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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 41/June 1892/Dust and Fresh Air

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 41‎ | June 1892


EXCEPT in the case of museums, few serious attempts have been made to exclude dust from rooms, closets, cupboards, and drawers, to the contents of which, not infrequently, dust is simply ruinous. We allow dust to run riot among our things of value, and then go to considerable expense to render them clean again, only to start them on a fresh career of defilement.

Looked at in the abstract, is not our passive capitulation to dust incomprehensible? When I enter an office in a town and see the window-sills and papers dotted with soot, or go into a bed-room and see the toilet-table defaced with blacks, and know that the soot and the blacks need not be there, I can not refrain from asking how comes it to pass that we so patiently submit to such perpetual discomforts. You will doubtless reply, We agree with you as to the existence of the evil, but how is it to be remedied? My object is to offer some practical suggestions whereby you may so far mitigate and reduce the evils of soot and dust as to make them tolerable, perhaps even to lay down principles by which the evils can be annihilated in those instances in which the result to be obtained is worth the cost of achievement. For the practical purposes of every-day life it may turn out that we had better be content with approximate perfection, a condition of existence which compels us to be content with approximately pure water from a filter, and approximately pure air in our living-rooms.

If dust is to be kept out of any cavity, we must first find out why the dust gets in, in spite of good workmanship and accurate fitting. The reason is simple, ridiculously simple when stated, but, curiously, it has been little, if at all, thought of, and certainly hardly ever acted upon in practice. And the reason is this: Closets, cupboards, drawers, and boxes contain air; if the air were inelastic and never altered in volume, there would practically be no entrance of dust into these closed cavities. Unfortunately for our cleanliness, air is changing in volume incessantly. We are all familiar with the barometer, and most of us no doubt understand why the quicksilver rises and falls in the glass tube, or why, in the aneroid barometer, the index moves to right or left. Let us consider what these changes mean, and what they record.

When the air around us becomes condensed—shrinks into a smaller volume—it becomes heavier, puts greater pressure on the surface of the mercury, and makes it ascend in the tube; then the mercury is said to rise. When the air expands—swells into a larger volume—it becomes lighter, the pressure on the mercury is less, the mercury sinks in the tube, and the barometer is said to fall. Therefore, every change of height of the quicksilver which we observe is a sign and measure of a change in the volume of air around us. Further, this change in volume tells no less upon the air inside our cases and cupboards. When the barometer falls, the air around expands into a larger volume, and the air inside the cupboard also expands and forces itself out at every minute crevice. When the barometer rises again, the air inside the cupboard, as well as outside, condenses and shrinks, and air is forced back into the cupboard to equalize the pressure; and, along with the air, in goes the dust. The smaller the crevice, the stronger the jet of air, the farther goes the dirt. Witness the dirt-tracks so often seen in imperfectly framed engravings or photographs. Remember, ladies and gentlemen, whenever you see the barometer rising, that an additional charge of dust is entering your cupboards and drawers. So much for the barometer, which is a very restless creature, rarely stationary for many hours together. But this is not all. We also have the thermometer. The temperature of our rooms varies daily often considerably between midday and midnight, and greatly between summer and winter. What does the thermometer tell us? Not less than the barometer does it tell of change of volume of the air, though it is probably not so rapid in its effect upon the air in inclosed spaces as is the change of volume indicated by the barometer. Many of you have seen a fire-balloon. The heated air, filling the balloon, expands, and becomes lighter than the surrounding air, and up goes the balloon, until, the source of heat having become exhausted, the contained air cools, contracts, becomes as heavy as the surrounding air, and down comes the balloon again. So, also, as temperature rises outside our cases, the increased warmth is slowly conducted to the air inside the case, which expands and escapes through the crevices. Then, when the time for cooling comes, the air inside slowly contracts, and back rushes the air through the crevices, and again in goes the dust. Thus, we see we have two factors constantly acting, one or other tending to produce daily, nay, hourly, changes in volume of our dirt-carrying air.

In order to inform myself of the amount of change of volume that could, under extreme conditions, possibly take place, I asked Prof. Rücker to kindly calculate for me the change of volume that would take place in one hundred cubic feet of air, between a temperature of 30°, i. e., just above freezing-point, in combination with the barometer standing at thirty inches, or about "fair," and a temperature of 60°, combined with the barometer standing at twenty-nine inches, or "stormy." He told me that the difference would be about ten cubic feet, or one tenth; in other words, that a closed case of one hundred cubic feet, if hermetically sealed at a temperature of 30°, with the barometer standing at thirty inches, would have to resist the pressure equivalent to the addition of ten cubic feet, when the temperature rose to 60°, and the barometer fell to twenty-nine inches. Have we not now discovered the reason why dirt enters closed spaces? What shall be the remedy?

Seeing, then, that air will find an entrance, and in the nature of things must get in—well, we must let it in, not at innumerable uncovenanted small crevices, but at our own selected opening, specially provided. Then we are in a position to strain off the dust by providing the selected opening with a screen, which acts as a filter. These, then, are the general principles on which we must act. The rest is a question of detail. The details range themselves under three heads: 1. What is the most effective, or the most generally applicable filtering material? 2. Given the filtering material, what ought to be the proportion between the area of the screened opening and the cubic contents of the case to which it has to be fitted? 3. What, in any particular instance, is the best situation for the filter?

What is needed in our filtering material is that it shall readily allow air to pass through, and shall also possess the quality of arresting in its meshes fine particles of dust. For some purposes it may suffice to use a coarse canvas, the threads of which are not too closely twisted and have an abundance of fine fibers projecting from them, thereby reducing the small squares of the woven texture to a still finer mesh. The material I have used most frequently is "bunting," but it has disappointed me. When examined by the microscope many of the small squares of mesh are seen to be deficient in delicate fibers standing out from the threads, which would enhance the filtering power of the texture. Lately I have tried other materials, domette, flannel, and cottonwool between layers of muslin, such as is used for dressing wounds under the name of Gamgee tissue. Cotton-wool is probably the most perfect filter. Indeed, so perfect is it that in the new science of bacteriology it is used as an effective means of excluding dust and germs from flasks in which experiments are to be carried on. In order to put various textures to an exact comparative test, an experiment was tried. Having selected six quart bottles with wide mouths, I tied over the mouth of each a piece of the filtering tissue which I wished to test. The bottles are not liable to crack, as wooden boxes are; the only access for the interchange of air in the interior was through the filtering texture. I thus had a means of testing the comparative value as strainers of the various materials. Within the bottles were placed glass slides on which any dust that was carried in might settle. The experiments were begun on May 5, 1891, and the slides were taken out on January 6, 1892, and most carefully photographed by Mr. Lafayette, and made into lantern slides.

The bottles were placed near a window in a room in the building of the Leeds Philosophical Society, i. e., quite in the center of Leeds. The materials tested were: canvas; bunting; ordinary flannel; domette flannel, rough side in; domette flannel, rough side out; cotton-wool, one inch thick.

The results of the experiments show that as a consequence of eight months' exposure, including a week of the worst fog I ever knew in Leeds, three of the filtering tissues admitted a very appreciable amount of dust, viz., coarse canvas the most, bunting coming second, ordinary flannel admitting less than either. The other three bottles were screened, one with thick domette rough side in, one with domette rough side out, and one with cottonwool about an inch in thickness. The last three show hardly a trace of dust. Curiously, the cotton-wool shows a trace more than the domette flannel. The explanation of this I suspect to be that the cotton-wool was not tied firmly enough round the neck of the bottle, which had no rim, and that some air passed between the bottle and the wool, instead of through the wool.

Another experiment which I tried was to fit up a cupboard with panels of double domette flannel. After the fog, to my surprise, the inner screen had become more or less black, showing that black particles had passed into the cupboard, but with this remarkable difference: whereas the outer flannel was almost uniformly black from top to bottom, the inner flannel was divided into four squares of different shades of blackness, corresponding to four spaces between shelves. Of these four, the lowermost was almost as black as the outside, and the uppermost was almost clean. I just mention this as a fact which needs an explanation, but without suggesting one.

There is one error which I think has been committed in the screens made for me, and it was pointed out by my friend Mr. White, the architect, of Wimpole Street. The filtering material is likely to act more effectively if left loose and not stretched tight, as when tense the interstices are stretched and made larger, and when out of sight it might be very loose, almost baggy, with advantage.

Hoping to get some hints as to the comparative value of the various textures under trial, I placed specimens of each under the microscope. It is obvious that both canvas and bunting are of too open a texture, having numerous small holes unguarded by delicate fibers. Judging by the microscope, one would conclude that of woven textures, probably flannel, and still more, domette flannel, are the best, and this judgment seems to be borne out by the experiments with the bottles.

This is a question which experience alone can decide. Doubtless the larger the area of screened opening, the more effective the filtration. For a book-case with glazed front, probably the whole of the back might be made of flannel loosely fixed over the necessary skeleton framework. For a cupboard or closet, every panel should be replaced by a screen. If the closet have a window, all crevices and joints in the window should be pasted up to exclude the soot, otherwise the wind from, the outside, or the fires of the house from the inside, will force the air soot through. On the other hand, it is probably true that, given very perfect fitting and workmanship, aided by the interposition of velvet, as hereafter described, where the edges of the doors come in contact with their frame, a much smaller area of filter, perhaps even a simple tube, filled with cotton-wool, may prove to be efficient. These, however, are points on which further experience is needed, and which may, ere long, be settled by experiment.

Where shall we place our screen? This is a question which admits of a variety of answers, and gives scope for endless ingenuity. In anything which is being newly made, such as the cupboards and closets of a new house, or in new furniture, we are masters of the situation. In many of them we may substitute at the back our filtering texture for wooden boards, and perhaps even save expense thereby. In closets we may replace the panels of the door by filtering texture, guarding the closets, if necessary, against thieves by wire netting or iron bars fixed on the inner side. As a rule, chests of drawers may have the filter over the whole surface at the back, care being taken that the back of each drawer falls half an inch short of the top of the drawer, to allow free entrance of air from the screen. In one set of drawers, so placed that I could not get at the back, the difficulty was got over in this way: In the front of each drawer a series of twenty holes, of an inch diameter, was made for admission of air. The filter, on a frame, was fixed on the inner surface of the front of the drawer, so that the material should stand half an inch away from the holes. A somewhat similar plan was adopted in a bureau. About twenty large holes, two inches in diameter, were cut in the wood-work at the back, some of the holes being opposite pigeonholes. Then the whole was covered with bunting, on a frame so arranged that the bunting was fully half or two thirds of an inch away from the wood. Another method has been adopted at the Yorkshire College for some of the cases. The filter was applied at the roof, somewhat after the fashion of a weaving-shed roof, the vertical face being filled in by the screen. Again, Mr. Branson has provided a roof filter for a case of scientific instruments, by placing the screen in the roof of the case, and protecting it by a false roof two inches above it, to prevent its being choked by falling dust.

What shall we do with crevices and cracks? At first, I hoped that narrow chinks might be ignored, on the principle that easy passages of air through an ample screen would virtually stop off currents through narrow spaces. In this I have been disappointed, as, in some cases, a chink, though apparently narrow, has proved too accommodating to the passage of air, and a more ready channel than the interstices of flannel. My rule now would be to close or guard with filtering material every place where the door comes into contact with its frame.

The plan I have adopted with the doors of several cupboards and closets is this—to put strips of cotton velvet wherever the door comes into contact with its framework. On the side where the hinges are, the velvet is glued and sprigged to the edge of the door; on the other side and the top the velvet is fixed to the rebate against which the door presses. If the door belong to a closet, and the bottom is not in close contact with the floor, a small piece of flannel or cloth may be fixed along the inner side of the bottom of the door, so as to form a curtain which closes the gap, and filters any air that passes through.

Such, then, are the principles which may guide us to a victory over dust, and such are some of the details whereby we may work out a method by which the victory is to be won. Do not suppose that I claim to have completely conquered the enemy; but a beginning has been made, a beginning definite enough and assured enough to encourage others, and especially architects, to study the question and to make trials. If they will but work with determination to conquer, they may confer upon the community a most welcome amelioration of some of the smaller miseries we have to submit to.

And now let me venture to tell you what I should do were I to construct an office in the center of a town. I should begin with the fireplace. Let it be constructed on the principles I have been teaching for the last ten years, and which were brought to a focus in my lecture at the Royal Institution in 1866—principles which are at last influencing the construction of fire-grates throughout the kingdom. Shortly stated, they are:

1. The back and sides of the fireplace to be fire-brick, built solid.
2. The depth of grate from front to back never to be less than nine inches.
3. The back to lean over the fire, not to lean away from it.
4. The front bars to be vertical and thin, not horizontal and thick.
5. The ash-place under the grid to be made into a closed hot chamber by a movable shield, named an "economizer."

The effects of this construction are:

(a) Great diminution of dust, since the ashes fall into a closed ash-chamber.
(b) Better warming of the room, with a diminution of about one fourth in the quantity of coal used.
(c) Diminished draft across the floor, from diminished roar up the chimney when the fire is burning briskly.
(d) Diminished production of soot.

These are the principles which I have urged, and they are open to every one to adopt. I do not speak of a further improvement, as it is the subject of a patent, and is not open to every one to copy.

Having made sure of my fire, the next step would be to secure admission of air to supply the fire, without making a draft or introducing dirt. As far as I know this is best done by the "Harding diffuser," which admits air directly from the outside and delivers it through a series of small jets near the ceiling. To shut out the smuts the air passes through a canvas screen placed diagonally in a flat tube, which leads up to the "diffuser" and gives a filtering area about six times the sectional area of the tube. This air is admitted into the room by a legitimate channel, and is filtered. The "Harding diffuser" was once patented, but the patent has lapsed.

Having thus secured a supply of air for the chimney, we can afford to deal with the windows, and make them air-tight, without fear of the chimney smoking. Now I should like to see a revolution in windows, at any rate, wherever we can be content with panes of moderate size, and can have the heart to surrender plate glass.

Three things are required of a good window:

1. That the outside of the window may be cleaned by a servant standing inside the room, whereby the risk and expense of cleaning from without are avoided.
2. That it shall exclude wind and dirt, even under the stress of a gale.
3. That the air of the room, especially in frosty weather, shall not be itself so chilled by contact with the large surface of glass as to cause induced cold currents, which have not even the merit of being air freshly introduced.

To attain these points, the sash window must be abandoned. The window must be so divided that one half vertically, or in a large window one third, may open inward on hinges, the other half or two thirds being fixed, and therefore wind-tight; the breadth of each division to be such that a servant's arm can reach out and clean the outer side of the fixed window as she stands inside the room. In the case of three divisions the fixed windows would be to the right and left of the hinged window. The hinged window should be in two or three divisions, according to the height, not in one large casement from top to bottom. Thus have we provided for my first requirement, the cleaning of the window. The hinged window must be so constructed that when closed the framework of the window locks into a double rebated fast frame, after the manner of a jeweler's show-case. Then, if well made, it would fit tight and keep out wind and dust. This provides for my second requirement.

Lastly, the panes should be doubled that is, a second pane must be placed inside the ordinary pane at a distance of about five eighths of an inch. The outer pane is fixed by putty in the usual way. The fixing of the inner pane is peculiar and all-important. The inside of the frame is cut to receive the glass exactly in the same manner as the outer side for the outer pane, but the inside pane must not be fixed by putty, but is held in place, "sprigged" firmly against its rim, "the rebate," by small nails, two in each side, very carefully put in. Why do I insist upon this mode of fixing the inner pane? For two reasons: one, to make it easy to remove the inner pane if ever it should be necessary to clean the inside of the two panes; the other reason is, to enable me to render cleaning of the inside unnecessary. How is this achieved? By facing the flange, against which the pane is pressed, with cotton velvet. The air that must perforce pass in and out of the space between the panes must pass the velvet, and be filtered. Two windows of my bedroom thus treated five years ago have never needed to be cleaned; and a pane, which was removed at the erjd of four years for inspection, was absolutely clean. Another advantage of the double panes is this: When my other windows with single panes are steamed all over, and even glazed by the frost, the outer panes of the double window show hardly a trace of unfrozen steam; the inner panes are never steamed. Again, a thermometer placed between the panes has never been below 30° all this severe weather, even though a thermometer outside the window has been several times below 20°.

Lastly, I would treat the cupboards and drawers after the manner already described. The result would be, not absolute freedom from dirt, nor absolute protection from London fog, but such a departure from what is commonly experienced as to make the experiment well worth all the trouble it costs.—Journal of the Society of Arts.


Of the three hundred and twenty-three asteroids known on February 1st, seventy were discovered by American astronomers—forty-eight by Peters and twenty-two by Watson. Peters stands second on the list of successful discoverers. Palissa, who is first on the list, is credited with the discovery of eighty asteroids.