CLOSE
Original image
Elizabeth Siddal. Via Wikimedia // Public Domain

The Lure of Laudanum, the Victorians' Favorite Drug

Original image
Elizabeth Siddal. Via Wikimedia // Public Domain

“In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Down to a sunless sea”

Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s most famous poem, “Kubla Khan,” was written after an intense laudanum-induced dream; poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning largely depended on laudanum to function; and Lord Byron’s daughter, the celebrated mathematician Ada Lovelace, claimed laudanum calmed her overactive mind. The fact that many writers and artists of the Victorian period used laudanum is clear—but what was it about this heady drug that ensnared so many creative people?

Opium has been known since at least 3400 BCE, when the Sumerians produced the first written reference to the drug. The power of opium to dull pain while allowing the user to remain functional meant it was the drug of choice for those suffering both mental and physical anguish. In the 16th century, the alchemist Paracelsus created laudanum (possibly named from Latin words meaning “something to be praised”) by mixing a tincture of opium with alcohol. By the 17th century, the physician and medical pioneer Thomas Sydenham had simplified and standardized the recipe, marketing it as a cure-all. (Today the word laudanum refers to any alcoholic tincture of opium.)

By the 1800s laudanum was widely available—it could be easily purchased from pubs, grocers, barber shops, tobacconists, pharmacies, and even confectioners. The drug was often cheaper than alcohol, making it affordable to all levels of society. It was prescribed for everything from soothing a cranky infant to treating headaches, persistent cough, gout, rheumatism, diarrhea, melancholy, and “women’s troubles.”

 

Laudanum became widely used throughout Victorian society as a medicine, and soon many writers, poets, and artists (along with many ordinary people) became addicted. Bram Stoker, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, and many others were all known to have used laudanum. Some managed to take it briefly while ill, but others became hopelessly dependent. Most famously, the English writer Thomas De Quincey wrote a whole book—Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821)—on his use of opium and its derivatives. The book proposed that, unlike alcohol, opium improved the creative powers, an opinion that only served to make the drug more appealing to those searching for artistic and literary inspiration. A number of other writers also played on the perceived glamor of the drug, praising its ability to enhance the imagination.

Laudanum’s association with the Romantic poets likely stems from Coleridge’s addiction. Like many of his contemporaries, the poet suffered from poor health, and resorted to laudanum as both a painkiller and a sedative. Coleridge famously admitted that he had composed "Kubla Khan" after waking from an opium-induced reverie. But the drug that was at first inspiring soon became enslaving, and Coleridge’s addiction and resultant health issues plagued him for the rest of his life. The once-vibrant young man became listless and wan, and suffered terribly from withdrawal if he did not get his fix. In an 1814 letter to his friend John Morgan [PDF], Coleridge admitted it was not just the physical effects of the drug that grieved him, but its effects on his character: “I have in this one dirty business of Laudanum an hundred times deceived, tricked, nay, actually & consciously LIED. – And yet all these vices are so opposite to my nature, that but for the free-agency-annihilating Poison, I verily believe that I should have suffered myself to be cut in pieces rather than have committed any one of them.”

The poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning first took laudanum at the age of 15 after suffering a spinal injury. After that, she used it for various ailments, including hemorrhaging of the lungs. When she began corresponding with the poet Robert Browning, who would later become her husband, she revealed to him that she took 40 drops of the drug a day—a pretty substantial dose even for an addict.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Image credit: Lewis Carroll via Wikimedia // Public Domain

 
Golden-haired Elizabeth Siddal was another famous laudanum user. The muse, and later wife, of the great pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, she suffered from poor health and became hopelessly addicted to laudanum. For years she continued to function despite her addiction, until she lost a baby daughter in 1861—a tragedy that deepened her desire for the mindless oblivion offered by the drug. In 1862, when she had become pregnant once more, her husband returned from dinner one night to find her unconscious after an overdose. Rossetti called for a doctor, but when the physician sadly announced he could do nothing for her, Rossetti refused to believe the diagnosis and sent for three more doctors, who all confirmed Siddal’s untimely death.

Another famous victim of laudanum addiction was Branwell Brontë, the brother of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne. Together the four siblings shared the same tragic and lonely upbringing, which in the sisters unleashed a creative spark that kindled into some of the greatest works in English literature, including Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. Yet Branwell, who seemingly shared the same potential talent as a poet and artist (he created respected juvenilia alongside his sisters), instead descended into alcohol and laudanum dependency, his sensibilities seemingly too delicate to take the constant rejections an artist must endure. Branwell died a penniless addict at 31 years old in 1848, just a year after his sisters’ most famous novels were published.

An ad for laudanum in the Sears catalog. Image credit: Mike Mozart via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

That so many writers and artists were known to have taken laudanum is perhaps unsurprising considering that this was an era before aspirin, anti-depressants, or effective sleeping pills. But as the negative effects of laudanum became better-documented—the euphoria it provided was followed by crashing lows, restlessness, torpor, and sweats—it became clear that the drug needed to be better regulated.

Accounts by addicts helped sway public opinion: in one influential piece published in the Journal of Mental Sciences in 1889, a drug-addicted young girl revealed her anguish during withdrawal:

“My principal feeling was one of awful weariness and numbness at the end of my back; it kept me tossing about all day and night long. It was impossible to lie in one position for more than a minute, and of course sleep was out of the question. I was so irritable that no one cared to come near me; mother slept on the sofa in my room, and I nearly kicked her once for suggesting that I should say hymns over to myself, to try and make me go to sleep. Hymns of a very different sort were in my mind, I was once or twice very nearly strangling myself, and I am ashamed to say that the only thing that kept me from doing so was the thought that I would be able to get laudanum somehow. I was conscious of feeling nothing but the mere sense of being alive, and if the house had been burning, would have thought it too much of an effort to rise.”

By 1868 laudanum could only be sold by registered chemists in England and, in a nod to its dangers, had to be clearly labeled as a poison—the first restrictions on its use. In 1899 pure aspirin was developed, a far safer painkiller, heralding an era of better-regulated medicines. And although the tortured writer self-medicating with laudanum became a thing of the past, many other illicit substances soon stepped into the breach—leaving the trope of the drug-addled creative genius safely intact.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
arrow
technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

Original image
iStock
arrow
Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
Original image
iStock

In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.

SECTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
arrow
BIG QUESTIONS
WEATHER WATCH
BE THE CHANGE
JOB SECRETS
QUIZZES
WORLD WAR 1
SMART SHOPPING
STONES, BONES, & WRECKS
#TBT
THE PRESIDENTS
WORDS
RETROBITUARIES