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  • Writer's pictureMichael Skalka

Things Go Better with Oxygen

Summary: This essay focuses on the trials and tribulations of pioneers in the world of chemistry and industry.  While no common thread ties ideas in this essay directly to color, the people discussed play an interesting role in scientific and social history.


Allow me once again to indulge myself and venture into the world of chemists’ lives to tell an interesting and tragic story of the choices people make and the consequences that follow those decisions.  This story has two threads, and both are unrelated except for a parallel historical influence and coincidental anniversary dates.  However, both are fraught with incidences that end in tragedy.


In a previous Syntax essay, (GOC, Vol. 2 No. 6) I discussed the work of the scientist J. G. Gahn and his discovery of a cobalt-related blue pigment.  He worked with a scientist who had name recognition in the color-manufacturing field, Carl Wilhelm Scheele.  Scheele was a Swedish chemist who invented a green pigment based on copper arsenate.  Scheele’s relationship in this story involves his work with isolating the element oxygen. 


Compared to deciphering the human genome, we think of discovering gases and noble metals as simple now but separating and defining the elements was serious business for these early chemical explorers.  Scheele concluded that oxygen was a part of breathable air.  His counterpart in England, Joseph Priestley, long considered the primary discoverer of oxygen, experimented with it to better understand its properties.  By heating red mercuric oxide, he extracted oxygen from it to conduct his studies. 


Let's enter the world of Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier.  Lavoisier was born into a world of privilege.  He studied law just as his father had, but his heart was dedicated to the pursuit of scientific knowledge.  Lavoisier was an enthusiastic investigator.  He was aware of the work of Joseph Priestly and expanded on the physical properties of oxygen.  Lavoisier focused on oxygen’s role in combustion and its interaction with materials that resulted in oxidation.  Little did Lavoisier know that he was a small step away from isolating and producing Mars colors, which are manufactured by synthetically producing metallic oxides that have a uniform particle size and outstanding tinting strength.  Lavoisier had grander visions for his career. 


Lavoisier is called the father of modern chemistry because of his keen sense of organization.  He wanted to categorize the elements and describe the functions and properties of each one.  Separating metals, acids, gasses, and other substances was important because it laid out a roadmap for the classification of new elements.  It revealed overlaps and deciphered the grounds for simultaneous discoveries of the same element that occurred as scientists scrambled to gain an understanding of the world.  Lavoisier’s insistence on the organization and isolation of elements, while not universally accepted by fellow scientists, laid out the structure of known chemicals.  In some ways, Lavoisier could be considered the father of modern pigments since many of the elemental materials, mercury, zinc, sulfur, iron, etc., once understood chemically, could be used by chemists to produce a remarkable number of colors.  As chemistry advanced, the range of potential colors expanded.  Lavoisier and his fellow scientists aided in the expansion of chemical and manufacturing innovations at the end of the eighteenth century.  This led the way to an explosion of colors in the palette available for artists in the early nineteenth century that continues to the present.


Speaking of explosions, in 1775, Lavoisier became commissioner of the Royal Gunpowder and Saltpeter Administration in the Paris Arsenal.  A laboratory was set up for his use and he experimented with refining and improving gunpowder.  It was every young boy’s dream fulfilled, to work in a gunpowder factory and blow-up stuff! 


It would have been best for Lavoisier to follow his love of science and focus on that alone.  It was his affinity for politics and social reformation that led to his downfall.  Lavoisier joined the Ferme Generale as a tax collector, and as fate would have it, his association with the Ferme Generale targeted him as a traitor during the French Revolution.  Ironically, he was a social liberal but the hate of anyone associated with the Ferme Generale overcame the personal beliefs of the individuals in the organization. 


Lavoisier also made enemies with Jean-Paul Marat.  Marat, a leader of the revolution, (who was made famous by the Jacque-Louis David painting depicting his murder,) helped to see that Lavoisier was brought to the court of revolutionary justice.  The French legal system was speedy in 1794.  Lavoisier stood trial, was convicted, and executed all on the same day, May 8, 1794.  Little solace was felt by his widow when a few years later, Lavoisier was declared not guilty of any crimes. 


The world lost a great scientific mind.  How did Lavoisier directly aid in the invention of pigments?  Well, I am so glad you asked!  It appears that Jean-Antoine-Claude Chaptal, a French chemist, taught his students the theories of Lavoisier.  Chaptal created an inexpensive blue colorant, based on cobalt that aided the paint and decorators’ industry in France. 


However, let’s move forward in time to the middle of the 19th century.  Sadly, very few American high school students likely know the name of Antoine Lavoisier even if they do know something about the general categorization and distribution of elements.  (Mendeleev is the actual inventor of the periodic table that visualizes the organization of each substance.)  


However, ask nearly anyone outside of a select group of people in Atlanta, Georgia, who the inventor John Pemberton is and you will, without doubt, receive quizzical stares.  John Pemberton was born only 37 years after Lavoisier suffered the violent separation of his head from his body in the preferred method of execution dictated by the French.  Pemberton’s invention is not only recognized by all American students, it is known by nearly every human being on this planet, unless you live under a rock or were born on and reside on a deserted island. 


Pemberton, like Lavoisier, was an experimenter.  His goal was to find a medicine that could also serve as an enticing, healthful drink.  Working from a derivative of an Italian wine based on the coca plant, a product called Pemberton’s French Wine Coca was marketed as a powerful brain stimulant.  Pemberton combined the properties of the coca plant with the taste derived from the kola nut and this created a drink that, sans alcohol, would become known to all as Coca-Cola.  (Don’t ask me how we go from an Italian wine to a French wine.)


Social pressure was applied to remove the alcohol to counteract negative reactions from the public since at the time Pemberton was perfecting his drink, the American temperance movement was gaining ground.  Carbonated water became the perfect vehicle for his coca and kola concoction and the public slowly became enamored with this mixture.  A motivating factor in Pemberton’s quest for a drink to provide health and tranquility was rather personal. 


Pemberton, like Lavoisier, became part of a historical upheaval that influenced both men’s lives. They were both victims. While Lavoisier’s suffering was short-lived, Pemberton’s was not.  Pemberton served as an officer in the Confederacy with a cavalry regiment.  Injured in battle, Pemberton never fully recovered from his wounds.  Taking morphine only dulled his pain.  It was a common addiction of many Civil War survivors who partially recovered from wounds but lived only to suffer from chronic pain. 


The invention of Coca-Cola was an attempt by Pemberton to create a tonic that would act as a curative.  Unfortunately, for Pemberton, no amount of Coca-Cola would soothe his soul.  His morphine addiction became worse over time.  His behavior was unpredictable.  He sold his company and the formulation for Coca-Cola to three different buyers at nearly the same time, with the first one winning possession of the company.  In a desperate effort to provide his son with a job and long-term income, he attempted to append the contract for the company.  Unfortunately, that last-minute provision to his sales agreement failed.  Pemberton succumbed to his morphine addiction and died in 1888.  Had he kept his wits about him longer, perhaps he would have come up with the first lemon-lime soft drink.


The story of Lavoisier and Pemberton relate only in the ways I have mentioned.  The one common point is that Lavoisier’s execution and Pemberton’s invention of Coca-Cola share the date of May 8th.  Lavoisier died in 1794 and Pemberton invented Coca-Cola in 1886.  Interestingly, Dr. Pepper was invented a year earlier, in 1885, by Charles Alderton.


We need a reference to color to complete the story.  The distinctive high chroma red color in Coca-Cola’s advertising does not seem to be related to Pemberton’s influence.  Skillful art directors devised the Spencerian script of the words “Coca-Cola” and selected that vibrant red color, protecting both by trademark.   Perhaps someday I will investigate the origin of that special red hue that is the distinct visual link to the brand.


Syntax of Color

(Originally: GOC Vol.3 No. 6, 2007)


New Syntax Feature

When you get an opportunity, please visit a new Syntax of Color section. Art Materials Q&A.  I have extracted noteworthy ideas of both an extremely dubious nature and others of merit to reply on my terms about advice that was posted on social media to other artists.  Some of the comments by artists provide sound advice. Other comments are amusing, and some are awful. I address and debunk several myths that have been perpetuated in the social media world about materials and techniques.  The Q&A is being completed and expanding as time allows. Visit it periodically to see new posts.



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