourists in Demre frequently complain about the barren tomb, and they weren't satisfied by the giant plastic sculpture of Santa Claus that once stood outside Nicholas’s church. Even though Santa has become an international cultural icon, his myth is still rooted in a set of bones far from home.

From REST IN PIECES: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses by Bess Lovejoy. Copyright © 2013 by Bess Lovejoy. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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