The Mad Hatter, Isaac Newton, and That Old Thermostat
I was a kid a long, long time ago. Seems like it was another century...another millennium even. Wait a minute — it was another millennium! That was back in the day when we used to ride bicycles without helmets, apply mercury to our wounds, move seat belts out of the way (if the car even had them), and put our tongue on steel poles in the middle of winter. Of course, in Texas and Louisiana we just ended up with a bad taste in our mouth from those steel poles and wondered why people made such a big deal about it.
It was so long ago that our grandparents had stuff in their houses that you've probably never even heard of. I loved going to Mammaw and Pappaw's house because they had all kinds of cool, old stuff. Even better, Pappaw had a warehouse full of even older, old stuff and a shop for his business (Bailes Electric Co.) that had the most enticing stuff ever.
For example, he had voltmeter probes hanging down right next to an electrical outlet. Of course, I had to stick them in there. I don't know how it happened, but my recollection is that I made sparks...and got in trouble. And then there was that fascinating lamp way up on the top shelf. It had a blue bulb, so I just had to plug it in and see how beautiful the light was. Got sparks that time, too. Old stuff is really cool!
Take that thermostat you see above. It's from 1941. Back then, nobody had any of this newfangled digital stuff with thermistors and integrated circuits. No, it was mechanical, and it worked. Random cosmic rays zipping through the device never threw things off, making you have to reboot the system. If it didn't work, you could take the cover off, find out what was wrong, and fix it. Now, if some piece of digital equipment doesn't work, a technician replaces the innards—or the whole thing. There's not much fixin' anymore.
My friend Guy Theriot posted the photo of that old thermostat above on Facebook yesterday. Guy and I go way back. Although he lives in Minnesota now, he's a Cajun. He was a friend of mine down the bayou in Chauvin, Louisiana, and we hung out together a lot in my first few years with the Cajuns.
About those old thermostats...
The old thermostats, as I said above, operated on mechanical principles. In the thermostat shown below, a bimetallic strip expanded or contracted with temperature because of the different thermal expansion coefficients of the two metals. That strip was connected to vials of mercury. The vials tilted as the bimetallic stip changed size, and the mercury would either complete the circuit or cause the circuit to be open. The thermostat below has 2 bimetallic strips and 4 vials of mercury - two separate mechanisms for heating and cooling.
When the mercury went one way in the vial, electricity flowed and the heating or cooling system came on. When it went the other way, the electricity didn't flow and the HVAC system was off. Simple and elegant! That's how we rolled back then.
The downside of that simplicity and elegance was rivers on fire, smog that burned your eyes, and kids who weren't wearing seatbelts getting thrown out of cars. Buddy Meyer was a friend of mine and Guy's. The last time I saw him was the summer of '73, right before my dad took me and my sisters to Leesville for two months. I remember Buddy, Guy, and I were riding our bicycles one day. Two months later, I arrived back in Chauvin and heard from my mom that Buddy was dead, thrown from his uncle's truck when they crashed. We didn't wear seat belts then.
Mad as a hatter
Back to those old thermostats now, the mercury they contain is a toxic material. When I was kid back in the last millennium, we'd put it on our scraped knees. It was red and it stung like the dickens. (I've never been stung by a dickens, or even seen one, but I imagine it as a wasp about the size of a coyote with fierce looking, bloodshot eyes and a huge, poisonous stinger.) It came in little brown bottles with a screw top that had a built-in eyedropper. Mammaw called it mercurochrome. Now it's banned by the FDA.
Mercury, as it turns out, is pretty darn toxic. Dartmouth chemistry professor Karen Wetterhahn found out the hard way. She was working with dimethylmercury, one of the most toxic mercury compounds, and accidentally got some on her gloves. It went through, got into her blood, and she was dead in a year.
Isaac Newton, known to have had a nasty dispostion and a bit of paranoia at one point in his life, is also believed to have suffered from mercury poisoning. Around the time he was doing experiments with mercury, he "accused friends of plotting against him, slept little, and reported conversations that did not exist."
And then there was Alice's friend, the Mad Hatter. He wasn't the only hatter who had mental challenges. Evidently it was common because of the mercury they used when felting the hats they made. The expression 'mad as a hatter' may have its origin in mercury poisoning.
Mercury and energy
Old thermostats aren't the only place you find mercury in the world of energy production and consumption. It's also in fluorescent lights, both the straight tube and the compact fluorescent lamp (CFL) forms. Both should be disposed of properly. Compared to thermostats, though, they contain only a small amount of mercury.
The largest single source of mercury is burning coal to produce electricity. "Coal-burning power plants are the largest human-caused source of mercury emissions to the air in the United States, accounting for over 50 percent of all domestic human-caused mercury emissions," according to the US EPA.
The moral of the story is that when old timers like me say that we were so much tougher back in the day, be sure to keep it all in perspective. Yeah, some things were better, but in other respects, we're better off now. Mercury's not something to mess around with. If you've got an old thermostat or dead fluorescent lamps, don't just throw them in the trash.
Photo credit: Top photo of 1941 Honeywell thermostat courtesy of Guy Theriot of Eagan, Minnesota. Middle three photos from Allison Bailes/Energy Vanguard. Mad Hatter photo from Wikimedia Commons.