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Boffins, bleach and very big science

Did you know that the saltpeter for gunpowder was made by boiling rotting manure? Or why bleach packers were social outcasts? Or why they had no teeth? The place to find out is Catalyst, The Museum of the Chemical Industry - the only one of its kind in Europe.

A recent addition to the museum, which is in Widnes, Cheshire, is Birth of Industry, a gallery built with Pounds 300,000 of Lottery money. It begins with civilisations in Egypt and China, where they extracted dyes from nature, for clothing, pottery and cosmetics. It reminds us about fermenting fruit juices to produce drinks, and about extracting metals for armour and weapons.

The story ends with the industrial revolution: those almost glory days when we established processes for making soaps, bleach, dyes and explosives. Names like Castner, Kellner, Perkins and Nobel, and the mercury cell and Solvay Process, start to sound more solid after a browse.

You get a taste of work in the industry by trying to lift heavy tools and listening to workers' tales via a telephone. Then you see the bleach packers, the poor things who stood in giant vessels and shovelled the bleach powder. Protective clothing consisted of layers of flannel and brown paper. They were paid twice the going rate, but the bleach turned to acid in their mouths and rotted their teeth. After work they would enjoy a pint, but in their own bar where they could stink without offending other drinkers.

There's a film booth with documentaries on the discovery of penicillin and polythene. Here Fifties' actors play boffins, cigarettes in mouths, while putting ethene gas under high pressure. Here too is a resuscitator, once used to revive canaries which acted as a detector for noxious gases.

Younger children will head for the more established gallery, called Scientrific. It explains how chemicals are used today and there are hands-on exhibits, such as comparing the friction of steel, Teflon and wood; or comparing leather with vinyl, and wood with laminate, in a living room setting. Visitors can take their temperature on a giant liquid-crystal thermometer or test sun-screen lotions with different factor ratings.

They'll see the different colour light produced by gases such as helium, and neon, and they can control a model chemical plant on a computer screen, only this one has them mixing milk, sugar and water to make tea. They can also learn how a nylon carpet is constructed and that Gore-Tex fabric is used to repair heart defects.

Eventually everyone spills into the glass external elevator and up to the top-floor observatory with views over the Mersey. Displays point out features: the chlorine works; the factory manufacturing peroxide - the more environmentally-friendly chlorine-free bleach; and Port Sunlight, where Lever Brothers provided workers with housing and leisure facilities. This panorama of factory, river, canal and railway makes it clear you're in the heart of a brilliant case study.

The story continues in May when a new gallery, Chemicals for Life, starts with 1940 and takes a look at the chemical industry in everyday life. It also received about Pounds 300,000 of Lottery cash.

Chemistry is a difficult subject to cover in a museum, but this is pretty good. There's something for chemistry or humanities' classes as well as primary groups. It is worth preparing for - an initial look round, lessons before and after the visit - as well as tapping into the new education centre which runs workshops where pupils make bars of soap and orange squash.

A lot of chemistry has slipped out of the school curriculum. Maybe before people start saying that it used to be big "in the old days", a trip to Catalyst will help show that it still is.

Catalyst is open 10 am to 5pm, Tuesday to Sunday and holiday Mondays. Pounds 3 for adults, Pounds 2.25 for children, Pounds 8.95 for families. Information and school bookings from Mersey Road, Widnes, Cheshire WA8 0DF. Tel: 0151 420 1121

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