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Cordite And Conkers

1917: “His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.”

“In present circumstances it is felt that school children could give most valuable assistance in collecting the [horse] chestnuts . . .”

What could possibly link the Balfour Declaration with a Board of Education circular urging British youngsters to gather conkers? The answer: cordite, acetone, the bacterium Clostridium acetobutylicum and the chemist (and ardent Zionist) Chaim Weizmann.

Cordite, developed towards the end of the 19th century to replace gunpowder, needed acetone for its manufacture. At the outbreak of hostilities in 1914, the sudden demand for large quantities of cordite meant that Britain’s munitions industry required correspondingly large amounts of acetone.

Before the war, Britain had relied on imports of acetone, most of which was produced by the destructive distillation of wood. Weizmann had discovered that acetone could also be produced by using Clostridium acetobutylicum to ferment starch.

Wartime Britain used North American maize as a source of starch, until German submarine attacks in the Atlantic threatened supplies. Horse chestnuts offered an alternative source of starch, hence the Board of Education circular.

Schoolchildren collecting conkers did not contribute directly to the Balfour Declaration – in fact, the nuts were of little use – but Weizmann’s chemical process, and the goodwill he generated, undoubtedly helped him gain direct access to Whitehall and made British politicians and senior civil servants more amenable to his Zionist aspirations.

Source: New Scientist, 24 June 2000

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