The mask, I know you !: The history of the gas mask

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On May 31, 1915, the Germans launched their first gas attack on the Russian front on the Ravka River near Volya Shidlovskaya. The greenish cloud that appeared over the trenches at about 3:30 a.m. was mistaken for a well-known smoke screen, followed by an attack. Therefore, reserves were tightened and the forward line strengthened. Parts of the 217 Kovrovsky and 218 Gorbatovsky regiments of the 55th Infantry Division were most affected by gas. The first of these regiments was virtually destroyed. His losses amounted to 16 officers and 2147 soldiers. The second regiment lost nine officers and 894 soldiers. Total losses on the entire front sector amounted to about seven to eight thousand, of which about two thousand people died in the next day.

After this gas attack, the feverish activity of numerous organizations for the invention and manufacture of all kinds of gas masks began. Everything was suggested that a sophisticated human mind could invent. For example, bonfires. According to the inventors, the heat generated during their combustion can lift a cloud of gas into the upper atmosphere, and it will pass over the trenches. It was also planned to shoot a cloud of gas with artillery and weapons fire, disperse it with explosions of firecrackers, set propellers set in motion by powerful engines in front of the trenches, shields moistened with gas mask. Finally, various spray guns (hydraulic controls) have been proposed that spray a gas mask in a cloud of gas. The Office of the Supreme Head of the Sanitary and Evacuation Unit enthusiastically picked up the idea of ​​local inventors - the use of urine as a means of protection against gases. Many official instructions contained a legend about the miraculous properties of urine. It was recommended for the impregnation of wet masks, as well as scarves and overcoats, which were proposed to envelop the face during gas attacks.

Measures against gases

Prince A.P. Oldenburgsky, who at that time held the post of supreme chief of the sanitary and evacuation unit, called the chemist General V.N. Ipatiev, who at that time was the chairman of the explosives procurement commission at the Main Artillery Directorate, to clarify issues regarding the development of measures against gases. It was precisely established that on May 31, 1915, the Germans used chlorine, and in connection with this, a plan was outlined for the expansion of the corresponding chlorine production plants in order to respond to the Germans within four to five months. Shortly before this, the issue of the production of phosgene for filling shells at the Ivanovo plant of Gondurin was also discussed. Now we can definitely state that a number of the most important toxic substances were first proposed by Russian scientists (phosgene, hydrocyanic acid, chloropicrin). Another step of Prince A.P. Oldenburgsky in this field was his appeal to women's organizations (institutes, gymnasiums, charitable societies, etc.) with a call to begin mass production of gauze masks. Each organization, in any way connected with the manufacture of masks, sought to offer its own type. Since no quality control of masks existed at first, many organizations managed to produce a significant number of masks according to samples invented locally.

Chemists mistake

In the manufacture of impregnation for masks, at first a gross chemical error was made. The fact is that in the first period of the chemical war, masks were impregnated with a solution of hyposulfite without the addition of soda. Sulfuric and hydrochloric acids formed as a result of the reaction of hyposulfite and chlorine, in turn, reacted with hyposulfite with the release of sulfur dioxide, which entered the respiratory tract with air passing through the mask. By the end of 1915, when the army was mostly equipped with wet masks, it turned out that the Germans used phosgene. The impregnation of masks with hyposulphite did not at all guarantee protection against phosgene, and so they began to search for special means for impregnating the mask. And soon at a meeting of the Moscow Experimental Commission V.M. Gorbatenko reported on a tool found in the Moscow Technical School for impregnating wet masks to protect against phosgene - urotropin, first obtained by A.M. Butlerov back in 1860. Tests of a new impregnation containing urotropin yielded good results, and by the end of the war in Russia the production of significant quantities of urotropin had already been established. Assumptions about the possibility of using hydrocyanic acid, fortunately, did not materialize.

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Russian minds

In the history of chemical warfare, and in particular in the history of the development of gas masks, Russian scientists played an exceptional role. It is known that science in Russia, and in particular chemistry, already at a high level in the 19th century. Both in the pre-war period and during the war of 1914-1918, there were many outstanding world-famous scientists among the Russian professors. Most of them from the very beginning of the war were somehow involved in the work on the instructions of various defense organizations.

In June 1915, N.D. Zelinsky at that time worked in Petrograd as head of the Central Laboratory of the Ministry of Finance, where he came up with the idea of ​​using coal for protection against gases. Contacting the nature of his activity with the production of alcohol, in which coal has long been used to clean raw, N.D. Zelinsky had at his disposal various sorts of coals and, putting the appropriate experiments, he discovered that coal is indeed a powerful tool for the absorption of toxic gases. Particularly good qualities in this regard were shown by the so-called “activated” carbon, that is, subjected to secondary firing, after this coal has already been used to purify alcohol. Preliminary experiments with coal were performed in the laboratory of the Ministry of Finance. Sulfur was burned in an empty room, and when the concentration of sulfur dioxide reached a level at which it was impossible to enter the room without a gas mask, people came into it with worn gauze bandages, between the layers of which fine-grained coal was wrapped. Of course, good results were ascertained only when such a tight fit to the face was ensured. Then N.D. Zelinsky for the first time reports on the tool he found at a meeting of the Gas Mask Commission at the Russian Technical Society in Petrograd, and on August 12 he made a statement about coal at an emergency meeting of the Moscow Experimental Commission. In his message, N.D. Zelinsky points out that the protective effect of coal is universal and besides, there is a sufficient amount of coal in Russia. The commission decided to immediately begin testing the gas mask. The box of this gas mask had a rectangular shape, in the upper neck of which a rubber helmet of Kummant was soldered with a process for wiping glasses. There were thin metal grids in the box, between which was placed activated according to the method of N.D. Zelinsky coal. The breathing in this gas mask was pendulum, that is, inhalation and exhalation were carried out through a charcoal filter. The gas mask was worn on its side and quite easily brought into a fighting position.


Thus, by November 1915, it was already clear that coal was the best means of protection against gases. At the beginning of February 1916, the protective properties of the gas mask were shown to the king, and despite this, the issue of ordering gas masks did not advance. This example characterizes the common feature of many institutions in Russia, in which often the personal interest of departmental managers has been completely and often preferred by common sense. The first order for Zelinsky gas masks in the amount of 200 thousand pieces was given in March 1916 under pressure from the General Staff, bypassing the Chemical Committee. For the production of coal, the furnaces of the Treasury wine warehouses No. 1 in Moscow and No. 4 in Petrograd, as well as the Moscow and Petrograd gas plants were used. But only when the invention of N.D. Zelinsky was sold in England and Germany; coal gas masks began to be produced in Russia in large batches. However, even after such a belated recognition by N.D. Zelinsky did not receive a dime for his invention.

Comment by Popular Mechanics

As often happens with the history of discoveries, there are different points of view on certain historical facts. According to some reports, on May 31, 1915, the Germans did not use chlorine (it was in use long before that), but a mixture of chlorine with phosgene. According to others, phosgene was first used precisely against the Russian troops, and the French first used a mixture of hydrocyanic acid with arsenic trichloride. Apparently, the modern gas mask was invented in 1912 by the American Garret Morgan. True, it was intended to protect firefighters and engineers who are forced to work in a toxic environment. As for the protection against the plague, apparently, the first attempts were made by scientists even in the XVII century. And the first American patent for a "light protection device" was received in 1849 by Lewis Haslet. German Alexander Drager patented his design of a gas mask in America in 1914.

Thus, there is no likely answer to the question: “Who invented the gas mask?”

The article was published in the journal Popular Mechanics (No. 11, November 2003). I wonder how a nuclear reactor works and can robots build a house?

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