Cyanide in the "Olden" days

Discussion in 'B&W: Film, Paper, Chemistry' started by RattyMouse, Aug 29, 2012.

  1. RattyMouse

    RattyMouse Member

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    Long ago when I was in university, I took an English writing course that had us read all kinds of essays and then write about them. I have a memory of one essay that was about early photographers and how many of them died because they did not realize how deadly potassium (or sodium) cyanide was. For a reason unknown to me, cyanide was part of the development process then. I am not sure what time frame this essay was dealing with. Anyway, the photographers would bit the cyanide pellets to break them into smaller pieces and then of course, die due to ingestion.

    I really wish I still had that essay!

    Was this true? Was cyanide used as a photographic developing chemical? If yes, when was its use discontinued?
     
  2. tkamiya

    tkamiya Member

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    I believe it was used as a fixer in wet plate process.
     
  3. cowanw

    cowanw Member

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    Hard to believe they didn't clue in real fast.:wink:
    And how good a photographer could you be if you only had one chance.:confused:
    Of course the old live fast, die young and become a tragically lost photographer was invented then.:smile:
     
  4. Gerald C Koch

    Gerald C Koch Member

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    Potassium/sodium cyanide was used as a fixing agent for Daguerrotypes and collodian plates.

    As to mortality probably more daguerrotypists died from mercury poisoning than from any other chemical. The mercury fumes would turn gold objects such as watch fobs temporarily silver in color. Mercury is a cumulative poison whereas cyanide is not.
     
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  5. nexus757

    nexus757 Member

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  6. Allen Friday

    Allen Friday Member

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    Potassium cyanide is a white granular salt made by the absorption of hydrogen cyanide in potassium hydroxide. It is soluble in both water and alcohol and a lethal poison. If mixed with acids it produces highly toxic hydrogen cyanide gas. This was the preferred fixing chemical for collodion positives because it contained no sulfides to darken the highlight silver. As a fixing agent cyanide was particularly effective. After dissolving the unexposed silver halides cyanide would also remove non-image fog producing very clean shadow areas. Prolonged fixing would eventually remove image silver. Tincture of iodine was added to dilute solutions of potassium cyanide and used to remove unwanted non-image silver in photographic materials and to remove silver stains."

    From the George Eastman House, Notes on Photography.
     
  7. TheFlyingCamera

    TheFlyingCamera Membership Council Council

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    I've not heard of using cyanide in fixing daguerreotypes. Do you have any documentation of its use in the daguerreotype process? As previously noted, it was (and still is) the preferred method of fixing wet collodion images.
     
  8. jnanian

    jnanian Advertiser Advertiser

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    and its washed right down the drain into the water supply
     
  9. TheFlyingCamera

    TheFlyingCamera Membership Council Council

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    Cyanide breaks down into harmless components with strong sunlight (not instantly, but within a reasonable period of time - days I believe), and these days, with the small volume of wet-plate photographers today, it is so diluted in city sewage systems that it is a non-issue, unless you have a neighbor drinking from your unfiltered outflow. Frankly, I'd be much more concerned with the prescription drug residue in the water supply than I would effluent from a wet collodion enthusiast or two.
     
  10. BrianShaw

    BrianShaw Member

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    Not used for fixing or developing, but was sometimes used in the process for silver-plating the dag plates.
     
  11. BrianShaw

    BrianShaw Member

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  12. Pioneer

    Pioneer Member

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    Well, sodium cyanide in solution is relatively harmless if you keep your PH at 10 or above. That is unless you are in the habit of drinking your developing and fixing solutions. :D I suspect that the people who were using cyanide in their photography knew how to handle it. After all, a lot of photographers were pretty good chemists.

    As someone already mentioned, the remaining cyanide in solution that is dumped into the sewers is very dilute and no-one will even know it is there. It is a relatively unstable salt and breaks down pretty quickly and becomes harmless with exposure to sunlight.

    At least cyanide was quick. If you made a mistake with cyanide you knew it immediately. Mercury was, and still is, far more dangerous than cyanide. Mercury works slowly and it does not break down quickly nor can the body dispose of it very quickly. Instead it stays there and continues to build in concentration as long as you are exposed. Of course the photographers, and others, who worked with mercury were quite well aware of the dangers, they just did not know how to protect themselves.

    Most of the pioneers in photography who worked back in the 1800s were not dumb, nor were they poorly informed. My great-grandfather, and yours, was pretty bright, and was a very handy man. In fact, he knew how to do a great many things that I could not even consider doing. It was a different time, with different technology, but they were still doing amazing things.
     
  13. TheFlyingCamera

    TheFlyingCamera Membership Council Council

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    The problem with cyanide in wet-plate photography was not the cyanide, it was the ether and the grain alcohol. Most photographers' deaths involving consumption of cyanide came about because they were nipping on the Everclear a bit too much and picked up the wrong bottle at the end of the day.
     
  14. Prof_Pixel

    Prof_Pixel Member

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    Page 19

    "A photographer reported that he visited a druggist to buy some cyanide and the chemist found one lump was too large to enter the neck of the bottle – so he bit it into two pieces! “Nothing but very prompt measures saved his life."
     
  15. BrianShaw

    BrianShaw Member

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    What a nucklehead!
     
  16. jnanian

    jnanian Advertiser Advertiser

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    .....
     
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  17. Pioneer

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    He had probably bitten a lump of laudanum in half earlier in the day so was feeling no pain. :smile:
     
  18. smieglitz

    smieglitz Member

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    Here's my favorite passage from Jay's essay:



    “The Ballad of Billy Baker.” In this ballad, sung to the tune “One-horse shay,” William Baker “Carte-de-visite taker,” falls in
    love with one of his sitters, Jemima Jenkins. She will have nothing to do with poor Billy Baker, who decides to take cyanide:


    To suicide intent,
    darkroom then he went;
    But instead of cyanide he swallowed th’ hypo.
    Although it gave him pain,
    He soon got well again,
    But never flirted after in his stu-di-o.​


    The moral was clear: keep bottles properly labelled, otherwise when you want to kill yourself you may drink the wrong solution. When Jemima rejected Billy Baker’s love she said: “Take such black paws as those/with heart that’s quite as black, for anything I know,” and struck a blow at every
    19th century photographer’s weak spot. The reason why Billy had “black paws” was that his hands were stained with silver solutions...​




    Poor old Billy Baker trying to put the "stud" in studio...
     
  19. RattyMouse

    RattyMouse Member

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    Cyanide becomes deadly toxic in acid conditions (your stomach) so ingestion is very dangerous. The essay I read long ago in university that caused me to write this post described many many photographers dying due to cyanide ingestion.