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The Flat Cap on ... Glue

This morning The Flat Cap went to make a cup of tea and the handle fell off his favourite mug. Maybe there had been a crack in it, maybe by some wonder of physics it had become arbitrarily detached. However for whatever reason there was a mug and a handle, and the two were now separate where once they were joined together. Luckily The Flat Cap had caught the mug before it had hit the floor, and a quick check showed that with a bit of the right glue there was a good chance mug and handle could be reunited. That got him thinking about glue and all its different types. So The Flat Cap decided to find out a little more about the history of this fascinating compound.

Glue has been around since prehistoric times. Stone Age Man used it to keep the bricks of his house from blowing away. He probably also used it to put up floating shelves on which he could display the heads of big animals - ones that he had killed and dragged home. Even thousands of years ago being a top hunter was a sign of machismo. However, unlike that American dentist who killed Cecil the lion, back in Stone Age times hunting animals was done just to feed your family. So nobody got too upset about it. Meat eating was fashionable then, and it wasn’t until the Middle Ages that someone thought to invent vegetarianism. And before shelving was even thought of cavemen would have used glue to attach family photographs to the walls of their dwellings. A grinning caveman or woman was a fearsome sight and this is why none of the photographs have survived to the present day. Look in any encyclopaedia and all you will see of cave dwellers are rough sketches of people with bad haircuts dressed in ill fitting bear skins. Being a caveman might have been a harsh existence but at least his children weren’t constantly asking for designer clothes, or the latest mammoth fur baseball cap.

The Ancient Egyptians used glue when making furniture. This was important as some pharaohs, like Tutankhamun, died young. Whenever this happened there was a big rush on to get enough furniture and riches into the tomb before it was sealed up. Gluing furniture together saved time and meant that the king could go into the after- life with plenty of chairs and tables. Ancient Egyptians believed this was important in case you had lots of visitors round, like say at Christmas, or a fiftieth birthday party, or ironically a family bereavement. Unsurprisingly, and not to be outdone, the Greeks and Romans made great contributions to the development of adhesives. They refined the production of animal and fish glues and used egg-based pastes as well as various natural animal ingredients including blood, bone, and hide. Even foodstuffs like milk, cheese, vegetables, and grain were used to make glue. Beeswax was used to seal the gaps between the wooden planks of boats. This made it very difficult for the slaves working in large hotel kitchens as it was never clear if deliveries were intended for the guest menu or part of some bigger plan to mend a chair, repair a rickety door, or fill in cracks in the worktop.

Modern glue making got a kick start in 1690 when a commercial plant was set up in Holland. Continuing the animal basis of manufacturing the plant produced its glues from animal hide. In 1750 the first British patent was granted for a glue made from fish. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries if you wanted to be taken seriously as a scientist you had to think of something edible and make a form of glue out of it. Nowadays you don’t have to rely on animal products to stick things together. There are all sorts of adhesives made from all sorts of stuff that only someone who is really good at chemistry would understand. Modern glues are all to do with chemical reactions - some are solvent based, and others aren’t. There are also other types that use radiation , or heat, or moisture as part of the process. Being a glue scientist today is a full time job and requires a degree and your own laboratory.

After a search of his kitchen drawers The Flat Cap realised that he actually didn’t have any suitable glue to put the handle back on his mug. Fortunately the local newsagents shop sells superglue, and so he paid it a visit. Mr. Iqbal who runs the shop was out at the wholesalers, but his teenage son who was home from university told The Flat Cap to use clear superglue and promised him it would work. Although he is reading sociology at one of those red brick universities that used to be called polytechnics Mr. Iqbal’s son said he knew a lot about glue and readily shared the following glue related facts:

  • The world’s biggest glue factory is situated in Shanghai, China. Part of the Henkel Group, it makes hundreds of thousands of tons of adhesives every year

  • Superglue was invented by accident and was also used in the Vietnam War to help close up wounds on soldiers, before they could be taken to hospitals to receive stitches

  • Canadian inventor Gus Tickle manufactured the world’s first commercially available glue stick. The letters of his name when rearranged spell the product that made him famous

  • Barnacles attach themselves to rocks and boats by using a special cement that is impervious to sea water. The most daring barnacles sometimes attach themselves to whales. This makes them look tough to other barnacles

  • The early glue on the back of postage stamps was made from starch

  • The skin and bones of fish can be mixed together to make a clear adhesive that doesn’t show up when it dries

  • More than 8,000 people attended UK hospital A&E departments in 2014 after “accidents” involving superglue

  • Ancient people used to use animal glues as a type of hair gel

  • Slugs and snails use sticky mucus to help them travel about, just very slowly. It would take a snail nine weeks to travel from The Flat Cap’s house to Mr. Iqbal’s shop (assuming nobody trod on him, or he was eaten by a hedgehog en route)

  • Gecko lizards have thousands of tiny hairs on each foot. These allow them to walk on ceilings. The only other known instance of this is Lionel Richie when he was dancing on the ceiling in the music video of the same name

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