Experiments re-staged

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Issue 6 (Nov/Dec 2012), Volume 20, What’s new in manuscripts

Today, almost 270 years after Boyle Godfrey staged these experiments, they have been brought to life by a group of six students from the Grashof Gymnasium in Essen, Germany. In their final year at school, the students were set the task of researching what these experiments might have consisted of and how they might have been performed. Could Boyle Godfrey really have performed this range of experiments, or was it some sort of elaborate hoax or con trick?
The students’ researches involved a mixture of historical detective work and scientific know-how. Amazingly, they were able to discover chemicals and processes that would account for many of the advertised ‘curious Experiments’. Some of the processes were simple: ‘Two waters’ can be ‘turn’d to milk’, for example, by mixing barium chloride and sodium sulphate. Other processes were more complex: for example, two fluids can be transformed into a solid by creating precise volumes of solutions of calcium acetate, ethanol and sodium hydroxide, and then mixing them in a clearly defined order.
The students had hoped to recreate the experiments exactly as they might have been performed by Boyle Godfrey but modern notions of health and safety generally frown upon exposing children to poisons such as arsenic. Some experiments were too hazardous to perform in a modern laboratory but, observing standard safety protocols, the students were able to recreate the ‘Vulcano, or burning Mountain, imitated in Miniature’, with the use of glycerin, potassium permanganate and powdered magnesium.
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