I was watching a wonderful Bones marathon on TV (this show is great for its intelligent jokes about art and the ancient world) and noticed this great little tale about steel in Ancient Rome. One of the scientists says that a certain instrument was made in Ancient Rome because it was fashioned in a peculiar way. He claims that the Romans believed if a red-headed boy urinated on heated up iron it would turn to steel. Obvious it is the chemical properties that make this change possible, but it makes for a great story of accidental science. Something interesting about this story is that it is another example of urination as a tool in the ancient world. The Romans had great uses for urine, my favorite being laundry detergent.
In Ancient Rome urine was used to make togas whiter. The ammonia in urine has great cleaning properties; ammonia is still a common cleaning product today. The people who did the laundry were called fullones. Outside the workplace of the fullones sat large containers which served like a public urinal. The people passing by would urinate in the containers and the fullones would have free detergent. These pots could also be found around town and may be collected by fullones who needed more supplies; they even chose different places because better urine was usually found there. This phenomenon can be seen best in Pompeii where these workplaces and pots have been preserved and displayed in a natural setting. There is also a great deal of graffiti all over the town and some is surprisingly about this process.
So next time you are out of your favorite stain remover maybe pee in the washer and see what happens. Okay, maybe you shouldn’t do that, but know that it has been done and that urine was a very important part of life in Ancient Rome.
For more reading on the specifics of this process see this paper: http://www.classics.uwaterloo.ca/labyrinth_old/issue89/Pee.02.09.pdf