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Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 70.djvu/248

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244
THE POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY

portions. This is clearly shown by its chemical formula, . But it is a dangerous poison, and numerous cases are on record of deaths due to its being mistaken for ethyl alcohol. This mistake occurs easily. A man asked a druggist for a bottle of good alcohol. The druggist understood him to say wood alcohol. The customer took his purchase home, drank it and died. Moreover, there is something particularly horrible about the action of wood alcohol. Numerous instances are on record proving that the substance has a specific effect on the optic nerve. After complete recovery from dangerous doses of methyl alcohol, in the course of a few days, patients have become totally blind. It is desirable that these facts should be as widely known as possible, since denatured alcohol is required by law to contain 10 per cent, of this poison.

It is not too much to say that if we arrange all the liquids known to us in the order of their general usefulness, water, which heads the list of course, will be followed immediately by ethyl alcohol. Ethyl alcohol is colorless and of an agreeable odor. It is an admirable cleaning agent, and a good antiseptic and disinfectant as well. It is an ideal source of heat and power and is capable of being developed into an ideal source of light. Ideal, because the products of its combustion, carbon dioxide and water, both of which are normally present in the air, are quite odorless and are harmless; ideal because, evaporating quickly and completely if spilled, it is much cleaner than any oil. It is an indispensable solvent in many chemical industries and is the raw material from which important substances, such as acetic acid (vinegar), the anesthetics ethyl ether and chloroform, the antiseptic iodoform, and many other substances are made. It is the cheapest and easiest of all the alcohols to manufacture.

Truly, it is unfortunate that to this list of advantages must be added the fact that it is drinkable, for this last property is made to justify so many restrictions that its application to these useful purposes is badly hampered. Alcoholic beverages are generally acknowledged to be unnecessary luxuries; therefore, by common consent, they are heavily taxed in every civilized country. A quantity of alcohol costing about 11 cents to make, namely, a 'proof' or 'tax' gallon, pays an internal revenue tax of $1.10. The 'proof or 'tax' gallon contains about 50 per cent, by volume of ethyl alcohol, and about 50 per cent, water. The law reads in such a way that if the alcohol happens to be stronger, or above 'proof' as it is called, the number of gallons of 'proof' spirit which could be made from it is calculated and the tax is paid on this computed quantity. But, on the other hand, if the alcohol be weaker, i. e., below proof,' it is taxed as if it were 'proof.'

This term 'proof spirit' had a somewhat curious origin which is