Grandfather’s Elemental Table

Gordon’s entry today over at Rune Soup reminded me of this: This is my grandfathers’ copy of the Periodic Table of Elements.

Before you get all snooty and tell me this isn’t the elemental table, that this is just some dumb reproduction of a medieval bit of frittery or stupidity or just plain WRONG, let me tell you a few things.

One. My grandfather had way way more practical chemistry experience than you, throughout his life. He took organic chemistry and inorganic chemistry the same year, during the 1929-1930 school year, at MIT, with the intention of becoming a research pharmacist. The Great Depression intervened; he couldn’t afford to go, since his family was bankrupted in the collapse of the stock market in October of 1929.

John went to work, instead. He worked for all sorts of chemical companies through the Great Depression — one year of MIT guaranteed him a job for the rest of his life. He took his family south and west to Texas, and worked on figuring out things to make out of the oil refinery by-products: we think he had a hand in the development of several types of plastics.

All of that went by the wayside in 1941. John — that was his name — was too young to fight in World War I, and he’d developed pneumonia as a kid. The treatment for that at the time was to cut a hole in the right back, and drain the fluid directly through the bottom of your lungs. He had the scar, a strange fold in the skin, until the day he died. Once, when he was bare-chested on the beach with me, I put my finger in the hole (like a centurion, I guess, rather than a boss), and my grandfather turned around. “That was my penicillin,” he said. “That hole kept me alive while my body fought off the fever and mucus.” I was on penicillin daily in those days, to keep rheumatic fever from coming back and drilling a hole in my heart. His father had died of pneumonia; his father-in-law of tuberculosis. His wife’s older brother, Lawrence, had died before the age of two from diphtheria.

(The doctor came when Lawrence was sick [this would have been about 1913, maybe 1914] on a house call {who makes house calls any more?}. He trudged up the stairs of the boarding house in Brooklyn, carrying his little black bag, and went into the bedroom. In a moment, he came back out, Lawrence still coughing and crying, and said, “It’s diphtheria. He’ll be dead by morning.” And so it was. The doctor had been in the house less than three minutes, including the trips up and down the stairs. THAT’s life without penicillin. And grandpa John survived that.)

John’s life was pretty exciting at this time, his working years: He jetted around the world looking at oil fresh out of the ground, in Saudi Arabia, in the Gulf States, in the North Sea… all over the world, really. The question was always, “when we separate out what works as fuel from everything else, what can we do with the everything else?”

It was a question that occupied him as a chemist and experimenter for decades. He was involved in making chemical explosives during World War II, early versions of saran wrap and plastic bags, dinner ware, and more. Underlying it all was this diagram… which my mother says was on his desk all through her childhood, and often in his hands, as he contemplated some “knotty problem at work.” He rarely talked about work, of course; all of it was governed by strict NDAs, and the more serious threat of espionage (first during the World War, and then later from German and Japanese companies rebuilding) stealing his labor and intense interest in the building blocks of the universe.

The Texas oilman that he worked for was constantly land and gift-rich, but cash poor. After a number of very complex deals went sour (complex deals? in the oil business?? Really?), and John didn’t get paid even though his contract stipulated payment regardless of conclusion, John wrangled his way into a new job at a factory that made molds for, and then actually produced, plastic dinner plates and suchlike called fiesta ware. Except that his company didn’t produce fiesta ware, they made a competitor product.

Sometime around this point in his life, John had three insights. One was brought to his attention by M. King Hubbart, namely Hubbart’s Curve. Sooner or later, he believed, the oil would run out. Second, he also believed that the planet’s temperature was going to rise because the heat from burning fossil fuels was likely to increase the greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere. Third, he thought that the quantity of burned fuel would increase particulate matter in the atmosphere, and create a record number of asthmatics.

Having grown up unable to breathe, John spent his last few years developing and patenting two different kinds of filter for large industrial chimneys. One captured particulates from coal-burning plants, and the other captured particulates from factory chimneys burning oil and garbage. He retired from work before I was born, bought himself a thirty-six foot wooden sailboat named Sereia (used by eleven Dutch Jews to escape from Amsterdam to Britain, and then to the US, in 1942… and what wouldn’t we give to know all of THAT story?? But we don’t know the rest of it, just that part).

And the rest of his life, he grew vegetables in a small garden plot in coastal Connecticut. His zucchini were unenviably enormous. His tomatoes made some of the most delectable marinarasauce there is (I’ve made it, and it’s just not the same, even with locally-grown tomatoes from the farmers’ markets). He became a terrific cook. He read widely, and resolved to be a Republican because they were going to “conserve” what was correct in America. [Sigh… I think he’d be appalled by what the Republicans have become since his death, but it’s hard to be sure…]

This chart, which now hangs in my apartment, is the only thing he specifically designated in his will that had to be given to me. About six years before he died he told me, “no matter what happens or what you do in life. I’m sorry you didn’t do as well in Chemistry as I wanted you to, but this,” he said, tapping the glass of this very frame, “this is really all the chemistry that anyone needs.”

And so has it proved for me. May it serve you well, also.

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