There are many chemistry books available detailing the properties and nature of the elements including elemental phosphorus. Some of the more interesting science based articles tend to be harder to find, and are usually older in nature. Such sources give a less biased corporate presentation of the element and its financial uses for companies like Albright and Wilson to the consumer. We do know however that at the outbreak of World War Two, Albright and Wilson were the only UK producers of the chemical.
Before the horrors of that war, an excellent article can be found in a periodical entitled “The Popular Science Educator”, edited by Charles Ray. A range of scientific articles, well written and brilliantly illustrated appear. Number 21 in the series published February 20th 1936 ,that we have sourced contains three pages of phosphorus and we have scanned them below.
Perhaps the most telling revelation in the article is the name of the phosphate ore used to produce the non natural white phosphorus.
“THE NAME APARTITE COMES FROM A GREEK WORD MEANING “TO DECEIVE” AND WAS GIVEN IN ALLUSION TO THE MISTAKE WHICH EARLY MINEROLOGISTS OFTEN MADE RESPECTING THE NATURE OF SOME OF ITS VARIETIES.”
Some stand out quotes are revealed below, and we give some comment on them in context to events that would unfold over the next 70 years.
The article presents the natural uptake and need for plants and animals to receive phosphorus through its related compounds, but makes a very clear distinction concerning the elemental form.
“WHITE PHOSPHORUS IS INSOLUBLE IN WATER, BUT IT WILL DISSOLVE READILY IN ABOUT FOUR PARTS BY WEIGHT OF CARBON DISULPHIDE, AND IT ALSO DISSOLVES IN ETHER, BENZENE AND TURPENTINE.
FROM SUCH A SOLUTION IT CRYSTALLISES AND IS THEN SOMETIMES CALLED OCTAHEDRAL PHOSPHORUS. IN THIS FORM IT IS EXCEEDINGLY POISONOUS, LESS THAN 0.15 OF A GRAMME BEING A FATAL QUANTITY.”
It should be pointed out that just 5 years later, Albright and Wilson would be producing such a mixture using dissolved p4 in benzene- over 7 million glass bottles full otherwise known as AW BOMBS.
“WHITE OR COLOURLESS PHOSPHORUS IS VERY FLAMMABLE AND WILL BURN AT ABOUT THE TEMPERATURE OF THE HUMAN BODY. THAT IS WHY IT HAS TO BE PRESERVED AND HANDLED UNDER WATER, AND IT MUST NEVER BE TOUCHED WITH THE HANDS.”
The different varieties of phosphorus are outlined, as well as the process of white phosphorus production, from the old way using animal bones to the “new” method of the electric furnace, that would be used for war purposes at Oldbury and thereafter. We have looked at this method from a 1950’s Albright and Wilson pamphlet HERE.
The final page does appear to be very much early PR of the match industry, and one wonders to what extent Charles Ray may have been involved or influenced by this emerging corporate entity. Talk of match factories in “civilised countries” is bizarrely juxtaposed with the revelation
“Phosphorus is much used as a poison for vermin, and it is also employed in the preparation of bronzes and for hardening metals.”
It would be another 27 years before this uncivilised use , very often used for murderous purposes was banned under the Animal Cruel Poisons Regulations. We have looked at this HERE.
“DURING THE GREAT WAR IT WAS MUCH EMPLOYED IN INCENDIARY BOMBS AND GRENADES, AND IT WAS ALSO USED FOR MAKING SMOKE-SCREENS.”
This is a chillingly ominous quote, and the author could perhaps not envisage such dramatic irony of what was to come. The production of white phosphorus during the second world war would eclipse anything on the scale of World War One.
In conclusion take an innocuous looking rock and adapt it into a weapon of war, shaped by furnaces of man made design to destroy life. If phosphorus was needed by animals to survive, the elemental form is not necessary at all for man’s survival- except to the corporate industry like Albright and Wilson that profited from war.
Clouds of phosphorus pentoxide disguising the burning unnatural element are also a metaphor for the dissembling political, military and corporate protection of producing this vile man made creation of pure evil. Hiding it under water or sand only mirrors their blind faith in believing that it is “safe” by diverting it out of public gaze.
Of those who have deceived to protect this element, and more perversely the economic prosperity of producing it, one wonders if their graves are lead lined and filled with sand. It would be a fitting epitaph to be buried like white phosphorus if they were.